After a failed attempt two years earlier, Winters finally arrived for her tribute at the San Francisco International in 1976.
Photo: A teary-eyed Shelley Winters at her 1976 tribute.
by Dennis Conroy
“In an actor’s career, you have many days and hours of despair and loneliness,” commented Shelley Winters, in a shaky voice, addressing an adoring crowd at the 1976 San Francisco International Film Festival. “Two years ago, I caught the flu when I was supposed to come here,” she continued, “and I think it must have been accidentally on purpose.”
Was Winters suggesting that her last-minute withdrawal from a scheduled tribute at the 1974 Festival had more to do with emotional jitters than the flu? “Oh, I really had the flu,” added the two-time Oscar winner (The Diary of Anne Frank, A Patch of Blue), “but I must have walked in the rain or something, because I was so afraid.”
This particular night in 1976 was all about Shelley. Even her ex-husband, the handsome Vittorio Gassman, star of the Festival’s Closing Night film, Those Were the Years, could not upstage her. (At the time of Winters and Gassman’s divorce in 1954, she was famously quoted as saying, “I was in love with him and he was in love with him,” poking fun at the Italian heartthrob’s good looks and vanity.)
The audience was treated to a series of clips highlighting her long and diverse career, featuring the films A Place in the Sun; The Diary of Anne Frank; Lolita; A Patch of Blue; Alfie; The Poseidon Adventure; Bloody Mama; Next Stop, Greenwich Village and Pete’s Dragon. Winters took the Palace of Fine Arts stage at 11:30 pm, after the two-hour clip show. A little teary, she regaled the crowd for another two hours with stories about acting, the blacklist and aging.
When she arrived in Hollywood in the 1940s, Winters began her career playing clichéd Hollywood roles: blond bombshells, smart-talking dames and downtrodden shop-girls. Her big break came in a small but pivotal role in A Double Life, directed by George Cukor. It took 96 takes for her to complete her short scene. She joked, “They thought they had hired the village idiot.” Her inability to perform was brought on by being awestruck at working with Ronald Coleman, one of her idols. For many years, she had listened to his recording of Lost Horizon to help break her Brooklynese. Ninety-six takes later, Shelley Winters’ career was on the rise.
The actress did not find Hollywood a nurturing place for a serious acting career. As she told the crowd at the Palace, “In Hollywood, acting lessons meant learning how to look pretty when you cried.” In the 1940s, she attended speech and acting classes taught by fellow actor Charles Laughton. Winters recounted how a cameraman at Universal complained to the head of the studio that she had dark circles under her eyes. When the head of the studio confronted her, Winters confessed she was taking acting lessons at night. He responded, “We don’t do much Shakespeare at Universal.” Laughton, a father figure to Winters, would later direct her in his first and only film, The Night of the Hunter in 1955—one of the actress’s most memorable screen roles.
Winters praised director George Stevens (A Place in the Sun) who convinced her to abandon her leading lady aspirations and take the supporting role of Mrs. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank. Only 32 years old at the time, Winters did what every young actress is cautioned not to: downplay her looks, gain weight and play older to fit the part. She said, “He was right of course, and since I want to act until I’m 90, I’m glad I took his advice.” Winters was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for The Diary of Anne Frank and this time she took the statuette home.
Although she worked continually through the 1950s (Executive Suite, I Am a Camera, The Night of the Hunter, The Big Knife, Odds Against Tomorrow), the blacklist and the hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee prompted her to leave Hollywood for New York. “No other industry has let their best people go. It was all because of the Communist scare.” She continued, “People committed suicide and went to jail. . . . I couldn’t stand what was happening.”
Her return to New York was also a return to her first love, the theater. “I go back to the theater as fast and as often as I can . . . because you really learn from the audience,” she confessed. In New York, Winters studied at the Actors Studio under the tutelage of Elia Kazan, attending classes with other devotees of the Method including Marlon Brando, Geraldine Page, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, Kim Stanley, Julie Harris, Maureen Stapleton, Karl Malden and her former roommate, Marilyn Monroe.
Throughout the evening, the actress shared little-known anecdotes about her career. Evidently, it was her character, a former Olympic swimmer, who was intended to be the hero of 1973 all-star disaster film, The Poseidon Adventure. Shelley was indignant when the script was changed. “I schlepped through that boat upside down for six months to play the last scene. Then they said [Gene] Hackman should save the people.” She continued, “I went in dripping wet to the board of directors and said I had to save them. They didn’t know what I was talking about, but they were scared to death.” So, as in A Place in the Sun and The Night of the Hunter, Winters met her fate in the water, swimming towards her fourth and final Academy Award nomination.
When asked if she ever wondered why the characters she played often met untimely ends, Winters chuckled, “Well, I’ve lived through half of them and that’s a pretty good average. I’m a dramatic actress, so dramatic things happen to me. Besides, don’t forget that a lot of those films were made during the Hayes era when the wages of sin were death,” she noted coyly. “If you had a good time in bed, you had to get bumped off.”
At one point in the evening Winters interrupted herself, asking, “Are you taping this, by the way?” When she learned that it was indeed being taped, she was relieved and asked for a copy. “I’m supposed to be writing a book.…I’ve taken $10,000 and I haven’t delivered the book yet.” To applause and laughter she continued, “It’s funny. When I talk I remember the funny things, but when I sit down and write, I remember the sad things.”
Winters continued to tell some funny and some sad stories in her unabashed style. As on film, she was in life—loud, vulnerable, brassy and funny. As film critic Pauline Kael said of her performance as a meddling Jewish mother in Next Stop, Greenwich Village, “Bolted doors couldn’t keep Shelley Winters out.” Winters threw open closed doors in Hollywood, speaking her mind and taking on political causes—marching for civil rights, campaigning for Robert Kennedy and criticizing the blacklist.
As the night came to a close, Winters talked about the difficulties of aging on screen, commenting that it was “a frightening experience tonight, sitting in the dark for two hours and watching myself grow old.”
“It’s not that I want to be young again,” she commented. “I would like to lose some weight from a health point of view. But I think a desperate search for youth is terribly pathetic.” Sage words from a woman whose career spanned five decades.
In an oral history interview for the Film Festival, former tribute organizer Marty Rubin endearingly recalled Winters’s tendency to ramble. “As I recall she got asked one question, and that was it. Followed by an hour-long monologue. It was like interviewers were superfluous with her. Once she started, she was off, and it was just this amazing stream-of-consciousness monologue that went on for like a solid hour. . . . Such a rich and varied career, and she was such an extrovert. It was really a lot of fun.”
Winters did go on to write her autobiography, in not one but two pulpy volumes. The audience at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1976 learned what the rest of the world would find out several years later: Shelley Winters’ life was simply too big for one book.