WHEN Shelley Winters was a kid, she received swimming lessons from Olympic champion and big-screen Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller. No wonder she was able to stay afloat in the turbulent waters of Hollywood for over half a century, at times making a splash with her hard-hitting performances or her affairs.
She had oodles of self-confidence, but also a knack for self-mockery. As a teenager, she came to know about the nationwide search for a girl to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and believed that she was perfect for the part. Being very skinny, she stuffed three powder puffs in each bra cup and wobbled on high heels into the MGM office. Unfazed by the presence of producer David O. Selznick and director George Cukor, she remarked in a southern Brooklynese accent: " I’m the only goil to play Scarlett." Selznick started laughing hysterically, but Cukor shut him up and invited Shelley to sit down. He advised her to study acting and make a name for herself on the stage. She didn’t get the role — it went to Vivien Leigh — but the director made her feel as though she had. About a decade later, Cukor cast her in the role of a doomed waitress in A Double Life (1947), not recalling at first that she was the same girl.
Before entering the movies, Shelley distinguished herself in theatre in New York. She was about 15 when her original name, Shirley Schrift, was changed by an office secretary at Group Theatre. P.B. Shelley was her favourite poet, and Winter was her mother’s maiden name — thus she became Shelley Winter. Years later, Universal Studios, in their infinite wisdom as she sarcastically put it, added an "s" to Winter and made her "plural".
Shelley landed her first major film role in George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951). In this adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, she played a factory girl who is left in the lurch by her social-climbing boyfriend (Montgomery Clift) after she becomes pregnant. Elizabeth Taylor was dazzling in the role of a socialite wooed by Clift, but it was Shelley who received her first Oscar nomination for portraying the victim of a man’s ambition. (The award went to Vivien Leigh for A Streetcar Named Desire).
Her plain-Jane role was in sharp contrast to the blonde bombshell act in earlier movies like South Sea Sinner (1950), where she played a blowsy nightclub singer.
The 1950s was the golden period of her film career. She got her first Oscar for playing Mrs Van Daan, one of the Jews hiding from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, in George Stevens’ The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Her other memorable performances during this decade were in Robert Wise’s Executive Suite, Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. The latter was the only film directed by veteran actor and Shelley’s mentor Laughton.
As she entered her forties, maternal roles started coming her way, and she grabbed them with both hands. "You gotta play mothers," she said. "If you don’t, you won’t get a long career in Hollywood." She was cast as Lolita’s sex-starved mother in Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s hell-raising novel. A Patch of Blue (1965) brought Shelley her second Oscar for best supporting actress. She was unforgettable (and unlikeable) as the bigoted woman who resents her blind daughter’s relationship with a coloured man. In Alfie (1966), she gave Cockney Casanova Michael Caine a taste of his own medicine by jilting him for a younger man.
When Weissmuller gave swimming lessons to an adolescent Shelley, he was hopeful that she would make it to the Olympic team one day. That didn’t happen, but she did play a former Olympic swimmer in The Poseidon Adventure (1972). A chubby Shelley’s aquatic skills come in handy as she dives into the ocean to rescue another passenger on an overturned luxury liner.
Though the film had a big and renowned cast, Shelley’s over-the-top performance stood out and she earned her fourth Oscar nomination (Eileen Heckart won for Butterflies are Free). Later, she observed: "In every film where I’ve either drowned (A Place in the Sun, The Night of the Hunter) or had to swim (The Poseidon Adventure), I have had great personal success."
Her two autobiographies appeared in the 1980s. Thrice-married Shelley was at her outspoken best as she gave juicy details of her affairs with big stars like Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Errol Flynn and William Holden (she outlived them all). Both books sold like hot cakes. She also wrote plays and taught theatre at the Strasberg Institute. In old age, her film roles were occasional, the most notable being the part of Nicole Kidman’s mother in Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996).
room-mate was none other than Marilyn Monroe, but their destinies
couldn’t have been more different. While Marilyn made waves only to
plunge into the deep, Shelley swam on and survived the roughest seas.