Winters, Shelley

Winters, Shelley
(1922– )
   Shelley Winters was born Shirley Schrift in 1922 in St. Louis, Missouri, but was raised in Brooklyn, New York. She began her acting career early, in high school plays and in summer stock, before making her debut on the Great White Way in 1941. Columbia Pictures brought her to Hollywood two years later. After some inconsequential parts, she got her big break when she played a promiscuous waitress strangled to death by Ronald Colman in George Cukor’s A Double Life (1948). Later, she portrayed the victim of the murderous Montgomery Clift, her opportunist lover, in George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951), another classic film.
   By the 1960s she was taking more matronly roles and won an Academy Award as a Jewish refugee, a woman constantly fearful of being arrested by the Nazis, in Stevens’s Diary of Anne Frank (1959). She was married three times during this period, twice to actors (Vittorio Gassman, 1952–1954;Anthony Franciosa, 1957–1960).
   When STANLEY KUBRICK was casting his movie version of VLADIMIR NABOKOV’s novel LOLITA, released in 1967, he wrote to Winters from England, asking her to play Charlotte Haze, the widowed mother of Lolita, the nymphet to whom Humbert Humbert (JAMES MASON) is obsessively attached. Because Kubrick wanted Nabokov to have some say in the casting, he requested that Winters meet the novelist at the Sherry Netherland Hotel in New York City, to discuss the novel. Winters recalls in the second volume of her autobiography, Shelley II (1989), that she was busy campaigning for John F. Kennedy, who was running for president at the time; but she read the book while she was on the campaign trail with Kennedy. She even read it on the platform while waiting for political rallies to start. When Kennedy spied her reading the controversial novel, she recalls, he said jokingly that “I should get a brown paper cover for the book, if I had to read it in public places. ” Nabokov was favorably impressed with Winters, and she got the role of Charlotte.
   During rehearsals of each scene, Kubrick would start with the dialogue as written in the shooting script, and then encourage the cast to improvise new material as the rehearsal progressed, to replace lines that were not working. Then Kubrick would type the revisions into the screenplay, prior to shooting the scene.
   Winters found working with James Mason and with PETER SELLERS, cast as Clare Quilty, the man who takes Lolita away from Humbert, a stressful experience. When Sellers in particular began improvising additional dialogue for a scene, she remembers, he at times seemed, to her at least if not to Kubrick, to be straying too far from the script. She thought he was “acting on a different planet; I never could connect with him. ”
   When she was rehearsing with Mason, she found him somewhat distant and remote, and hence hard to relate to. Sometimes he delivered a line very softly, as in the scene in which Charlotte inquires while playing chess with Humbert,“Are you going to take my Queen?” and Humbert answers cryptically, casting a sideways glance at Lolita, “That was my intention. ” Winters comments that Mason’s asides “were so quiet, when we were acting, I never even heard them. ” She concludes, “I felt terribly frustrated in doing a scene with Mason. ”
   When Winters complained to Kubrick about her difficulties in “trying to connect with my two leading men, he would agree with me—but he didn’t change their performances. I never felt anyone was listening to me when I talked, except the sound man. ” Later she realized that the frustration that she experienced in attempting to cope with Sellers and Mason came out in her performance as Charlotte, making Charlotte come across as frustrated too, rendering Charlotte both “sad and funny. ”
   Nevertheless, Kubrick thought Winters too temperamental and got fed up with her carping about her male costars, according to cinematographer OSWALD MORRIS. In Howard’s book on Kubrick, Morris says, “Shelley Winters was very difficult,” and was nearly fired from the film. At one point, an exasperated Kubrick said to Morris, “I think the lady’s gonna have to go. ” This would have been a serious setback for the production schedule. “But he’d have got rid of her,” Morris concludes, if he really thought it was necessary;“he really didn’t care about the consequences. ” Kubrick eventually decided to keep Winters, however, reasoning that the character of Charlotte would disappear from the film halfway through.
