Saturday, January 14, 2006

Shelley Winters R.I.P.

Actress Shelley Winters died today of heart failure at age 85. Beginning her career as a blonde bombshell, Winters became even more famous after she gained weight and became a character actress.

Winters was born in East St. Louis, Illinois in 1920. Her father was a tailor's cutter. Her mother was a former opera singer. She would follow her mother's footsteps into show business, making her debut singing at the age four at an amateur night held in St. Louis. After her family moved to Long Island, Winter enrolled in both the New School for Social Research and the Actors Studio. Her big break came in 1940 as an understudy for the Broadway show The Time of Your Life. The next year she made her first appearance on a Broadway stage in The Night Before Christmas. By 1943 she was signed under contract to Columbia Pictures. She made her film debut in Knickerbocker Holiday in 1944. Her breakout role came in 1947 as Ronald Coleman's murder victim in A Double Life. This would lead to a contract with Universal.

In many of Winters' films she was the token, buxom blonde from a bottle. This changed in 1951 with her role in A Place in the Sun, where she played a mousey factory worker. Unfortunately, she found herself typecast again, this time as a frumpish, slatternly harpy. She played such roles in both Executive Suite and Night of the Hunter, among other movies. All of this would change again when Winters took a break from making movies to return to Hollywood. Gaining weight in the interim, she returned to Hollywood as a character actress. She would henceforth play such varied roles as the clingy Charlotte Haze in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita to the racist mother in A Patch of Blue. Sadly, many of the movies she made in the Seventies were below par and often her performances were camp in the extreme.

With regards to television Winters primarily appeared as a guest on talk shows (indeed, among her most notable appearances was on The Tonight Show in which she confronted Hammer star Oliver Reed...). Among her few guest appearances were one on Wagon Train, one on Here's Lucy, and one on Laugh In. Her only recurring role on a TV series was on Roseanne, on which she played Roseanne's grandmother.

Winters worked extensively on the stage. Besides her early career, she also appeared in such Broadway shows as A Hatful of Rain and Minnie's Boys.

Winters won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the movie The Diary of Anne Frank and another for her role in A Patch of Blue. She was nominated for her roles in A Place in the Sun and The Poseidon Adventure.

I must admit that I always liked Shelley Winters. Indeed, I think gaining weight may have been one of the best things to happen where her career was concerned. She was capable of a large variety of roles, ranging from the slightly comedic (the clingy, lovelorn Mrs. Haze in Lolita) to the very dramatic (the bigot in A Patch of Blue. She was in some respects very much a chameleon, playing a large range of roles that other, more slender actresses never did. In fact, I think she should perhaps have been nominated for the Academy Award for Supporting Actress more times than she was (at the very least she should have been nominated for Lolita). If nothing else, Winters proved that an actress could transform herself from just another sex symbol to one of the best character actresses around.

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