Actress Shelley Winters, 85; Blond Bombshell to Oscar Winner

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006

Shelley Winters, 85, a brassy actress and raconteur who appeared in more than 120 films and twice won the Academy Award for supporting performances, died Jan. 14 at a rehabilitation center in Beverly Hills, Calif. She had been hospitalized in October after suffering a heart attack.

Ms. Winters won her Oscars for "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959), as the sloppy and nervous Mrs. Van Daan, and for "A Patch of Blue" (1965), in which she was one of the true screen vultures, mercilessly abusing her blind daughter (played by Elizabeth Hartman).

Her last Oscar nomination was for "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972), the much-lampooned all-star drama about an overturned luxury liner. Despite her girth, she played a former swimming champion who tries to take others to safety.

Acknowledging the film's rich potential for parody, she appeared on "The Flip Wilson Show" in a skit set in a fast-flooding laundromat. She led the cast in a daring escape through a washing-machine hatch.

At first a peroxide-dyed "blond bombshell," Ms. Winters was typecast for years as a gangster's moll and dance-hall dame. She once joked of her tendency to perish as a sinner or martyr, writing in a memoir: "I had been strangled by Ronald Colman, drowned by Montgomery Clift, stabbed and drowned by Robert Mitchum, shot by Jack Palance and by Rod Steiger in two different films and, oh yes, overdosed with heroin by Ricardo Montalban."

By the late 1950s, Ms. Winters had carved out a successful career in character parts -- the brash and frowzy secondary roles that she said would sustain her career as she aged.

She once called the role of Charlotte Haze, the mother of a teenage vamp in "Lolita" (1962), "one of the best performances I ever gave in any medium. She is dumb and cunning, silly, sad, sexy and bizarre, and totally American and human."

In her later years, Ms. Winters appeared on talk-show programs to detail her indulgences with the leading men of Hollywood's golden age.

She also wrote two kiss-and-tell memoirs, in which she counted among her amorous conquests Errol Flynn, William Holden (they had an annual Christmas Eve rendezvous), Sean Connery, Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando.

She said Brando invited her to the set of "A Streetcar Named Desire," locked her in his trailer and began to simulate violent lovemaking by shaking the room, pounding the walls and screaming with delight.

Ms. Winters wrote that she found this silly, adding: "When I refused to yell loud enough for him, he whispered, 'You're not helping my image enough. For God's sake, you studied voice projection. Use it!' "

Shirley Schrift was born Aug. 18, 1920, in St. Louis and moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., when she was 9. One of the most stinging memories of her youth was seeing her father jailed for setting his men's store on fire to collect insurance money. Much later, he was exonerated, she said.

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