It’s Friday, and Shelley Winters is craving red meat. Lying on a daybed in the cluttered living room of her Spanish-style Beverly Hills duplex, the 72-year-old two-time Oscar winner is chatting on the phone. “I’m sorry about last night,” she purrs to an anonymous friend. “Wanna come over for lamb chops?”
Then comes the kvetching. “I’m just soooo tired,” she moans after hanging up the phone. She is lounging in a bright red, blue and green muumuu and wears no makeup. “I used to be able to work all day and dance all night,” she says with a sigh. But those days are now just a tarnished piece of celluloid. “Everyone retires except me.”
Winters may dream of retiring, but the actress remains indefatigable when it comes to her work. In the space of a few months, she will have appeared in three independent features: “Jury Duty,” a sendup of the American judicial system, with Pauly Shore (which opens Wednesday); “Heavy,” which premiered at Sundance in February and co-stars Liv Tyler; and “Firehouse,” a sendup of “Backdraft” that also stars Debbie Harry. Winters also has a recurring role on “Roseanne” as Roseanne’s grandmother and is organizing, with Martin Landau and directors Sydney Pollack and Mark Rydell, a series of seminars benefiting the Actors Studio. She is also at work on the third installment of her memoirs.
In her 1980 book “Shelley” and the 1989 “Shelley II: In the Middle of My Century,” Winters provided a no-holds-barred look at her career, which has included more than 100 feature films, and her tempestuous life, which included love affairs with Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando, Farley Granger, Sean Connery, William Holden, John Ireland and Burt Lancaster. She was a liberated single career woman long before it became acceptable.
“In my private life, I was free,” she explains now. “Marilyn (Monroe) and I lived together for a while when we were in our early 20s, and one morning I said, ‘Men have the freedom to do what they want and they’re admired. Why shouldn’t women be free?’ We were sort of advanced for our time.
“One Sunday, we made a list of men we wanted to sleep with, and there was no one under 50 on hers,” she adds. “I had Laurence Olivier, Errol Flynn--all the handsome actors and directors of that time.” She sips some Coke, leans back on her bed and sighs. “I never got to ask her before she died how much of her list she had achieved, but on her list was Albert Einstein, and after her death, I noticed that there was a silver-framed autographed picture of him on her white piano.”
Winters gets a faraway look in her eye. Then, suddenly, she careens back to the present. “OK, what do you want to talk about? My sex life?”
Not particularly, although Winters’ sensational personal life might have eclipsed her promising career had her talent and out-there personality not been so evident. But when the St. Louis-born beauty (whose given name was Shirley Schrift) waltzed into George Cukor’s New York office in 1938 and demanded that she be given the part of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” Cukor listened.
She didn’t get the part, but her voluptuous figure and bombastic personality showed enough promise that Columbia signed her to a contract in 1944, which Harry Cohn later terminated. Universal then signed her to a seven-year contract in 1948 as a bombshell starlet, so she was shoved into cleavage-revealing dresses and hounded to lose weight even when she weighed 118 pounds.
Wasted in a sea of mostly forgettable films, she spent much of her time fighting for better material or going on suspension so she could work on the legitimate stage.
“I would make such a pest of myself, but I had to force them into letting me do theater instead of those crappy pictures whenever I could,” she says.
In 1947, she had starred in “A Double Life,” a modern-day Othello story directed by Cukor and starring Ronald Colman and Winters as his Desdemona. “A Double Life” was an unqualified hit for the young actress, but Universal continued to throw her into schlock such as “South Sea Sinner” and “The Raging Tide” until executives realized that they could get more money lending her to other studios on prestige projects.
In a career spanning five decades, Winters’ on-screen per sona alternated ribald quirkiness with sex appeal, grating outrageousness with endearing warmth. She became a part of screen history in such diverse films as “Lolita,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Night of the Hunter,” “The Tenant,” “Alfie,” “What’s the Matter With Helen?,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “The Poseidon Adventure.” She garnered four Oscar nominations, winning as best supporting actress for her searing portrayal of the heroic Mrs. Van Daan in “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1959 and then in 1965 for her portrayal of a slatternly Southern bigot in “A Patch of Blue.” That statuette sits on the mantelpiece in her tchotchke-filled living room. (She donated her first Oscar to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam.)
But arguably her most indelible screen performance was as Elizabeth Taylor’s blue-collar rival for Montgomery Clift in the 1951 classic “A Place in the Sun.” The performance earned her her first Oscar nomination.
Throughout her career, the actress has fought a vicious battle over her weight. She gained weight for her role in the 1972 hit “The Poseidon Adventure.” “I shouldn’t have done it,” she says now, since she was unable to lose the weight later. She could also kick herself for not investing in the film, which ended up grossing more than $42 million.
“They needed an additional $80,000 to complete the film and wanted me to put some of my fee toward production and take a percentage of the profits. I said no--another one of my genius financial decisions.” Meanwhile, co-star Stella Stevens kicked in the cash and laughed her way to the bank; Winters had to content herself with a fourth Oscar nomination.
Her colleagues give her begrudging respect but not without qualification. For instance, while filming the 1971 thriller “What’s the Matter With Helen?,” a film Winters dismisses as “a camp classic,” the actress’s Method acting sent shivers down the spine of her co-star Debbie Reynolds, who nevertheless still considers herself a friend of the star.
“She is eccentric, highly gifted, unique, unusual, creative--and off-the-wall,” said Reynolds from her Las Vegas home. “Working with Shelley is extraordinarily challenging. She is extremely difficult to work with. I found that not to be helpful for my work. She said I was better because she was difficult. I say it would have been easier or better for my health to have a little less turmoil on the set.
