Shelley Winters (born August 18, 1920 – January 14, 2006) was an American actress whose career spanned almost six decades. She won two Academy Awards for her supporting roles in Hollywood films, but her zany, wisecracking real-life persona entertained a much larger audience over the years as a frequent talk-show guest. Winters nevertheless left behind an impressive body of work, playing “victims, babes, shrews, and matriarchs with sassy confidence,” noted her Times of London obituary. “Whatever Winters may have lacked in looks she made up for in presence and star quality. She specialized in big, ballsy, independent, modern women… Her characters often knew what they wanted, though they did not necessarily get it.”
Winters was born in 1920, though when she arrived in Hollywood she gave her birthdate as 1922. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and began entering local beauty pageants during her teen years. Determined to become an actress, she even auditioned for the Scarlett O’Hara role in Gone with the Wind during a nationwide talent search. She later recalled that the director, George Cukor, treated her kindly during her tryout, and urged her to finish her schooling and begin with stage roles. Winters began taking drama classes at the New School for Social Research in New York City, and in between small roles in plays and musicals worked as an entertainer at the summer resorts in the Catskills of upstate New York.
Winters’ break came when Hollywood studio executive Harry Cohn saw her on Broadway in Rosalinda , and signed her to Columbia Pictures. She made a saucy screen debut in What a Woman! in 1943, a Rosalind Russell film, but was unhappy with the bit parts to which the studio seemed to confine her. Returning once again to the classroom, she took courses at the Actors Studio in Los Angeles, and shared an apartment with a relatively unknown starlet who would later go on to fame as Marilyn Monroe. At one point, the two single women decided they would date like men, and not become emotionally attached, and each went on to enjoy a string of romances with some well-known names, which Winters would later detail in her autobiography. She also claimed to have taught Monroe the open-mouthed pout that later made her famous.
Winters reconnected with Cukor when he hired her for what became her breakout role in a 1947 film called A Double Life. In it, she was cast as the first of many murder victims on screen, or as women otherwise abused by life. In 1951, Winters convinced George Stevens to hire her for the part of a frumpy factory worker when he was casting A Place in the Sun . She did so by pleading with him to meet her in a hotel lobby, and then dressing in so shabby an outfit that Stevens failed to recognize her. With that she won the part of a young woman slain by her beau, Montgomery Clift, when she becomes pregnant and jeopardizes his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor’s heiress character. A Place in the Sun earned Winters an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Winters won more rave reviews in a 1955 film, The Night of the Hunter, and earned her first Oscar for her turn as Mrs. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959, this time in the Best Supporting Actress category. Six years later, she won again for her performance as the vicious mother of a blind woman in A Patch of Blue, making her the first actress ever to win the Best Supporting Actress Award twice.
Other memorable film roles for Winters included the 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s shocking novel Lolita, a Stanley Kubrick project, and the original Poseidon Adventure ocean-liner disaster flick from 1972. She taught classes at the Actors Studio in New York City for a number of years, and helped one of her students, Robert De Niro, obtain one of his first solid roles as her son in Bloody Mama. In the 1970s, she made regular appearances on all the television talk shows, and earned a reputation for a somewhat bawdy sense of humor and divulging juicy tales about dating in Hollywood during its golden era. She recounted many of these stories in her 1980 memoir, Shelley, Also Known as Shirley, which became a bestseller for its dishy tales of romances with Marlon Brando, William Holden, and Sean Connery.
Winters may be better known to a younger generation for her recurring role as Roseanne’s grandmother on the hit 1990s series of the same name. She died of heart failure in a Beverly Hills, California, convalescent center on January 14, 2006, at the age of 85.