THE WINTER OF SHELLEY'S
When I interviewed Shelley Winters for
The New York Times in 1971, she was intent on becoming the next
Tennessee Williams, or at least the next Lillian Hellman. The New
York critics, not sharing her view, savaged her trio of one-act
plays, "One Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger." How did
the Oscar-winning actress take this outrage? As she says below,
"Just say Shelley is bloody, but unbowed." --Guy Flatley
can a baby be born without his mother?" whimpered Shelley Winters.
She was in Hollywood making a bloodbath movie with Debbie
Reynolds, and her "baby" - "One
Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger" - would have to come
into the cold, cold world of Off Broadway that night without Mama
because the producers of Mamas movie wouldnt let Mama
take time off to fly to New York.
very angry, but Im trying not to cry," she stammered
into her dressing-room telephone. "Three and a half years on
those plays, and Im not even going to be there for the opening!
If it werent for the actors strike, we would have opened
weeks ago. But now Ive got this movie called What Happened
to Helen? or Wheres Aunt Helen? or something
like that - I dont know the title, I just pick up my
money at the end of the week. Anyway, its about two women
during the thirties who run a school to turn out Shirley Temples,
and in my next scene I have to stab Debbie Reynolds to death. Poor
Debbie - theyd better not give me a real knife."
As it turned out, a real knife was given
to Shelley that evening - and to "One Night Stands of
a Noisy Passenger" - by the critics. One of the nicest
things Richard Watts had to say about her was that she was a "simply
dreadful dramatist," and George Oppenheimer declared that she
"makes sex so ugly and dull that even the most ardent voyeur
would be turned off by this trio of tawdry peepshows." Other
critics were equally unchivalrous about Shelleys three short,
semi-autobiographical plays, though Clive Barnes did concede that
she demonstrated some skill in handling dialogue.
On the dismal morning after the opening - and three days before
the closing - Shelley was still dizzy from the critical assault.
"What can I tell you? Ive been clobbered and Im
in a daze. Nobody understood my plays. Nobody got my point that
a materialistic society in which everyone looks only after Number
One has to give birth to a thalidomide kid. I have to hang up now,
theyre calling me for my scene. Just say that Shelley is bloody,
Weeks earlier in New York - before
the ill-timed actors strike and before the stabbing of Debbie
and before the superstabbing of Shelley - the budding playwright
was not bloody, but she did look a bit bowed. The pressure of last-minute
rewrites and nervous-making preview performances was taking its
toll. Her blonde hair was only slightly combed, there were circles
beneath her eyes, and she was wearing a not terribly glamorous wrap-around
robe. She yawned a great deal and her eyelids drooped as she tried
to get comfortable on a sofa in her Central Park West apartment.
Nosybodies at previews were convinced that all three of the women
in "One Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger" were at least
partially Shelley. But what really kept them guessing were the identities
of the men in her plays. One of the most tantalizing theories went
this way: the impatient actor who managed to talk a naïve virgin
into bed before she could talk him into Marx was Marlon Brando;
the frightened director who tried in vain to persuade an ambitious
movie star to accompany him to Washington, where he would have to
face the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was Elia Kazan;
and the sullen, semi-illiterate youth who was offered money by a
tough, Oscar-winning actress in return for his stud services was
"Thats nonsense!" Shelley gasped. "But it is
an interesting rumor. No matter what I say, people will still think
I am those women. The plays are autobiographical to a degree. But
the men are me, too. Just as Blanche is Tennessee.
one respect, I was like the girl in the middle play. During the
House Un-American activities period, I was so busy being a starlet
that I didnt know much about the Committee, or didnt
want to. It was so awful - if you would name lots of names,
youd be let off. I remember seeing Sterling Hayden, a handsome,
beautiful man, three days after he testified. He looked ravaged,
destroyed. And I dont even know what his testimony was. And
John Garfield . . . he couldnt live with it. In that last
movie that he made with me ["He Ran All the Way," shown
above], he insisted upon swimming under water, even though he had
a heart condition. He wouldnt let his double do it. You see,
he just couldnt deal with it.
"Im definitely not the actress in the third play. I promise
you that I did not sleep with a man whom I had never met before.
Not on the night I won the Oscar. Maybe some other night. And Im
just not the kind of movie star that she is. I dont even diet,
and Im certainly not hung up on youth. This youth thing in
Hollywood - you wouldnt believe what some of those people
do to stay in shape. Even the Newmans. You go to their house for
dinner and they put just a little bitty piece of meat on your plate
and every time Paul takes a drink, Joanne gives him a look. I mean,
I dont want to die, but I have to admit Im no kid. Im
past 40 now. Do you know that for my new movie they wanted me to
lose a few pounds and make myself up to play the character when
shes 17 and pushes her husband into a thresher? For
Gods sake, I said, find somebody who looks like
me and let her push my husband into the thresher.
take somebody like Doris Day. She must have zillions of dollars,
and yet she gets up every morning and does that cockamamey TV show.
What else would she do? But me, I came to New York at the end of
my seven-year contract at Universal and enrolled at the Actors Studio.
At Universal they used to say that I was temperamental, but if I
was so temperamental, how is it that I did 35 movies for them? I
worked my tail off. I went out there again recently to do a television
show, and they worked us all so fast that we only got three minutes
to go to the john. They have that Disneyland sort of tour there
now and several ladies on the tour saw me dashing toward the john,
so they followed me in. Would you believe that one of the ladies
shoved some paper under the john door and asked me for my autograph?"
Shelley shakes her head, lets loose with an isnt-that-the-limit
roar, and then gets serious. "This movie with Debbie Reynolds
could be quite interesting, I think. I hope Debbie can carry it
off. Shes not such a bad actress, do you think? I mean, she
wasnt so bad in Molly Brown, was she? If she asks
me to make any little suggestions when I get out there, I think
I may suggest that she change her name. No woman her age should
be called Debbie. Deborah would be much more dignified, dont
you think? Deborah Reynolds. Thats much better, isnt
HERE TO READ GUY FLATLEY'S ONE-ON-ONE INTERVIEWS WITH
BARBRA STREISAND, WOODY ALLEN, PAUL BETTANY, AMANDA PEET, JOHN WAYNE,
SUSAN SARANDON, AL PACINO, SHIRLEY MacLAINE, CLINT EASTWOOD, CATHERINE
DENEUVE, JACK BLACK AND MANY OTHER TOP STARS.