Over a six-decade (and counting) career, Brooklyn-born Shelley Winters has proven to be a highly prolific, galvanic presence on stage and screen. As a teenager, she auditioned for the coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara in her thick "Noo Yawk" accent, prompting director George Cukor to suggest she consider college. Undaunted, Winters persisted and landed an understudy job for the 1940 Broadway production of "The Time of Your Life". The following year, she made her Broadway debut in "The Night Before Christmas". A voluptuous bottle blonde, the actress soon caught the attention of talent scouts and was put under contract by Columbia Pictures in 1943. Underutilized, Winters auditioned for and landed a role in "Knickerbocker Holiday" (1944) at United Artists upsetting studio head Harry Cohn who eventually dropped her option.
After Columbia released her, George Cukor came to Winters' rescue, casting her in a major part in "A Double Life" (1947). The film proved a breakthrough, offering her a meaty role as a buxom waitress who falls for an actor (Ronald Coleman) gearing up to play Othello. Additionally, it provided Winters with the first of her many memorable on-screen death scenes. Before signing a seven-year contact with Universal on strength of her work, she returned to Broadway to play Ado Annie (the girl who can't say no) in the hit stage musical "Oklahoma!".
Once back in Hollywood and working at Universal, Winters became typecast as, in her words, "the bad blonde bimbo usually going up against the sweet brunette". She fared slightly better as the tarty wife of a slow-witted mechanic in 1949's "The Great Gatsby" and cut a fine figure as a dance hall girl torn between Charles Drake and James Stewart in the fine Western "Winchester '73" (1950). Winters fought hard to land the role of the mousy factory worker who falls for a cad in George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun" (1951). The director initially did not want to cast her because of her brassy screen persona. Winters met with him, dressed down, without make-up. Stevens was impressed enough but asked her to test for the role which the actress managed to avoid. The director eventually gave her the part and elicited one of her finest screen portrayals which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. The downside was that it created a new screen persona for Winters: that of the frowsy, blowsy harridan. She embodied these characteristics in such acclaimed films as "Executive Suite" (1954) and "The Big Knife" (1955). Charles Laughton also tapped into that vein when he cast her as the lusty widow of a bank robber who falls victim to a charismatic con (Robert Mitchum) in the superb "Night of the Hunter" (also 1955).
Feeling a need to reinvigorate her career, Winters took four years away from Hollywood to study at the Actors Studio and return to Broadway as the wife of a drug addict in "A Hatful of Rain" (1956). When she ventured back to L.A., she embarked on a career as a character player with roles like the loquacious Mrs. Van Daan in George Stevens' screen adaptation of "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959), for which she picked up a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Winters made an indelible impression as the pathetically lovelorn Charlotte Haze in "Lolita" (1962). The 60s saw her undertake a string of memorable roles, the best being her Oscar-winning turn as the bigoted Southern mother of a blind girl in "A Patch of Blue" (1965).
Since the late 60s, however, her work has been in substandard vehicles, partly from her seemingly endless stream of projects. Winters had lent her considerable talents to roles that bordered on camp ("Who Slew Auntie Roo?" and "What's the Matter With Helen?" both 1971) to memorable (her Oscar-nominated turn as an elderly former swimming champion in "The Poseidon Adventure" in 1972 and the Machiavellian agent in "S.O.B." in 1981). Among her more recent work was the accompanist to a motley group of tap dancers in "Stepping Out" (1991) and a lovely cameo as the wife of the dying John Gielgud in Jane Campion's "The Portrait of a Lady" (1996). Perhaps ironically, though, despite accolades, status as one of the leading teachers and practitioners of "the Method", over 100 films and numerous stage credits and two volumes of memoirs, Winters became best known to an entirely new generation for her six-year (1991-97) recurring role as Nana Mary on the hit ABC sitcom "Roseanne".