Last October, Shelley Winters was invited to Paramount studios in L.A. to screen 1951’s A Place in the Sun, in which she’d played a factory worker drowned by her social-climbing lover (Montgomery Clift). It was one of her first great film roles, but, says her friend, actress Sally Kirkland, “she insisted I take her out [of the theater] before the drowning scene. She couldn’t stand to watch it. Afterward she said, ‘Why did I always have to play the victim? Why didn’t I get to play the Liz Taylor part and get the guy?’”
In fact, the Brooklyn-bred star, who died Jan. 14 at 85 of complications from a heart attack, did play her share of strong characters, including Mrs. Van Daan in 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank (for which she won her first Supporting Actress Oscar) and the abusive mother of a blind girl in 1965’s A Patch of Blue (for which she earned her second). Just as memorably, she went down with the ship as a heroic passenger in 1972’s disaster classic The Poseidon Adventure.
“She had a tremendous zest for life,” says Dr. Vittoria Gassman, 52, Winters’s daughter with actor Vittorio Gassman, the second of her three husbands. “When I was a kid, it was common for her to come home and say, ‘I’ve invited the Bolshoi Ballet for dinner’ or ‘I’ve invited the Actors Studio,’ and she’d make them spaghetti.”
In 1980, Winters, the author of two tell-all autobiographies, threw a book party and invited all the leading men she ever slept with. Only two ex-lovers turned up. The no-shows included Clark Gable, Errol Flynn (who had long since died), Marlon Brando and Burt Lancaster (both of whom shared her bed, in succession, one steamy night). Said the hostess: “I’ve had it all.”
She was referring not just to romance but to a career that took her from Broadway chorus girl to blonde-bombshell film roles to meaty character parts that spanned B movies (Bloody Mama) and TV (as Roseanne‘s grandmother). “She [created] real people with many facets,” says her daughter. “She thought that plays and movies should help fix society and make the world a better place.”