Shelly Winters vs the Water
A Place in the Sun
: April 5
The Night of the Hunter :
Lolita : April 18
The Poseidon Adventure:
BAM Cinemathek – Brooklyn
Written by Brian Shirey
In the traditionally wet month of April, BAM Cinemathek has put together an original tribute to the late movie legend Shelley Winters. It’s called “Shelley Winters vs the Water.” I doubt I’m giving too much away when I say: She loses.
Perhaps a questionable way to
remember an actress who has just shuffled off the
mortal coil (this past January 14, but on dry land),
the films featured show her playing characters who
all meet their demise through some soggy means.
On the play list: George Stevens’ A Place
in the Sun, Charles Laughton’s The
Night of the Hunter, Stanley Kubrick’s
Lolita, and Ronald Neame’s The
Shelley Winters had a long, incredible movie career, won two Supporting Actress Oscars, and enjoyed a tumultuous personal life. Through it all, she had a great sense of humor, and was not beyond self-deprecation when the roles changed, along with some extra pounds, from lithe ingénues to plump matrons. Much to her credit, she actually embraced the unflattering parts. But in the dynamics of Hollywood storytelling, especially in its most glamorous era, Winters’ characters often took on the quality of the sacrificial lamb. And so to BAM’s series:
A Place in the Sun is
the rapturous 1951 version of Theodore Dreiser’s
An American Tragedy, and it’s predicated
on camera close-ups of two of the most beautiful
people in the world at that time – Elizabeth
Taylor and Montgomery Clift. He plays a social climber
who is invited into the inner sanctum of Liz’s
blue-blood clan. It’s all very heated until
he gets involved with the wan Winters, playing the
conspicuously named Alice Tripp, a local mill girl
who eventually ensnares our hero by way of a certain
unwanted dividend. For A Place in the Sun,
Winters was deservedly nominated for an Oscar as
Best Actress; throughout, you can really sense the
character’s tragic longing, even as we are
challenged to dislike her – like everybody
else in the movie. In the most intense scene, Monty
and Alice take a rowboat out on to a lake. Enough
While intended at the time to make a grand statement about social guilt, this well observed melodrama stands highest today as a profound testament to the power of classic movie-star good looks. No, not a place for Shelley.
1955’s The Night of
the Hunter is arguably the greatest work by
a director (in this case, Charles Laughton, the
actor) who only made one film. Not to digress too
much, but the B&W photography here is flat-out
staggering. It’s in the service of a gothic
tale about a shyster preacher, played by Robert
Mitchum, and his search for cash hidden among the
farm family of a cellmate who is executed. The grieving
widow? Winters, playing Willa Harper, a part that
starts in pity, goes to a humiliating scene of physical
rejection, and reaches a peak with religious mania.
Portraying one of the great screen villains, Mitchum
weasels his way into her life. He is truly terrifying,
and too much of a force for Willa to defeat once
she begins to suspect his true motives. Did I mention
the cinematography in this film? Beneath the surface
of a nearby river, in a justifiably celebrated shot,
we see what ultimately happens to Willa. Even though
she’s water-logged, it’s maybe the only
time in Winters’ career that her presence
is profoundly haunting.
By the way, the film gets better
after Shelley leaves it. Mitchum chases her two
young kids in a nightmare odyssey down the same
river, in a sequence that uses some of the most
unsettling imagery in any movie of the 1950’s.
The Night of the Hunter is imperative viewing
on the big screen!
In 1962’s Lolita,
Winters is again (as in Hunter) marrying
a man who has a deeply nefarious ulterior motive.
Vladimir Nabakov’s original novel is so famous,
I’ll dispense with the plot outline. At the
core, it is Shelley again pushed aside in favor
of a prettier girl, who here just happens to be
her notoriously nubile daughter. The man is Humbert
Humbert, played by James Mason in a performance,
at least in the scenes opposite Winters, of delicious
cruelty and insincerity. For her part, Shelley seems
to relish the blowhard who is Charlotte, and in
the character’s obliviousness and overt pathos,
it’s one of her most memorable portrayals
of an unwanted woman. Lolita certainly
pushes BAM’s definition of the series; Charlotte
leaves the movie on an earthly plane, but in the
rain. However, there is a subsequent scene in a
bathtub, when Humbert pretends to be distraught
over Charlotte’s “accident,” that
for me is a great “water” moment in
cinema history. Mason’s phony sorrow is pitch-perfect.
I count myself among the legion
of rabid Stanley Kubrick fans, and Lolita,
even with humor at its blackest, is one of his most
human films. Because of the subject matter of the
book, the director was beset by censorship problems.
His solution? Turn the drama into a blunt satire
of desire, and in so doing, Kubrick makes a film
that is as disturbing as anything we could ever
1972’s The Poseidon
Adventure must be the reason for this Winters’
tribute, because she finally looks magnificent as
she slips beneath the surface. Why? She dies a hero.
This film is the Citizen Kane of the 1970’s
disaster genre, that wacky spate of movies that
offered a huge array of Hollywood stars battling
for their lives amidst inexplicable catastrophe.
Winters plays Belle Rosen, an overweight former
swimming champion who happens to be aboard a passenger
ship when it is overturned by a mammoth tidal wave.
A small group of survivors must battle their way
up to the bottom of the boat. Included are Belle
and her husband, an un-Orthodox preacher (another
one, but a nice guy), a retired cop, his floozie,
etc. At a critical spot in the maze of the topsy-turvy
ship, Belle sees a chance to use her skill, via
swimming through a chamber, to save her cohorts.
A pointed dialogue with her husband reveals how
Belle feels her weight has been a burden to their
progress, but underwater, she’s light as a
In the end, Belle is left to the
deep blue sea, but she has made a difference for
the others. That is the strength of The Poseidon
Adventure, and indeed, the whole subgenre:
The way that different personality types handle
life-or-death situations. For Winters, who here
received her 4th and final Oscar nomination, the
movie shows her as a noble woman who refuses to
let physical limitations control her. Take a look
at this series, and you can also see Belle as Winters’
perfect response to the passive, pitiful characters
that had been the norm in her career.
So head out to BAM in April, for the funnest tribute series I’ve seen in a long while. And don’t forget your umbrella.