Her first movie was What a Woman! (1943). Working in films (in mostly bit roles) through the forties, Winters' first achieved stardom with her breakout performance as the victim of insane actor Ronald Colman in George Cukor's A Double Life, in 1948. She quickly ascended in Hollywood with leading roles in The Great Gatsby (1949) and Winchester 73 (1950), opposite James Stewart. But it was A Place in the Sun, a departure from the sexpot image that her studio, Universal Pictures, was building up for her at the time. It was this performance that first brought Shelley Winters acclaim as an actress, earning a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Throughout the 1950s, Winters continued in films, most notably in Charles Laughton's masterpiece, 1955s Night of the Hunter, with Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish. She also returned to the stage on various occasions during this time, including a Broadway run in A Hatful of Rain. In 1959, she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for The Diary of Anne Frank and another for A Patch of Blue (1965).
Notable later roles included her lauded performance as the man-hungry Charlotte in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, opposite Michael Caine in Alfie, as the once gorgeous, alcoholic former starlet "Fay Estabrook" in Harper (both 1966), in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) as the ill-fated Belle Rosen (for which she received her final Oscar nomination), and in Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976). She also returned to the stage during the 1960s and 1970s, most notably in Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana. Unfortunately, her prestigious work during this period tended to be undermined by her forays into camp kitsch with films like 1968s Wild in the Streets and 1971s Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?. Always conscious of her Jewish heritage—she had first learned her trade in the Borscht Belt—she donated her Oscar for Anne Frank to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
As the Associated Press reported, "During her fifty years as a widely known personality, Winters was rarely out of the news. Her stormy marriages, her romances with famous stars, her forays into politics and feminist causes kept her name before the public. She delighted in giving provocative interviews and seemed to have an opinion on everything."
That led to a second career as a writer. Though not an overwhelming beauty, her acting, wit, and "chutzpah" gave her a love life to rival Monroe's. In late life, she recalled her conquests in autobiographies so popular they undermined her reputation as a serious actor. She wrote of a yearly rendezvous she kept with William Holden, as well as her affairs with Sean Connery, Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando.
Winters suffered a significant weight gain later in life, frequently stating that it was a marketing tool, since there were plenty of prominent normal-weight older actresses but fewer overweight ones, and her obesity would enable her to find work more easily. In 1973 Winters even put on a short-lived Broadway musical revue entitled "The Hoofing Hollywood Heifer", co-starring Charles Nelson Reilly and Bongo, a tap-dancing chimp. Although it closed after only eight performances, this show was applauded for its sheer campy bravado by many critics, one of whom stated that Winters was a "Whale of a Talent looking for a sea of applause big enough to rest her massive girth."
Audiences born in the 1980s knew her primarily for the autobiographies and for her television work, in which she played a humorous parody of her public persona. In a recurring role in the 1990s, Winters played the title character's grandmother on the ABC sitcom Roseanne. Her final film roles were supporting ones, as John Gielgud's wife in The Portrait of a Lady (1996), and as a bitter nursing home administrator in 1999s Gideon.
Shortly before her death, Winters married long-time companion Gerry DeFord, with whom she had lived for nineteen years. Though Winters' god-daughter objected to the marriage, the actress Sally Kirkland, performed the wedding ceremony for the two at Winters' deathbed. Non-denominational last rites for Winters were also performed by Kirkland, a minister of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. Winters also had a romance with Farley Granger that became a long-term friendship. She starred with him in the 1951 film, Behave Yourself!, as well as in a 1957 television production of A. J. Cronin's novel, Beyond This Place.
Winters died on January 14, 2006 from natural causes at the Rehabilitation Centre of Beverly Hills. Just hours before her death she married Gerry DeFord. Her third ex-husband Anthony Franciosa died of a stroke five days later.
|1951||Best Actress in a Leading Role||A Place in the Sun|
|1959||Best Actress in a Supporting Role||The Diary of Anne Frank|
|1965||Best Actress in a Supporting Role||A Patch of Blue|
|1972||Best Actress in a Supporting Role||The Poseidon Adventure|
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