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Movies : OFF-CENTERPIECE : Dishing the Dirt With Shelley : At 72, Shelley Winters shows no sign of slowing down--but she'll stop long enough to talk about Marilyn, Monty and the men in her life.

April 09, 1995|James Grant | James Grant is an occasional contributor to Calendar

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.)

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