Born August 18, 1920 in St. Louis, Missouri to Jonas Schrift, a designer of men’s clothing, and his wife Rose (née Winter), a singer, Shirley Schrift, would become the actress Shelley Winters. The family moved to Brooklyn, New York when Winters was 9. Her sister Blanche having married a Los Angeles theatre manager, Winters joined her there when she was 16, later returing to New York. Having been one of many who auditioned for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind and being told by George Cukor to get acting lessons, she did.
Winters began her career in summer stock, making her Broadway debut in 1941’s The Night Before Christmas. She married first husband, Captain Mack Paul Mayer in 1942 at the beginning of her Hollywood career. Having appeared uncredited in numerous small roles, she finally got her big chance in Cukor’s 1947 film, A Double Life as the waitress who is murdered by Ronald Colman. Mayer divorced her in 1948, unable to cope with her Hollywood lifestyle.
Now a hot property, Winters made a succession of popular films including Cry of the City, Winchester ‘73, He Ran All the Way and A Place in the Sun for which she received her first Oscar nomination. She married Italian actor Vittorio Gassman in 1952, with whom she had a daughter the following year. They divorced in 1954. Her mid-50s successes included Executive Suite, I Am a Camera and The Night of the Hunter. On Broadway in A Hatful of Rain, she married co-star Anthony Franciosa in 1957. They would divorce in 1960 after she won her Oscar for 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank.
Winters’ early 1960s successes included Let No Man Write My Epitaph, The Young Savages, Lolita, The Chapman Report and A Patch of Blue, for which she received her second Oscar. Her late 1960s hits included Alfie and Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell. She earned a fourth Oscar nomination for 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure and scored additional successes in the late 1970s films, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, Pete’s Dragon and King of the Gypsies. She continued to make films through the 1990s, providing impressive turns in 1981’s S.O.B. , 1989’s An Unremarkable Life and 1996’s The Portrait of a Lady.
Although Winters had made numerous TV appearance both as herself and in dramatic roles since 1954, she reached new generations of audiences with her portrayal of Roseanne Barr’s grandmother in the TV series, Roseanne from 1991 through 1996.
Winters suffered a heart attack on October 14, 2005. While in rehabilitation, she married longtime companion Gerry DeFord, thirty years her junior, on January 14, 2006 in a marriage performed by actress/minister Sally Kirkland. She would die a few hours later at the age of 85. Ironically, third husband Anthony Franciosa suffered a stroke that same day and died five days later at the age of 77.
A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951), directed by George Stevens
Winters came in second to Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire in the annual voting for the New York Film Critics award and received both her first Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for her portrayal of the pathetic factory worker whose drowning death leads to the arrest and trial of social climbing Montgomery Clift in this second version of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, previously filmed twenty years earlier with Sylvia Sidney and Phillips Holmes in the Winters and Clift roles, with Frances Dee in the role later played by Elizabeth Taylor. Stevens’ Oscar for Best Director was one of the film’s six Oscar wins.
THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (1959), directed by George Stevens
On Broadway, the play was a huge success for Joseph Schildkraut, who repeated his portrayal of Otto Frank to a Golden Globe nomination. Susan Strasberg, who earned a Tony for her portrayal of 15-year-old Anne Frank, was too old for the screen version and was replaced by Millie Perkins. Winters, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Mrs. Van Daan, campaigned hard for the Oscar she won based largely on her tales of the weight gain and loss she had to go through for the role. She later donated her Oscar to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, where it remains on display.
A PATCH OF BLUE (1965), directed by Guy Green
Winters hated the character she played, a cold, bigoted, detestable mother who blinds her daughter in a rage and later beats her in this absorbing drama starring Elizabeth Hartman as the daughter and Sidney Poitier as the kindly man who befriends her. Hartman and Poitier were nominated for Golden Globes and Hartman was also nominated for an Oscar. Winters drew criticism at the time for boasting that she knew she’d win her second Oscar because the competition that included Ruth Gordon who wrote A Double Life for her, as well as Joyce Redman, Maggie Smith and Peggy Wood was “lousy”.
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972), directed by Ronald Neame
Once again Winters ran an Oscar campaign for her performance based on having to gain weight for her sympathetic portrayal of a former Olympic champion swimmer in this disaster classic. Twenty-one years earlier she played a woman who drowned because she couldn’t swim in A Place in the Sun. This time she played one that downed despite her swimming expertise. The performance finally earned her a Golden Globe following unsuccessful Globe nominations for A Place in the Sun, The Diary of Anne Frank, Lolita and Alfie, but not a third Oscar.
AN UNREMARKABLE LIFE (1989), directed by Armin Q. Chaudhri
Patricia Neal, Mako and Winters all provide riveting performances in this underseen gem about a retired spinster schoolteacher (Neal) who develops a friendship with an Asian gas station owner (Mako) to the chagrin of her bigoted widowed sister (Winters). Coming two years after Lillian Gish and Bette Davis played similar roles in The Whales of August and Pauline Collins and Jessica Tandy mined similar territory in Shirley Valentine and Driving Miss Daisy, the film fell under the radar, thus thwarting a last opportunity for all three stars to earn late career Oscar nominations.
SHELLEY WINTERS AND OSCAR
- A Place in the Sun (1951) – nominated – Best Actress
- The Diary of Anne Frank (1993) – Oscar – Best Supporting Actress
- A Patch of Blue (1965) – Oscar – Best Supporting Actress
- The Poseidon Adventure (1972) – nominated – Best Supporting Actress