Sunday, January 15, 2006

Shelley Winters - 1920-2006

I once said told Stephen Cooke and Tom Sutpen that if you saw Joan Blondell at the stage of her career when I first encountered her, you would never have thought of her as a sex symbol. The same holds true of Shelley Winters. She was a sex symbol at one point in her career. She was a blonde bombshell before Marilyn Monroe - who was her one-time room mate and who by all reports she taught to hold her head in a particularly sexy way - but she tired of it and became what Monroe later wanted to become, a damned good actress with two Oscars and a host of roles in the 1950s that were important and influential. But that wasn't my Shelley Winters.

My Shelley Winters was Mrs. Rosen in the original Poseidon Adventure (her fourth Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor - the photo I have here is of Shelley with her Poseidon Adventure "husband" Red Buttons on the Oscar red carpet many years later), and Julie Andrews (probably bisexual) superagent in S.O.B. (and yeah I watched that movie to see Julie Andrews's boobs, and yeah it was worth it). It was the Shelley who did one shot guest appearances in a variety of unworthy TV shows starting in around 1966 with Batman (as "Ma Parker"). She was apparently memorable in her final major TV role as Nana Mary in Roseanne where she played Estelle Parson's mother despite being only seven years older than her (I never watched Roseanne mainly because I loathe Roseane Barr). But most of all my Shelley Winters was the queen of the talk show. Take a look at her IMDB filmography. Go below the 130 listed parts in movies (mostly theatrical), 20 appearances as herself - several as an Oscar presenter - to her "Notable TV Guest Appearances". There they sit, her talk show appearances on both sides of the Atlantic. These started in 1957 when she did The Steve Martin Show, and included appearances in Britain on something called Late Night Lineup, on Parkinson and it's successor at the BBC Wogan twice each, and even on Ruby Wax's The Full Wax twice. Her last "chat show" appearance - I suppose his qualifies - was on Inside The Actors Studio (something for which she was eminently more qualified than most people who appeared on the show - not only had she attended the Actors Studio, she taught there). She did one episode of the NBC Letterman series Late Night with David Letterman, but her true venue was The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. Between March 1970 and March 1991 she made twenty-one appearances on the show. Twelve of these appearances occurred between March 1970 and July 1973. She was a much less frequent guest in the 1980s and early 1990s when I saw her.

Shelley Winters was in her element on Carson. She was outrageous. When I saw her, it always seemed as though she's lubricated herself very well with the backstage booze supply. She'd come out and usually talk about Hollywood in the old days and talk about sex lives - her own and others. They played up her often imperfect memory - I remember one sequence where she couldn't remember the name of one of Johnny's wives, which was important to the story. But some of her most memorable performances occurred before I was able to see the show. In 1969 she was responsible for spreading the incorrect rumour that Jerry Mathers (from the movie The Trouble With Harry and the TV series Leave it to Beaver) had died in Vietnam. But perhaps her most infamous performance was when she dumped an ice bucket full of ice and water over the head of Oliver Reed after Reed made some remarks about women that Shelley took exception to. (I have a suspicion that this tape no longer exists, erased as so many of those early shows were. Too bad - Reed got what he deserved and she was the perfect person to give it too him.) It's worth noting I suppose that that was Reed's first - and last - appearance on The Tonight Show while Shelley made a dozen more appearances, the last just a few months before Johnny's final show

Shelley Winters was a great actress, a great character actress, and a great character. Expect TCM to do a retrospective sometime this week, much to the irritation of people who foolishly believe that a schedule should be sacrosanct.

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