   In her autobiography Winters takes a more benign view of her production experience on Lolita. In the last analysis, she found Mason (if not Sellers) worth all the trouble she had in acting with him; his performance was “hilarious and marvelous. ” As for Kubrick, she holds him in high esteem: “I had known a pseudo-intellectual suburbanite like Charlotte during my childhood days; and Stanley Kubrick knew what buttons to press in my acting computer to bring her back,”Winters writes. “Kubrick had the insight to find the areas in me that were pseudo-intellectual and pretentious. We all have those things in us. ” Certainly Charlotte does, who considers herself the apex of small-town sophistication. In the end, “I was enchanted with Charlotte and very proud of her. ”
   Charlotte enters the film when Humbert, a college professor newly arrived from Europe, is looking for a place to stay near Beardsley College in Ohio, where he has a lectureship in French literature. He chooses the home of Charlotte Haze. Charlotte, a bumptious, dowdy widow approaching middle age, guides Humbert on a tour of her house, pretentiously waving a cigarette holder at him and calling him Monsieur. “Culturally we are a very advanced group and very progressive intellectually,” she says. “I’m chairman of the Great Books Committee. Last season I had Clare Quilty lecture on Dr. Schweitzer and Dr. Zhivago. ” She pairs the names as if both were equally noted physicians.
   In opening her campaign to win Humbert’s attentions, she ever so casually makes it clear that she is a widow, pointing to her husband’s picture (it looks like a photo of a younger Nabokov) and to the urn containing his ashes. Humbert retrieves his hand just as he is about to touch the urn, which he had taken to be a vase. As Charlotte steers Humbert around the house, wearing skintight black leotards and waving her cigarette holder, she at times stands six inches too close to this handsome stranger, and then strikes artful poses in a doorway. “Winters keeps talking,” says critic Richard Corliss; “her Charlotte is impervious to the aggression in her body language or to the recoil in Humbert’s. ” In short, “she is a woman who must make this sale (of herself ) to this prospective client (husband). ” She is a mixture of ten-cent sophistication, woman’s club energy, and sexual hunger. Her “modern woman savoir faire,” adds Corliss, “is constantly sabotaged by her desperation,” as when she spies one of Lolita’s discarded bobby socks. Her whole attempt at a highbrow intellectualism is demolished by her asking Humbert to “excuse the soiled sock. ” As Charlotte continues yammering to Humbert about her congenial home, she leads him into the backyard, where he sees Lolita for the first time and is obviously bedazzled. The girl lounges languidly in the sun in an abbreviated swimsuit, exuding a sex appeal far beyond her years. Humbert instantly agrees to move in with the Hazes.
   Later on, at a high school dance which Humbert and Charlotte are helping to chaperone, Humbert is content to feast his eyes on Lolita from his vantage point behind a floral decoration, but Charlotte spies him out and insists that they socialize. Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) makes his first appearance in the movie proper at the dance. “Hello again,” Charlotte greets him meaningfully, dancing into his arms. “I’ve been the local authority on you ever since that afternoon that changed my life—when you lectured to us. ” Finally recognizing her, Quilty grins knowingly, “Don’t you have a daughter with a lovely, lilting name?” In retrospect, the viewer will later infer from this interchange that Quilty had seduced Charlotte to gain access to Lolita, just as Humbert will marry the hapless Charlotte for the same reason. After the dance, Lolita goes off to a party and Charlotte dragoons Humbert home for a “cozy supper. ” Humbert has been dreading the moment when Charlotte will drop her posture as the sedate widow and make an overt play for him, and it is now at hand. She slips into something more comfortable and seductive, a provocative gown with a leopard-skin design. Then she switches on some Latin music with an emphatic beat and offers to teach the middle-aged professor the latest steps. Pretending not to notice the possible sexual connotations of her invitation, Humbert demurs politely, “I don’t even know the old ones. ” Not to be put off, at least not just yet, Charlotte steers Humbert around the living room floor, in the driver’s seat as usual, and finally backs him up against the wall, passionately protesting that, although she swore she would never marry again, she now feels that “life is for living. Take me in your arms. I can’t live in the past any longer. ”
   Commenting on the filming of this scene,Winters notes that it exemplifies Kubrick’s delicate manner of handling actors. She told Peter Bogdanovich that “he would discuss the scene with you and you never thought you were being directed, until you saw the rushes the next day. You almost said, ‘Gee, wasn’t I clever to think of that?’ But it was Stanley who had sort of planted it in your head. Like the dance I did with James Mason—a sexy sort of South American dance—he didn’t really tell me to make it a sexy dance. I decided to flirt with Mason while I was dancing, and Kubrick said, ‘That’s it. ’” While Charlotte is enticing the reluctant Humbert into a tryst, Lolita picks just this moment to return from the party, and Humbert is saved from submitting to his landlady’s blandishments. Tears of frustration in her eyes, Charlotte coaxes Humbert to go for a drive, but he courteously bows his way out of the room and goes to bed, leaving Charlotte alone. She dumps an unopened champagne bottle into an ice bucket and begins to weep.
