Shelley Winters wins Academy Award for her role in "The Diary of Anne Frank"
The actress Shelley Winters was born Shirley Schrift in St. Louis in 1922 (some sources say 1920), moving with her family to Brooklyn when she was a young girl. In New York, the future actress soon developed an interest in the movies and in Broadway, never going to school again on Wednesday afternoons after she discovered the existence of Wednesday matinees.
Winters modeled, worked in the Borscht Belt, fought for stage roles, and was eventually noticed by a Hollywood scout. When she was in her early 20s, the Hollywood star-making machine was portraying her as a blonde bombshell and casting her in a series of rather forgettable movies. She won her first serious reviews for her role in A Double Life (1947) in which she was strangled by a callous boyfriend. Yearning to be taken seriously, Winters appeared frequently as a tragic murder victim. She had to convince director George Stevens of her ability to appear unglamorous to get him to cast her as the pregnant factory girl who would be drowned by Montgomery Clift so that he could marry the beautiful Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951).
Although she was a regular subject of celebrity gossip, Winters took her craft quite seriously. She treasured the talented directors with whom she worked and was a longtime follower of the Actors Studio and its form of method acting. Her world was full both of Hollywood's leading men and serious intellectuals. In her memoir, for instance, she recalls how Norman Mailer helped prepare her for the Place in the Sun role by offering her a tutorial on An American Tragedy, the Theodore Dreiser novel upon which the movie was based.
When George Stevens, who had directed A Place in the Sun, asked Winters to play Mrs. Van Daan, the wife and mother of the Dutch Jewish family that hid from the Nazis with Anne Frank's family in an attic during World War II, the actress eagerly accepted. She fully felt the importance of sharing the lessons of human cruelty and human dignity contained within Anne Frank's tragic story. Winters later called The Diary of Anne Frank her "most important film" and attended its New York premiere with Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King, Jr., and their wives.
Playing Mrs. Van Daan sharpened Winters' perceptions of anti-Semitism and the long history of Jewish suffering. In her memoir, she recalled that on the evening of the last day of shooting for the film, she spoke at an Israel bonds event, asking the audience of successful Los Angeles Jews: "Who knows when you or your children or grandchildren will need the country of Israel?" The event raised millions of dollars. On April 4, 1960, Winters won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Mrs. Van Daan. Some years later, she donated the Oscar statuette to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam.
After Anne Frank, Winters portrayed numerous mother roles, Jewish and otherwise, winning her second academy award for A Patch of Blue (1965), in which she portrays a bigoted mother who tries to separate her blind daughter from the black man (Sidney Poitier) who befriends her. Her last Academy Award nomination came for her role in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) in which she plays a Jewish grandmother who dies in a successful effort to lead her fellow passengers on a swim to safety.
Winters became deeply engaged in politics and the Civil Rights movement, working with Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. In the 1980s, Winters wrote two memoirs, which recounted her experiences in the movies and on stage, her two brief marriages (one to an Italian movie star and one to an Italian-American movie star) and her numerous affairs with many of Hollywood's leading men. Winters became a particularly popular guest on television talk shows where she delighted audiences with tales of her sexual liaisons and her willingness to take on other guests whom she found sexist or condescending. She appeared in over 100 movies and never stopped acting. In the 1990s, she played the recurring role of Roseanne Barr's grandmother on Roseanne.
Shelley Winters died on January 14, 2006 in Beverly Hills.
To learn more about Shelley Winters, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
Sources: Shelley Winters, Shelley, also Known as Shirley (New York, 1980); Shelley Winters, Shelley II: The Middle of My Century (New York, 1989); www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0148797.html; New York Times, January 15, 2006.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Shelley Winters wins Academy Award for her role in "The Diary of Anne Frank"." (Viewed on May 11, 2021) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/apr/04/1960/shelley-winters>.