It only seemed as if Shelley Winters spent the first half of her life being a movie star and the second half talking about the first half. The talented, voluble, delightfully self-aggrandizing actress, who died on Jan. 14 of heart failure at 85 in Beverly Hills, may have been slightly more a legend in her own mind than in the minds of others, but she was so much blowsy fun that no one faulted her. And then there are those four Oscar nominations and two wins — proof that there was more acting ability and sheer smarts to Winters than many people credited her for.
”She was everything,” insists Walk the Line director James Mangold, who cast her in his first feature, 1995’s Heavy. ”She was the diva and the brilliant Method actress. She was hilarious, she was moving, she was connected.” Aside from playing Belle Rosen — a hefty former swimming champion — in 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, Winters’ chief claim to fame might be the outrageously frank memoirs she penned, starting with 1980’s Shelley, Also Known as Shirley, in which she dished about the days when she was Marilyn Monroe’s roommate and shacked up with Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando, Sean Connery, William Holden, Burt Lancaster…oh, she could go on. And she did.
Raised in Brooklyn and initially stuck in Hollywood bit-player contracts, Winters broke through opposite Ronald Colman as a doomed waitress in 1947’s A Double Life. But it wasn’t until she hied herself to New York to study Stanislavsky at the famed Actors Studio that she began to garner critical respect: Her work as A Place in the Sun‘s Alice Tripp — a hapless factory girl murdered by Montgomery Clift — brought her a first Oscar nomination in 1952.
She won for 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank and 1965’s A Patch of Blue — incisive supporting parts — and Winters was unforgettable in 1955’s The Night of the Hunter and unforgettably tacky in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Lolita. Both roles cast her as a deluded mother who meets an untimely fate, and, in truth, Winters rarely survived to see the end credits of her best movies. Next to the glamorous Hollywood heroes and heroines, she was pushy, loud, awkward — and gloriously so, both on screen and off. ”She was difficult,” says Paul Mazursky, who directed her three times, most notably in Next Stop, Greenwich Village. ”A consummate actress. Difficult only in the sense that she was original, and if she had questions you couldn’t answer, you could have a problem. I admired her a lot.”
Winters married and divorced three times (she had one child with her second husband, Vittorio Gassman). She penned her books, grew large, made movies good and awful, indulged in the occasional TV appearance (memorably stealing scenes on Roseanne), and taught acting. (”She’s a great teacher who works by inciting you,” one of her pupils, Jarhead‘s Peter Sarsgaard, told EW in 2003.) ”You musn’t be afraid to stink!” she’d tell her students, echoing Bette Davis. And she took that advice to heart. Shelley Winters wasn’t afraid — of anything.