   This is perhaps Shelley Winters’s best scene in the film and points up the consistently fine performance which she turns in as Charlotte. She demonstrates her ability to make us laugh at Charlotte’s frowsy gentility and dreams of youthful romance, and at the same time she stirs our compassion for the young widow’s vulnerability and loneliness. As she whimpers and cries at the end of the scene, we realize for the first time just how deeply the actress has made us understand Charlotte. She is a pathetic, sad, lonely widow, Corliss observes; “and she probably knows she can’t hide it. In her pursuit of Humbert (a man already in love with her daughter),” Charlotte herself comes across as a foolish teenager, mooning over an inaccessible man that has given her the go-by. In the novel, Humbert calls Charlotte a diluted version of Marlene Dietrich, a burlesque of the pretentious suburban frump, steadfastly refusing to admit that she is well past her prime.
   In due course, Charlotte decides to send Lolita off to a summer camp, so that she and Humbert can be alone. On the day that she drives Lolita off to camp, Humbert is inconsolable at the thought of losing the object of his infatuation. To his great surprise, Charlotte leaves behind a hastily scribbled note for him: “This is a confession; I love you. Last Sunday in church the Lord told me to act as I am now doing and write you this letter. I am a passionate and lonely woman. You are the love of my life. And now will you please go. Scram! Departez! Your remaining would mean that you are ready to link your life with mine and be a father to my little girl. ”
   Humbert, unable to contain his contempt for this benighted female, giggles out loud at her clumsily written declaration of love. He is stoically resigned to marrying Charlotte in order to remain close to Lolita, the love of his life, as he informs us in voiceover on the sound track, in his role as the movie’s narrator. And the marriage takes place. Since he no longer enjoys the same kind of privacy that he had when he was a boarder, Humbert must now take refuge in the bathroom to commit his thoughts to his diary. While he is busy making his entry about the wedding, Charlotte, as possessive as ever, knocks on the bathroom door, solicitously pining, “Dear, the door is locked. Sweetheart, I don’t want any secrets between us. ” Through the door she prattles at him about the past. “Were there a lot of women in your life before me?” Nettled, Humbert shouts back through the door that stands symbolically between them, “I’ll make you a complete list. Will that satisfy you?” “I don’t care about any of the others. I know that our love is sacred; all of the others were profane,” she proclaims operatically.
   We have now arrived at Shelley Winters’s climactic scene in the picture. After Humbert emerges from the bathroom, Charlotte shows Humbert her dead husband’s revolver, which in this context takes on a phallic significance, especially when she says as she fondles it, “This is a sacred weapon, a treasure. But don’t worry, it isn’t loaded. ” He had bought it when he learned that he was ill. “Happily he was hospitalized before he could use it. ” Pursuing Humbert’s affections with the savagery of a cavewoman, Charlotte embraces him on the bed.
