Shelley became a star and then she studied acting
New York — Shelley Winters have never forgotten her origins as Shirley Schrift, born in St. Louis and raised in Brooklyn. The minks, diamonds, and international fame came later, vaguely troubling the Schrift side of her personality, which clung tenaciously to egalitarian Brooklyn democrat roots.
In retrospect, Miss Winters feels her career worked backward. "I became a star, and thenm I studied acting," she says with a wry smile. "The trouble is, I didn't have the technique I needed at the beginning of my career. I never could have held on if I hadn't been lucky enough to work with directors like George Cukor and George Stevens. They helped tremendously."
They also boosted her reputation by coaching her through acclaimed roles in such pictures as "A Double Life" and "A Place in the Sun," which came years before such other Winters vehicles as "Night of the Hunter," "Lolita," and "The Poseidon Adventure."
When the celebrated Shelley finally did get around to studying the art of acting, she plunged in with might and main. "People think everything will be great as soon as you become a star," she says, "but it's not so.That's why you have so many unhappy people in Hollywood who are making a million dollars a picture and are miserable. Money can be devalued or taken away from you. The only real security is talent. If you have that, you'll always have work.
In the world according to Winters, you need talent to survive -- and you also need faith in your own abilities. Otherwise the Hollywood studios might try to mislead you
"Traditionally, the studios have cultivated a feeling of insecurity in their actors," Miss Winters says. "That's what destroyed Marilyn Monroe. Especially in the old days, when the studios had huge publicity departments, they had an investment in making you feel dependent on them. They wanted you to think it wasn't really you the public loved --instead it was the hair and eyelashes and clothes and publicity.
"They even tried to discipline you by giving out bad publicity -- saying you were temperamental or making lousy pictures. That era is over, but I was under contract to it for a long time. And it would have been even longer if Olivia de Havilland hadn't gone to court and gotten a seven-year limit put on those deals!"
Many actresses have a glamoroud heyday and then vanish into obscurity. How does Miss Winters keep working and working? "Because I keep studying and studying," she replies -- not to mention teaching and writing.
"I teach at the Circle in the Square, I moderate at the Actors' Studio when Lee Strasberg isn't there, and I often teach at the Strasberg Institute," he says. "I've also taught at colleges like Barnard. UCLA has offered me a professorship -- not a full one -- and I never even finished high school! But I don't have time to take that job . . . partly because I've bought an interesting idea for a movie. I'm writing the screenplay now, and I want to direct it."
Many actors are turning to the director's side of the camera these days, and Miss Winters is eager to make the switch. "I've directed several plays already, " she says, "and when I'm on a movie set, I always pay a great deal of attention. I've worked with top directors, and I've done two films with the great cameraman Sven Nykvist. I always get in their hair, because I want to learn so much. Other actors go to rest in their dressing rooms when they're not needed, but I hang around and listen in on everyone else's conversations. I think I've learned enough to direct a picture. Life begins at 50!"
For all her enthusiasms about the performing profession, Miss Winters feels that a note of caution is necessary for any actor, from the would-be to the star. For Example, she cites a remark by a woman recently installed as a major studio chief, to the effect that "audiences don't want to see women over 40 on the screen." Miss Winters waxes mightily indignant over this, rattling off a list of top-rank actresses whose presence difies that notion.
On the other hand, the star feels that "America destroys her idols. Look at some of the older actresses who are still around," she point out, "and look how sad they are. I was fortunate. When I was married to Vittorio gassman, he bought me a duplex apartment. My parents were upstairs, and my daughter was going to school nearby, and I could close the door on everything else, whenever I wanted to. That gave me a sense of perspective, and just about saved my life."
For Miss Winters, perspective seems to be a prime requisite fr a happy life. Especially when you're a performer, and the public is always ogling the most superficial aspects of your personality. Considering Shriley's ambition to be a serious artist of the stage, and Shelly's "compromise" career as a glamorous screen star, how satisfying has the Winters career been?
"It depends on how fulfilled I was at the time," she answers. "Don't forget I've done fine films like 'Night of the Hunter' and 'A Place in the Sun.' Then I was happy. And don't forget I havem done 100 plays -- Broadway, off Broadway, summer stock, new shows and old ones . . . and I even loved live TV. There was something about it that was always like opening night, even though you only got to do it once."
In any event, Shirley Schrift has heartily enjoyed being Shelley Winters, despite some hard times and turbulent emotional affairs -- "some of which" she would have been "a lot better off without." The good times and the bad, the happy loves and the sad ones, are all chronicled in her lengthy book of musings, "Shelley," some of which is described in frank and occasionally even vulgar language.
But looking to the future, Miss Winters is eager to proceed with her hoped-for directing career. She might also explore the Shirley-vs.-Shelley syndrome in another book, this time a novel. As for performing, she is still carrying on -- going to West Germany soon, for example, to appear in a movie produced by European prodigy Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In general, Miss Winters is not too crazy about today's films. "There's not as much depth as there used to be," she says, "and there's often not enough time to do the research for the part." Still, occasional new movies are "wonderful," especially when the director is a wunderkind like Steven Spielberg, "who takes great care and does fine work."
As she moves deeper into writing and teaching and directing, are there any old performing ambitions Miss Winters would still like to fulfill? For sure. "I'd love to do more Shakespeare, and some Chekhov -- you know, 'The Three Sisters.' I love the theater most, and I'd be delighted to do more classics, especially if the runs were short, so the roles would stay fresh.
"And then, I love film too - I would have loved to be in 'Interiors,' and I wouldn't even care which part. There are many roles I'd still be eager to play. The important thing is, I want to portray many-faced human beings. That still means more than anything else. . . ."