Daily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir
Shelley: Also known as Shirley, by Shelley Winters
There are so many great Shelley Winters stories (and this is only the first volume of her autobiography – there’s another one that follows) but the following is my favorite. I can’t even remember where I heard it -maybe from her. I’ve heard her speak a couple of times. She is exactly what you would imagine. A little bit crazy, insightful as hell, bawdy, funny, and you wish she would never stop talking. The story goes: Shelley Winters is in her 60s. She has already had a long and crazily successful career, but she is now getting old. An up-and-coming director is considering her for a role in a movie and he makes a beginner’s mistake – he asks her to audition. You don’t ask stars to audition. You have meetings with them, you do lunch, but you don’t ask a star to come in and read sides, as though she is a beginner. It is assumed that Shelley Winters knows how to act. That is one of the perks of being a star! Now Shelley Winters was never a dummy or a diva – she liked to WORK (and her career shows that – she was working, and very well, right up to the end), but she did think, “Audition?? What are you, cracked?” She went to meet the director at his office. She was dressed in her normal attire: urban bag-lady with a big floppy hat. She carried an enormous bag over one shoulder. The director was a big fan of hers, “Oh, so excited you’re coming to read, Miss Winters, thank you so much …” Shelley Winters sat down, opened her bag, rummaged around in it for a bit, and pulled out one Oscar statue. Plopped it down on the desk. Then she reached into the bag again, rummaged around again, and pulled out a second Oscar statue. Plopped it down on the desk. Barked, “So. Do I still need to audition?”
Naturally, she got the part. Lessons learned all around. I just love that. She made her point.
Shelley Winters’ autobiography is not as relentlessly entertaining as Lana Turner’s (excerpt here) but it’s pretty damn close. She didn’t have quite the tabloid frenzy surrounding her that Turner did, and much of her career was about, you know, ACTING, so her books have a different focus – but they are just as much fun to read. Shelley Winters gossips like crazy, tells stories, spares no one, and yet also comes across as generous and big-hearted. She always gives credit where credit is due. Even if it’s to herself! Winters was an oddball, a kind of gangly big-boned girl with a funny-looking face that could look glamorous in certain lights, but that was not what she was known for. She was known for her blasted-open performances, she was known for her hard work and her disinterest in being liked. That is one of the great gifts of NOT being beautiful. She didn’t have to worry so much about pleasing people, she didn’t have that problem that so many beautiful people in the business have.
She went about her business, and got some pretty damn great parts, she worked hard, and also played hard. She slept with everyone. She sounds like a riot. If Lana Turner remembers every outfit she ever wore, then Shelley Winters remembers every meal she ever had. The books are full of food! From the tuna sandwiches she had as a kid, to the chocolate milk shakes she would share with her roommate, Marilyn Monroe … Winters loved food! The books have a zest for life that really comes across. You know that she is telling you conversations word for word that probably never really went down that way … but it doesn’t matter. She’s chatting with you, the reader, about what she remembers. Also, she’s an entertainer. Like I said, she was no dummy. She knows how to tell a good tale.
David Thomson writes of her in his Biographical Dictionary of Film:
Blowsy, effusive, brash, and maternal, either voluptuous or drab, Shelley Winters is at her best when driven to wonder, “How did a girl like me get into a high-class movie like this?”
The highlights of her career are well-known. But the book is full of everything else, her commitment to the Actors Studio and working on her craft (which never stopped for her), her romances, her fuck buddies, her struggles to either be taken seriously or to NOT be taken seriously, her rehearsal process, how she worked, how she thought about script and character … These are wonderful books. She’s a terrific companion. Crazy, still proud of her triumphs, unafraid to be honest about herself, unafraid also to say, “You know what? I was terrific in that part”, and funny as hell. Great anecdotal portraits of other people too – George Cukor, Marlon Brando, John Gielgud, Marilyn Monroe – all of her colleagues and friends and co-workers … she gives us generous portraits of all of them.
I have written before about the epiphany I had when I was 12 years old after seeing Dog Day Afternoon and East of Eden. Those movies led me on a research frenzy which brought me into contact, very early, with all of those Actors Studio afficianados – Carroll Baker, Paddy Chayefsky, Ben Gazzara, Michael Gazzo, the Strasbergs … I would pore through the index pages of entertainment biographies looking for mention of James Dean, and that was how I started. I hadn’t heard of any of those people at the time I was 12. But by the time I was 13, I felt like I knew them all personally. Shelley Winters’ autobiographies were a big part of that journey. I read them both when I was 12, basically looking only for mention of James Dean and Marlon Brando but I got sucked into them in their own right. I had not seen Place in the Sun or Lolita, although I HAD seen Poseidon Adventure and it was amazing to me that that fat woman underwater was the cheesecake blonde in a bathing suit I saw in the photos of the book. But she was. Same person.
Since then, I’ve read both of the books multiple times. They’re a lot of fun. I’ve actually lost the second volume in my various moves so I will have to rectify that!
