Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Lolita’s mom (1920-2006)

Sometimes you come across a piece of information that suddenly and unexpectedly makes you feel connected with a celebrity you’ve never met in your life. Regarding Shelley Winters, that moment came when I perused the Internet Movie Database upon hearing of Winters’s passing on Saturday and came across this line under her trivia section: “Fan of the TV show ‘Babylon 5.'” Now, I have no idea who contributed that bit of information or whether it is even reliable because, after all, the IMDB relies on a vast army volunteers to supply it with data, and sometimes misinformation mistakenly or deliberately finds its way onto its web pages. But I would like to think that this bit is true. It makes me feel that little bit closer to one of the great Hollywood talents of the 20th century.

When I spied a headline in one of the Irish tabloids proclaiming the death of “50s sexpot Shelley Winters,” I wasn’t quite sure if this was shorthand for many of her best-known film roles or a comment on her personal life. You see, Winters was something of a hero to a friend of mine in Seattle because she had written in her autobiography that, rather than letting the men have all the fun womanizing, she was going to go out and “man-ize” (my twisting of the language, not my friend’s or Winters’s). And she was indeed linked with quite a few Hollywood leading men, including two prominent actors among her three marriages (Vittorio Gassman and Anthony Franciosa). Personally, I am content merely to admire her body. Of work. Her body of work, I mean. And what a body! Accused by some on being non-discriminating enough to accept every role she was ever offered, she made more than 100 films over six decades.

Like most actors with lengthy careers, hers can be subdivided into definite phases. In the 1940s she was the proverbial brassy blonde in movies like A Double Life and Take One False Step and The Great Gatsby. In the 1950s she was seen in more prominent dramatic roles, after she got an Oscar nomination for playing Elizabeth Taylor’s blue collar rival for the affections of Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun. By the end of that decade, though only in her 30s, she moved on to character roles, getting Oscars for The Diary of Anne Frank and A Patch of Blue. By the end of the 1960s, she had graduated to what might be called her “I’ll do anything for a buck” phase. No role seemed too outrageous or over-the-top or downright camp for the flamboyant Winters. Examples include The Mad Room, the title role in Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (in which she got her Actors Studio friend Robert De Niro one of his earliest roles), What’s the Matter with Helen? (with Debbie Reynolds), Who Slew Auntie Roo?, The Devil’s Daughter, the blaxploitation flick Cleopatra Jones, and that just gets us to 1973. The list goes on and on and on. Typical of the some of the incongruous roles she played was as Eric Roberts’s mother Rachel, queen of the gypsies, in the strange 1978 melodrama King of the Gypsies.

Younger people may remember Winters for her recurring role of Nana Mary on Roseanne, but most of us will think of any of several memorable film roles. Others have already commented on how frequently Winters died in her films, often by drowning. She had watery deaths in A Place in the Sun and in The Night of the Hunter, one of the creepiest movies ever made (starring a terrifying Robert Mitchum as a murderous preacher) and the only film directed by Charles Laughton. Perhaps her most memorable demise in the water was in the 1972 disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure in which, following the Irwin Allen formula, she was the good woman (an ex-underwater swimming champion and Jewish grandmother) who dies tragically. (Hey, it got her another Oscar nomination!)

Another movie in which she died and which was one of her most memorable roles was Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, in which she played love-starved Charlotte Haze, who expires tragically upon learning that her new husband (James Mason as Humbert Humbert) has married her only because of his obsession with her adolescent daughter. That role showed Winters at her most flamboyant and sympathetic all at once. That was 180 degrees from the mother she played in A Patch of Blue. Winters’s obituary from London’s Independent quotes her own description of the role: “She blinds her daughter by accident when she’s trying to blind her husband. And when the daughter grows up, she beats her. How’s that for a role?” She was also in the original Alfie and the 1960s youth rebellion satire Wild in the Streets. Around the same time she played Phil Silvers’s wife in Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, in which Gina Lollobrigida takes money from three different American men who think they fathered her child during World War II. Another role that made a particular impression on me personally was as Lenny Baker’s Freudian nightmare of a mother in Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village. She was yet another mother (Kurt Russell’s) in the made-for-TV movie Elvis. She had a small but effective role as a Hollywood agent in Blake Edwards’s dark show business satire S.O.B.. Less impressively, she was in the annoying movie made by her friend Diane Ladd (Winters was godmother to Ladd’s daughter Laura Dern), Mrs. Munck. One of her last roles was in the Jane Campion adaptation of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, with Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich.

One has to wonder, given all the roles that Winters played in the course of her life, if there is any role she did not play. Well, I know of one, which I would have dearly liked to see her play. She never had a guest appearance on Babylon 5.

-S.L., 19 January 2006

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