Shelley Winters, Florid Star of Screen and Stage, Is Dead

Obituaries   Shelley Winters, Florid Star of Screen and Stage, Is Dead Shelley Winters, the candid, unpretentious actress who played a series of brassy, blowsy, sometimes vulgar, but always vivid characters through nearly 100 films and a handful of plays, died on Jan. 14 at the Rehabilitation Center of Beverly Hills, CA.
Shelley Winters in Oklahoma!
Shelley Winters in Oklahoma!

Reports put her age at 83 or 85. If many people thought of her as being rather older than that, credit can be chalked up to her uncanny ability to reinvent herself throughout her long career. She began as a sexy, B actress, developed into a serious, Oscar-winning character played, grew into blowsy matron roles, flourished as a talk show guest and eventually emerged as the author of bestselling, bawdy memoirs.

While a professional survivor, she was often cast as a victim—the pathetic, bleating, sometimes dumb woman who is discarded by a callous leading man and not seen after the first couple reels. Among her best roles in this line were "A Double Life," "Lolita," "The Night of the Hunter," "A Place in the Sun," "The Big Knife," "Alfie" and "The Great Gatsby." She almost made it entirely through one of her best-known movies, the ocean liner disaster flick "The Poseidon Adventure," but drowned just before her fellow passengers reached daylight.

Ms. Winters wore her hardscrabble, Brooklyn upbringing on her sleeve, never putting on airs and approaching acting as hard, but not serious work. She apprenticed herself through modeling and sketch comedy in the Catskills before landing a part in the short-lived Broadway play The Night Before Christmas. She got her big break when Max Reinhardt cast her in the small role of Fifi in Rosalinda, an English version of Die Fledermaus. Reinhardt kept enlarging her part, the New York Times reported, causing Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn to take notice and hire her as a contract player. She was uncredited for almost all her films at Columbia and later dropped but, after a star-making turn in George Cukor's A Double Life, was contracted by Universal.

She returned to Broadway as a replacement Ado Annie in Oklahoma!. A girl who "can't say no" turned out to be a prescient description of Ms. Winters. In her 1980 autobiography "Shelley, Also Known as Shirley," she revealed with relish her past relationships with a variety of stars, including Sean Connery, Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando, William Holden and Burt Lancaster.

In the mid-50s, when good movie parts proved scarce, she returned to Broadway and starred in Michael V. Gazzo's drug-addiction play A Hatful of Rain, which played for nearly a year. She won rave reviews for her work, and followed it up with N. Richard Nash's Girls of Summer. In 1962, she replaced Bette Davis in Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana as Maxine Faulk, and returned to the stage in 1966 in the Saul Bellow play Under the Weather, in which she was "effectively consigned to the role of feminine victim," Harold Clurman wrote. "She gasps, sighs and moans in a mellifluous monotone which is at once humorous and touching."

She played the mother of the Marx brothers in the 1970 musical Minnie's Boys, and again played the mother in a brief 1978 Broadway incarnation of Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.

She had less success as a playwright. Her collection of one-acts, One Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger closed quickly Off-Broadway.

Her dedication to the stage and the Actors Studio, to which she belonged, notwithstanding, her stardom and reputation was derived from her steady stream of films. She won two Oscars, for The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959 and A Patch of Blue in 1965. She played the increasingly desperate Mrs. Van Daan in the first, and a nasty mother of a blind girl in the second. It was a measure of her talent that she earned a great deal of the viewers' sympathy and affection while playing these disagreeable and flawed characters, as well as many more like them.

She was also nominated for Oscars for " A Place in the Sun" and "The Poseidon Adventure." Tellingly, three of her four Oscar nominated characters died.

Around the time of "The Poseidon Adventure," Shelley Winter became well known for outspoken and often outrageous appearances on talk shows. Typically, she brought a ripe theatricality to even these jobs. On one edition of the "Tonight" show starring Johnny Carson, she grew weary of guest Oliver Reed's sexist comments, told the actor off and stormed off stage. Shortly afterwards, she reappeared with a champagne bucket filled with ice and water and dumped it over Reed's head.