With the exception of A Place in the Sun, during which there aren’t too many of us not ready to help drown her, and her reasonably subdued Mrs. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank, what’s saved Shelley Winters in most of her movies is the very conspicuous bad acting. Coming out of the Actors Studio, she’s its loudest graduate—a braying, belting hag who, in both real and reel lives, thought she was quite the thespian sexpot. Whatever her private triumphs, listed in her two breezy, likable volumes of memoirs, her screen successes have been less than sexually alluring—she’s made a career of blobs and slob slatterns you’d be too embarrassed to recall even during “truth or dare” games. Yet her physical repulsiveness has been the largest part of what’s made her funny: when she’s trying to put the make on James Mason in Lolita, you can’t help recoiling yet find how amusing she is in her hussy persona. (She needn’t play one to get laughs: the audience attending the 1973 Oscar show snickered quite audibly as her name and the title The Poseidon Adventure were read during the roll call of the best supporting actress nominees.) As the floozy bitch racist mother to blind Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue, she’s straight off a super fit—entertainingly cheap, vulgar and scary with hate and resentment. A real-life diehard civil rights lib, Shelley detested the character and was very reluctant to use the “n” word—until co-star Sidney Poitier explained she’d be able to set the example of the kind of person not to be. She succeeded, impelling Oscar voters to give her a second supporting acting honor (the first for The Diary of Anne Frank). Skittishly accepting the award, the blare of the character’s racism caused a moral restiveness the rest of her life. As well as a second hangover—becoming Central Casting’s first choice to play loudmouth white trash broads, the prototype of future GQPers worshipping Twitler. Some of this has to be due to her natural coarsened persona, her shrill vox and expanding plump, strongly present when doing cringeworthy TV interviews. More as Rose-Ann in A Patch of Blue than any of her other roles, she awakens an inexplicable need in us to enjoy seeing her hit ever lower levels of self-debasement. What’s disturbing is how often she obliged.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER (Revised 8/2023) All Rights Reserved.