Sunday, August 17, 2008

Birthday Girl: Stop Calling Her Shirley

Let's raise a glass - or several - to mark what would have been the 88th birthday of a woman who may not have been the Greatest Star, but certainly might have been the Loudest: that heavenly creature who blazed her way across continents, genres, decades, and, from all accounts, dozens and dozens of gentlemen, the lovely and talented - both true! - Miss Shelley Winters.

As I imagine she would like to be remembered: blowsy and amused

Few stars have done more wildly different things over the course of a long career - Shelley was willing to take a stab at almost anything this side of hardcore to stay, if not on top, then at least along for the ride.

She did glamour (of a sort):
And almost 3o more or less pointless pictures, mostly Bs, before landing 1951's A Place in the Sun and a part that turned her somewhat raddled bombshell image on its side, turning her in the direction of the neurotic, pathetic underdog.

That allowed her to call on her Serious Actress training and revealed one of the secrets of her success: onscreen, an almost total lack of vanity. She was never afraid to go over the top, look bad, and, when called on to cry, really wail, as here in Executive Suite:

By the end of the 50s, most of her fellow former pinups would have died for the roles she was getting: The Diary of Anne Frank, A Patch of Blue, Alfie. She ended up with two Oscars, which is something you don't get just for being blonde and showing up (just ask Mamie van Doren).

She knew that one of the secrets of being a Star was keeping on being a working actress, and she took bad parts with good. She was never afraid of television (and who could have been more at home on "The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars"?), essaying a Batman villainness and, later, turning up on that essential moment of 70s kitsch, "Match Game":

She ensured herself a certain kind of schlock immortality by allowing her natural zaftig self to shine through in The Poseidon Adventure. I have no idea if the following is real, but if it is, darlings, you now know what I must have for Christmas.

Possibly the single greatest toy in history

She continued on, indomitably, through roles good - a hilarious turn as an agent in Blake Edwards's gleeful evisceration of his wife Julie Andrews's career, S.O.B.; her late, brief appearance in The Portrait of a Lady - and bad (anybody up for a screening of that Pauly Shore masterpiece Jury Duty?).

To me, though, Shelley would be an immortal even if her career had ended 40 years before it did - no Ma Parker, no Belle Rosen, no half-riveting, half-horrifying appearances on Johnny and Merv (although it would have deprived us of her oft-repeated stories of her onetime roommate, which usually started, "Marilyn was a Very Troubled Girl," and went on - and on - from there).

If she had never done anything after Willa Harper in Night of the Hunter, Shelley would still very much be on the Short List of Greats.

It is absolutely the apotheosis of her Suffering Prole period, as evidenced in this rather heated poster:

(and no, she does not portray a midget in the picture; but then again, Lillian Gish does not peer on, even more Lilliputian, from the middle distance; blame the illustrator)

The German edition hints at the actual flavor of the piece rather more accurately:

It's a part that captures both her real beauty and her equally evident foolishness; it's a brief turn that ends with one of the most haunting images ever put on film. Leave it to Charles Laughton to turn Hollywood brass (and who, in the end, was ever brassier?) into gold.

Many happy returns, Shirley-also-known-as, wherever you are...

1 comment:

  1. I love Shelley. I saw her at the end of her life and as tiny as she had become, she still had her big old brown curly wig on. Bless her!