You know, Montgomery Clift was apparently dismayed at her performance in Place in the Sun. He thought she was terrible, way too whiny. I think that might be the case of someone being too close to the work to really be able to see it. It is her whininess in Place in the Sun that helps elevate it to the dark American tragedy that it is. Not that anyone deserves to be murdered, but her character is so relentlessly whiny and needy that a strange thing happens to me, the viewer, as I watch that film: I start to want to get rid of her too. Even though she is an innocent, a victim of circumstance! NONE of it is her fault. You’d whine too if some guy knocked you up and refused to deal with it, instead spent his time at the house on the hill, hanging out with the hottie daughter who looks like Elizabeth Taylor! Shelley Winters fearlessly brings out the unpleasant nature of that character, simpering and hovering, with a scarf over her head, getting more and more upset and awful as the film goes on, as her situation deepens its desperation. This is not a woman used to sticking up for herself, this is not a woman who knows how to say, “Look, buddy, you had sex with me, I’m pregnant, deal with yourself!” Let us not forget that Shelley Winters herself, in real life, WAS the type of person who would say, “Listen, jagoff, I’m knocked up and you did it and you’re involved whether you want to be or not.” So she’s ACTING here. This is not who she is. That character does not make open demands. Instead, she stares at him longingly, not saying a word, until he is driven mad by guilt and rage. She NEEDS to be that annoying in order for his actions to make sense. Yes, he is driven by his twisted version of the American dream, and she needs to be out of the way in order for him to ascend … so there is THAT … but also, her unpleasantness, her unlikeability, gives the film a startling uneasy tension. I always feel implicated myself when I watch it. Because I find myself thinking like HIM. I find myself thinking, “If only she could just disappear somehow …” It’s upsetting. I don’t like MYSELF when I watch that movie, and that’s really something. How often do movies do that?
Here is an excerpt from the first volume. Shelley Winters had had some success on the New York stage, and had done some movies. She was making her way. At some point, she was offered the role of Ado Annie in the long-running smash hit Oklahoma. She would be replacing the actress playing the part – always a kind of daunting experience. Winters was back in New York, getting ready to step into the role, and was spending her days studying at the Actors Studio. That’s the excerpt I chose today.
Wonderful books. Wonderful actress.
EXCERPT FROM Shelley: Also known as Shirley, by Shelley Winters
The next morning I did have a slight hangover, and although I brushed my teeth five times, I could still taste the onions. I got to rehearsal fifteen minutes late because I couldn’t get a cab in the rain. Very New York. I rushed past the St. James Theater doorman and onto the bare stage, tearing off my coat. I was running so fast I almost fell off the stage into the orchestra pit. The stage manager caught me; he was with an assistant stage manager and a rehearsal pianist under a work light. “Miss Winters, I presume,” he said. “You’re fifteen minutes late; that means you’re docked three dollars. A dollar for every five minutes.”
That was his opening line to me. Our relationship deteriorated for the next nine months, so you can imagine what his closing line was.
Still trying to establish some kind of rapport, I smiled and said, “That’s all right. I’ll be making five hundred dollars a week in this show. But from now on I’ll be on time.”
When I said $500 a week, his face got chalky. He grabbed my arm and whispered tensely, “Don’t you tell anyone else in the cast that. Lawrence Langner must have lost his mind.”
I pulled my arm away, rubbed it and said, “Listen, Mr. Simon Legree, this show has been running for almost five years. Maybe I’ll give it a shot in the arm if you don’t break my arm first.”
He replied, “Unfortunately you have a run-of-the-play contract, and the understudy who did just beautifully for the past eight weeks is back in the chorus. I’ll be damned if I know why they needed you.”
“Charming. Would you like to cut my throat now or later?”
Then started the most peculiar rehearsal I’ve ever had in my life, before or since. The stage manager held the script and read each line as he wanted me to read it – exactly as Celeste Holm had done it nearly five years ago. I was supposed to imitate him imitating her. Whenever he read my cue, I forgot my line because I have this strange habit of having language come out of my mouth as a result of thought. I had been trained by the New Theater School and George Cukor to perform this way, even in a musical comedy: The funniest comedy is when the timing is realistic and natural.
I tried, I really tried. The chalk marks which indicated the sets confused me, and when we got to the songs, the same thing happened. I knew the lyrics backward and forward, but my efforts to mimic him would make me forget them. The rehearsals were a struggle to the death. I thought I would go crazy. So did he.
I called Equity to find out if this was the way new actors were put into established roles, but Equity said, “We can’t make artistic decisions for the producers.” But what Equity did do for me was to inform the Theater Guild office that I was allowed to rehearse only four hours a day and not at all on matinee days. Happily this schedule allowed me to attend the Actors’ Studio almost immediately.
Soon the other understudies began to rehearse with me, thank God. I saw the show every night, and although the music and dancing were wonderful, there was a peculiar robot quality to the acting. I was to find out later that when actors stay in a show as long as five years, eight performances a week, the only way they can survive is to develop a technique whereby they literally turn off their minds at eight-thirty and don’t wake up again until eleven-fifteen. All the performances are done by rote, and they don’t have to even think about what they are saying or doing. Their brains just take a rest.