“In one scene, I had the prop man check the knife she held every time just before we shot it because I knew she was going to go for me for real ! She’d gotten so into her character, she became it. But I’m very fond of Shelley,” she insists sweetly.
Diane Ladd paints a rosier picture of the working Winters, having just completed directing her in “Mrs. Munck,” a comedy to be released later this year on Showtime in which Winters portrays Bruce Dern’s strange older sister. “As a director, I found working with Shelley is wonderful because she lives one-sixteenth from her subconscious,” she says. “She just lets it pour out. Once she makes the decision to give it to you, she just has to press a button and hands it over to you on a platter.”
Ladd, whose daughter, Laura Dern, is Winters’ goddaughter, first encountered her at a New York restaurant in 1973. “I was meeting with a potential agent, when she came in, sat down and said: ' ‘Scuse me, honey! I got a problem.’ She started to cry about a meeting she had and I saw how vulnerable this strong, powerful woman was, and what a dear, gentle soul she has. I’ve always felt that Shelley can be described in a couple of ways. She’s like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When she’s good, she’s oh-so-good, and when she’s bad, she’s horrid.”
Winters is a longtime advocate of the Method approach to acting as perpetuated by the Actors Studio in New York and Los Angeles, where she has taught for 24 years. “You mustn’t be afraid to stink,” she advises aspiring actors. “Bette Davis said that. Unless you do that, you’ll never learn.”
As she speaks, two rings with enormous rocks sparkle from each hand. On her right hand is a sapphire, a gift from Adlai Stevenson. On the left is a diamond. “This was from my first husband,” she says, referring to Capt. Paul Mayer. “He gave me this on a flight to Cleveland in the early ‘40s. I’d never been on an airplane. I’ve had it all this time.”
The couple divorced in 1946. “He hated Hollywood,” she says. “We were at Ciro’s one night and somebody said, ‘Capt. Winters, can you come over here?’ I looked at his face and knew it was over.”
She speaks regularly to her second husband, actor Vittorio Gassman, the father of her only child, 41-year-old Vittoria, now a physician and mother residing in Pittsburgh. “Listen, I still feel sometimes like I’m married to Vittorio. I’ve been to Rome a couple of times and he’s had me over to his house for dinner, but it makes his young wife nervous.
“One evening, when I visited, we were eating outside and there were children and grandchildren and stepchildren. After dinner, Vittorio leaned over to me and wondered, ‘How does a man who has been evading responsibility all his life end up like this? How did this happen?’ ” She lets loose a raucous laugh. Apparently the actor has mellowed since the time when, according to her autobiography, he gave his former wife a black eye after she told him that Olivier’s Hamlet was superior to his own rather bizarre interpretation.
Her third husband, actor Tony Franciosa, had his agent inform the actress of plans for her own wedding ceremony when she stepped off a plane in Reno to visit her fiance on the set of “Wild Is the Wind” in 1957. When agent Stan Kamen presented her with a box containing a diamond wedding ring, a flabbergasted Winters thought he was proposing himself. “And I would have accepted,” she says, half serious. “He was going to run William Morris. That seemed like a much more sensible idea.” But she acquiesced to Franciosa’s charms. The actor soon had public affairs with Ava Gardner and Silvana Mangano, and the marriage collapsed in 1960.
But that’s all confetti under the bridge. “I wish I had a companion now,” she says. “I wish I had married someone not in show business. All those actresses like Jane Russell and Irene Dunne, who married doctors, they knew what they were doing. But I was attracted to people who were in the same business. Then when one career goes up and one goes down. . . .
“I’m always glad when Bruce Willis has a big hit. I’m so relieved for Demi (Moore) because I know what it’s like.”
Winters would like to see her autobiographies made into a miniseries but she wants to wait until her third book, which she is just now beginning, is completed. Her choice to play her: Goldie Hawn. Meanwhile, the hunt for decent work continues.
“It’s very difficult at this age, with the kind of pictures they’re making, to find things that you really care about,” she says. “ ‘Jury Duty’ is very sweet. I’ve known Pauly (Shore) since he was a child.” Winters says she landed the role of Pauly’s mother only after Pauly’s real mother, Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore, turned the part down.
For his part, Shore is impressed. “Shelley’s out there, man,” he says in a trailer with Winters in between takes on the set of “Jury Duty.” “She told me that she and Marlon Brando used to go down to Carl’s (supermarket) and eat chocolate cookies out of the box. She’s nuts.”
Winters has enjoyed the regular work that “Roseanne” has afforded. Of her role as Mary, Roseanne’s grandmother, she says, “What’s that they say about old people? She’s eccentric. I thought I’d have to have gray hair and add wrinkles, but Roseanne said, ‘Oh, no. You’re going to be glamorous.’ I guess sex begins at 70.” Really? “I’ll let you know after my knee operation,” she cracks.
As she looks back on her career, the actress takes pride in her contributions to the role of women onscreen. “Gloria Steinem once told me that I helped lay the groundwork for the women’s movement because I so often portrayed victims who fought back,” she says proudly.
Steinem herself adds: “I think that because Shelley was a pretty, zaftig blonde and worked in the era of where those movie roles proliferated, she played a lot of not-so-bright roles, victims and floozies--and yet, somehow, you always knew that there was strength there. She never seemed to feel she had to adopt a masculine style in order to show that she was strong.”
Ultimately, Winters hopes that her teaching and continuing work as an actor will offer insight to another generation of actors, which she believes is brimming with talent. Although not exactly up-and-coming, Melanie Griffith and Tom Cruise are particular favorites. “I love Tom,” she says unapologetically. “He’s very sexy and entertaining. I won’t see the one about the vampire though--life is scary enough.”