   Then Charlotte abruptly informs Humbert that she intends to send Lolita straight from camp to boarding school and then to college, ending with what sounds to Humbert like a death sentence: “It’s going to be me and you alone forever. ” He looks wistfully at the photo of Lolita on the bedside table, which now seems so desperately out of reach. Charlotte goes off to the bathroom and Humbert thoughtfully contemplates his predecessor’s gun, toying with the idea of ridding himself of his unwanted spouse once and for all. He advances toward the bathroom, where he can hear the bathtub filling with water; the door is slightly ajar. “She splashed in the tub, a clumsy trusting seal,” Humbert says in a voiceover. “ What do you know, folks: I just couldn’t make myself do it. ” Humbert points the gun at the camera, then lowers it and stares helplessly ahead. He slowly pushes the door open—and she is not there. The “trusting” Charlotte, he discovers, is in his study, busily prying into his diary. She reads: “That Haze woman, that cow, the obnoxious mama!—You are a monster. I am leaving you and you are never going to see that miserable brat again. ” She locks herself in the bedroom and this time it is Humbert who is outside knocking beseechingly at the door. She holds up the book to her husband’s urn and blubbers, “Harold, look what happened. Darling, forgive me. ” Winters wrings every drop of pathos out of the line. Downstairs, Humbert mixes a batch of martinis, still hoping to mollify his distraught wife and not lose Lolita for good. He receives a phone call, informing him that Charlotte has been hit by a car. The wind blows the front door open and he sees an ambulance race by the front of the house. We see the aftermath of the accident as Humbert arrives at the scene: a policeman dispersing the curious onlookers who are standing in the pouring rain; the driver of the car that accidentally struck Charlotte down; and finally the corpse underneath a blanket that someone has placed over it to shield it from the downpour. In his autobiography, Before I Forget, Mason justly refers to this whole sequence as the most skillfully executed segment of the entire film, and this is largely due to Winters’s skilled performance.
   In Lolita, Shelley Winters essays what is arguably the best performance of her career, although she won Academy Awards for two other films, and not for Lolita. Her characterization, writes Corliss, is “so daring, so right. ” And when she first meets Quilty, “she dances around him like an elephant in heat. In bed with Humbert she is both pouty and calculating, making Humbert a henpecked husband. ” Yet the audience cannot withhold its pity from her, “when Charlotte discovers, through Humbert’s diary, his loathing for her and his lust for Lolita. ” Shortly thereafter Winters disappears from the film, but her multifaceted portrayal of a woman hopelessly deceived continues to linger in the viewer’s mind, far overshadowing Melanie Griffith’s portrayal of Charlotte in Adrian Lyne’s 1998 remake of Lolita. Later highlights of Winters’s career include her second Oscar, for her portrayal of the domineering mother of a blind girl in A Patch of Blue (1965); her role as an alcoholic floozy in the thriller Harper (1966), with Paul Newman;and her appearance in the blockbuster disaster film, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), as part of an all-star cast. She continued working in mostly routine pictures thereafter,well into the 1990s, playing character parts. Most notable among these was Jane Campion’s adaptation of Henry James’s
   Portrait of a Lady (1996), opposite Nicole Kidman in the title role. Shelley Winters was never better than she was as Charlotte Haze in Kubrick’s Lolita, in which she gave the definitive characterization of a kitschy, befuddled suburban matron.
   ■ Bogdanovich, Peter, “What They Say about Stanley Kubrick,” New York Times Magazine, July 4, 1999, pp. 18–25, 40, 47–48;
   ■ Corliss, Richard, Lolita (London: British Film Institute, 1994);
   ■ Tibbetts, John, “Lolita,” in The Encyclopedia of Novels into Film, rev. ed. John Tibbetts and James Welsh (New York: Facts On File, 1999), pp. 134–138;
   ■ Winters, Shelley, Shelley II: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • WINTERS, SHELLEY — (Shirley Schrift; 1922–2006), U.S. actress. Born in East St. Louis, Ill., Winters appeared in the operetta Rosalinda (1942). Her first successful film was A Double Life (1948). Later she became famous for her interpretation of two prototypes – a… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

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  • Shelley Winters — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Winters. Shelley Winters …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Shelley Winters — (* 18. August 1920 in East St. Louis als Shirley Schrift; † 14. Januar 2006 in Beverly Hills) war eine US amerikanische Schauspielerin. Inhaltsverzeichnis 1 Leben und Werk 2 Filmografie 3 …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Shelley — ist der Familienname verschiedener Personen: Alexander Shelley (* 1979), britischer Dirigent Barbara Shelley (* 1933), britische Schauspielerin Charles M. Shelley (1833−1907), US amerikanischer Architekt, Bauunternehmer und Politiker sowie… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Winters — ist die Bezeichnung mehrerer Orte in den USA: Winters (Kalifornien) Winters (Texas) und ist der Name von folgenden Personen L. Alan Winters (* 1950), britischer Wirtschaftswissenschaftler Jonathan Winters (* 1925), US amerikanischer Komödien… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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