As a kid, going to the movies with some highly versed, critically attuned picture people, I noticed there was one revered acting word that kept cropping up, one that they would inevitably link to work they admired. The word was “courageous.” The best performances, they said, were turned out by “courageous actors.”

At first, I didn’t get it. For years, really, I struggled to understand what could make an actor “courageous.” Outside of putting him or her self in a place of physical danger, when applied to a performer, the term didn’t make sense to me. Was it a figure of speech? A short cut or piece of inside lingo?

And then finally I felt it. I can’t remember if it was Lolita or Next Stop, Greenwich Village or Blume in Love or A Place in the Sun or A Patch of Blue, but watching Shelley Winters – who I always admired but never quite knew why – I suddenly understood. Not intellectually, but on the gut level. What I saw was an actress throwing herself body and soul into emotional largesse, unafraid to play at a level of intense vulnerability.

Sometimes Shelley was so despairing that it scared me. And I don’t mean to say that her characters simply suffered – any good actor could simply suffer – Shelley managed to add to that suffering hidden, often contradictory aspects of her characters’ personalities. But while another less gifted actor might let all the colors muddy the palette, Shelley wrangled her conflicting streams of passion like a conductor leading a hundred-piece orchestra. The feelings she evinced were not the safe, well-trod emotions that words could put fences around. Rather, they always seemed fresh and specific and utterly independent of timeworn acting clichés. Upon closer inspection, I began to understand further, intellectually this time. Shelley was scouting new ground. Sometimes it didn’t work, but she always took the risk. She took the risk because she was brave. She was a courageous actress.

But she wasn’t operatic. Her largesse wasn’t about size; it was about reality. Because of Shelley’s conflicting streams, she could create characters that looked so ridiculous, and at the same time, so credible. Despite their theatricality, they’re never broad. Her Charlotte Haze in Lolita is a perfect example. In the clip I’ve chosen (which doesn’t really get going until four minutes in), notice how Shelley plays it just a little too big, like a whining young girl, and then, surprisingly, instantly interrupts our feeling of incredulity with an expression of yearning, or humanizing gesture of kindness. The conflict produces a rich character, full of dynamic oppositions – and Kubrick knew it. He let the camera hold on her in a tight, unyielding close up, without music, and gave her little by way of ambient sound. Shelley’s alone out there. But Kubrick knew she could handle it. She could handle anything.

Shelley Winters, one of my favorite actors, died four years ago yesterday, at the age of 85.


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