Shelley Winters

By: Mimi Lipson
August 18, 2011

When Harry Cohn dropped SHELLEY WINTERS (1920-2006) from her first studio contract at Columbia Pictures, he gave her some words of advice: go home. “If you stay out here, you’ll have a few years as a leading character actress, and then you’ll end up on a hill with your Oscars.” She stayed. She taught her roommate Marilyn Monroe how to smile with her lips fetchingly parted, and they followed the same career path for a while: bombshells with comedy chops, students of the Method. But on screen, at least, Winters took her vulnerability to a darker, braver, less attractive place. With her needling voice and overripe gaze, she particularly excelled at rapacious clingers, albatrosses, and bad mothers. A Place in the Sun, Night of the Hunter, A Patch of Blue, Lolita, and above all, the astonishing Bloody Mama were just a few of the highlights. Harry Cohn didn’t see it coming: the golden age of the character actor, an era in which Shelley Winters was a marquee name.

The year is 1997. Celine Dion is queen of the airwaves, and all the world is abuzz about Titanic. A cranky dissenter goes to her neighborhood video store and rents The Poseidon Adventure. To hell with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Back in 1972, they didn’t need faces; they had voices.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Roman Polanski.

READ MORE about members of the New Gods Generation (1914-23).

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What do you think?

  1. Thanks, Mimi! I love Shelley, otherwise known as Shirley, and have read both volumes of her autobiography.

    It’s hard to top her scrunchy-faced despair in Lolita. She should have paid more attention to that chess game she played with Humbert. “Are you trying to take my queen?” “That is my intention, yes.”

  2. I also have much heart for ‘Our Shel’ as we call her in London. Thanks for the great piece. I saw Bloody Mama at the cinema last year , unrestored crackly old 32”. Fab. One thing i also like is that she parodied the role before playing it straight in Batman (TV 1966) as Ma Barker. That’d be a nice double-feature

  3. Thanks, guys. It’s great to see how much love Ms. Winters is getting today. Ingrid: I only read vol. 1 of her autobio… so far!

  4. I would appreciate it if you could use the proper collective noun for these peculiar moments of cultural anti-causality, which is ‘Pregravisaturia’, even though I just made that up. But once I push the ‘Submit’ button it will become Real.

  5. Just watched “Winchester ’73” for the first time (or at least for the first time since seeing it on TV as a kid) and Shelley Winters is heartbreakingly cool and pathetic and lovely in that one.

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