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THE WINTER OF SHELLEY'S DISCONTENT

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

How 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 Mama’s movie wouldn’t let Mama take time off to fly to New York.

"I’m very angry, but I’m trying not to cry," she stammered into her dressing-room telephone. "Three and a half years on those plays, and I’m not even going to be there for the opening! If it weren’t for the actors’ strike, we would have opened weeks ago. But now I’ve got this movie called ‘What Happened to Helen?’ or ‘Where’s Aunt Helen?’ or something like that –- I don’t know the title, I just pick up my money at the end of the week. Anyway, it’s 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 –- they’d 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 Shelley’s 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? I’ve been clobbered and I’m 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, they’re calling me for my scene. Just say that Shelley is bloody, but unbowed."

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 Christopher Jones.

"That’s 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.

"In 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 didn’t know much about the Committee, or didn’t want to. It was so awful –- if you would name lots of names, you’d be let off. I remember seeing Sterling Hayden, a handsome, beautiful man, three days after he testified. He looked ravaged, destroyed. And I don’t even know what his testimony was. And John Garfield . . . he couldn’t 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 wouldn’t let his double do it. You see, he just couldn’t deal with it.

"I’m 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 I’m just not the kind of movie star that she is. I don’t even diet, and I’m certainly not hung up on youth. This youth thing in Hollywood –- you wouldn’t 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 don’t want to die, but I have to admit I’m no kid. I’m 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 she’s 17 and pushes her husband into a thresher? ‘For God’s sake,’ I said, ‘find somebody who looks like me and let her push my husband into the thresher.’

"You 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 isn’t-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. She’s not such a bad actress, do you think? I mean, she wasn’t 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, don’t you think? Deborah Reynolds. That’s much better, isn’t it?"

CLICK 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.