Shelley Winters

The following was written in April 2010 for a projected volume on Stanley Kubrick that was being prepared at the time by the Chicago-based magazine Stop Smiling, who commissioned this and a few other pieces by me for it. For a variety of reasons, including the discontinuation of the magazine, the book has never appeared, and the editor, James Hughes, has very kindly given me permission to post it here. —- J.R.

Shelley Winters performance as Lolita’s Charlotte Haze offers one of the best refutations of the notion that Kubrick was a misogynist who could depict women only as bitches like Marie Windsor in The Killing or as bimbos. (Maybe Christiane Kubrick in the last scene of Paths of Glory, then known as Susan Christian, is another counter-example, but unlike Charlotte, she hardly has time to register as a character.) Winters’ overbearing yet highly vulnerable culture vulture, who has to bear the full brunt of both Humbert Humbert’s patronizing and his private scorn, is portrayed with genuine warmth and sympathy — indeed, more of both than can be found in Nabokov’s novel or original screenplay.

This friend and one-time flat mate of Marilyn Monroe, whose stint with the Actors Studio preceded and probably encouraged her own, Winters (1920-2006), born Shirley Schrift, has suffered no less from the stigma of playing dumb blondes when Hollywood sexism was at its height, implanting the similarly false impression that she was as dumb and as unlettered as her characters. But one of the gifts offered by the 1000 + pages of Brooklyn-brash dish in her two lively memoirs, Shelley (1980) and Shelley II (1989), is the realization that even if she had fewer intellectual ambitions than Monroe, she was clearly no ditz, especially when it came to imposing her will on producers, directors, agents, husbands (including Vittorio Gassman and Anthony Franciosa), and lovers (including Marlon Brando, Sean Connery, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, William Holden, and Burt Lancaster). Apparently writers, too; she got to spend some quality time in New York discussing Charlotte Haze with both Nabokov and his wife, and Jean Genet once wrote her a letter declaring her the definitive madam in The Balcony. (1963). “Kubrick had the insight to find the areas of me that were pseudointellectual and pretentious,” she wrote. And in terms of her politics, she was no slouch. She was so tireless a campaigner for John F. Kennedy that she wouldn’t agree to work in the U.K. on Lolita unless Kubrick promised she could fly back in time to attend JFK’s inaugural ball (which she wound up missing anyway, due to a snowstorm).

Her characters had an uncanny penchant for getting bumped off, often halfway through her pictures — not just in Lolita, where the death is accidental, but also in A Double Life (1947), Cry of the City (1948) The Great Gatsby (1949), A Place in the Sun (1951), and The Night of the Hunter (1955); she was also, by her own account, “shot by Jack Palance and by Rod Steiger in two different films, and OH yes, overdosed with heroin by Ricardo Montalban [in Let No Man Write My Epitaph, 1960]”. It could even be argued that she specialized in playing the sort of abrasively annoying characters that audiences wanted to see wiped out in some fashion. Even so, her characters often left a sweet aftertaste following their (usually rude) departures, in their (usually disheveled) wakes. –- Jonathan Rosenbaum