With the exception of A Place in the Sun, during which there aren’t too many of us not ready to help drown her, what’s saved Shelley Winters in her movies is her 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 sexpot thespian. 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 blob-slob slatterns you’d be too embarrassed to recall even during “truth or dare” games. But 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 there’s no denying how amusing she is in her hussy persona. (She needn’t play trash to get laughs: the 1973 Oscar audience snickered quite audibly when her name and the title The Poseidon Adventure were read during the roll call of the best supporting actress nominees,) She’s especially entertaining as the floozy racist bitch mother to blind Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue. Not sure what scene—or if all her scenes—impelled Oscar voters to award her a second supporting acting honor (the first for The Diary of Anne Frank), but my favorite is when she and her movie father Wallace Ford in his last role start throwing things at each other in their dump of an apartment. (They’re certainly having more fun together than they did as dad and daughter in He Ran All The Way with John Garfield.) Though the scenes are preposterous, the ludicrousness of them is central to Winters: somehow there’s a need to see her hit ever lower levels of self-debasement. What’s disturbing is how often she obliges.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.