When we finally got to the dress rehearsal with the full cast, I really tried to imitate Celeste Holm, but I could no more do it than I could fly without an airplane. Langner and Theresa Helburn and Rodgers and Hammerstein watched my miserable strained rehearsal. It really was terrible. Langner asked me afterward what had happened to that performance I had given at the audition, so I told him the truth. “Mr. Langner, I can’t imitate another actress. I don’t know how. I have to give it my own interpretation and try to stick as close to the character as the author intended. I want this job, but I just can’t do it if I have to imitate someone else.”
The producers and writers had an artistic huddle, and then Langner said, in front of the whole cast, the chorus, the ballet and the stage manager, “For the last year the show has been looking very tired. The word of mouth has not been good, and business has been falling off. We have a huge company and thirty stagehands, and we need a great deal of publicity to keep the show alive. That’s why we brought Shelley all the way from Hollywood, to try to pep things up. So tomorrow, Shelley, when you go into the show, you do it your way. I’m going to give you another rehearsal with the orchestra, and then I’ll take another rehearsal of the scenes you’re involved in. And at tomorrow’s matinee I want you all to wake up and pay close attention and answer Shelley’s line readings because they will be different from what you’re used to. And unless you really talk to her, it will throw off your timing.” After two weeks of hellish rehearsals, I wanted to hug and kiss him right there in front of everybody.
Then I put everything else out of my mind, and for the next hour I had a wonderful rehearsal with the beautiful music of Oklahoma!, and I sang “I Cain’t Say No” in such a funny way that the rest of the cast started to laugh. I think they began to enjoy re-creating their roles, too, because I was different from the girls who had played it during the past five years. Everybody on the stage was enjoying himself.
Rodgers and Hammerstein took me to Sardi’s for dinner. Whenever Hammerstein went to the phone or the men’s room, Rodgers would tell me that the remarkable thing about Oklahoma! was its music and that I must sing out and be sure the audience heard the lovely melodies. I must sing as loudly as I could. Of course, I agreed. When Rodgers went to the phone, Oscar Hammerstein impressed on me how brilliant the lyrics were and that I must enunciate carefully so that the audience could understand all the funny lines or the show wouldn’t work. Never mind trying to sing too much, because the orchestra was playing the melodies anyway. Of course, I agreed with him too.
I went home to my little apartment hotel, confused and tremulous, and wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. How could I satisfy everybody? Then I remembered what Charles Feldman had whispered in my ear as I was leaving Universal a week before, “When you’ve got a good director, do as exactly as he says.” Lawrence Langner had been a fine director and had created the Theatre Guild and made it the most distinguished theatre company in America. And he had directed me to do it my way. I went to sleep content, resolved to obey my director, who in this case was my producer.
The next day I opened in the matinee. The house was packed with high school kids, probably a benefit or on twofers. Agnes de Mille, the show’s choreographer, came into my dressing room before the “half hour” and handed me a bouquet of toy oil wells, which, she said, was the state flower of Oklahoma. This made me laugh, and I stopped being so nervous.
The orchestra struck up the overture, a medley of music which by then was adored throughout the world. I made my entrance in a farmyard scene, bumping into a fence which had not been on the chalk marks that the stage manager had drawn on the bare stage at rehearsal. I kicked the fence and said, “Now, who jest put that darned thing there? It weren’t there last night when we was spoonin’.” And since this was in character for Ado Annie, the audience screamed with laughter. So did the orchestra and the rest of the cast. I was so encouraged by their laughter that I found every comic nuance I could for my “little hot-pants Ado Annie”. The show ran five minutes overtime because of the extra laughs.
As I left the stage, I was flying high, exhilarated with the joy of being in front of a live Broadway audience again who obviously loved and enjoyed me. The stage manager was waiting for me. “Listen, you Method actor,” he said, using the word as if it were the worst curse word in the language, “we only want laughs where they’ve been established. And on matinees the curtain is supposed to come down at five-fifteen, not five-twenty. Or else I have to pay the crew overtime.”
The producers and Rodgers and Hammerstein came rushing backstage into my dressing room, saying things like: “Shelley, this is the best show we’ve had since opening night. The audience is milling around the lobby, buying programs and the records.”
And Langner said, “The way you did it today, do it every show, and we’ll be back doing capacity business in no time.” The stage manager slunk out of the dressing room. They all took me to dinner at Sardi’s, but I didn’t eat much or drink anything, I was so high and happy. I knew I had another performance in a little while, and I wanted to rest and be fresh.
The Cold War was on in Europe, but it was nothing compared to the Cold War that was going on backstage at the St. James Theater. This went on for the nine months I was in the show. Even so, I came to love Oklahoma! with its beautiful music and ballet. I would stand in the wings opposite the stage manager and watch the show over and over again, especially Agnes de Mille’s ballets.