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Shelly Winters vs the Water

A Place in the Sun : April 5
The Night of the Hunter :
April 11
Lolita : April 18
The Poseidon Adventure:
April 25
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 Poseidon Adventure.

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 said.

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 see.

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 feather!

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.

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