Early in her career, Marilyn couldn’t afford her own apartment so she looked for a roommate. She found her roomie in Shelley Winters, herself an aspiring starlet. Winters was anything but pretty. As was in vogue at the time, the studio attempted to make Winters glamorous and took several photographs of her in vamp poses, but clearly, the look didn’t suit her. Instead Winters was a seriously talented actress who was given the type of roles Marilyn later coveted.While rooming together in the 1940s and 1951 they also shared a bathing suit for photos (ick) and a mink coat for dates. She claimed she taught Marilyn to act sexy “by tilting her head back, lowering her eyes, and ever-so-slightly opening her mouth” Shelley remained fond of Marilyn after they parted ways. She was heard to quip“Marilyn Monroe and I have two things in common. We’re both blond and we alienated the Italian market.” Her insight into Marilyn’s career savvy led her to state“dumb like a fox was my friend Marilyn.”
Winters recalled an episode where Marilyn was filming the mildly successful film River of No Return, and director Otto Preminger, displeased with her performance, snarled “Why don’t you stick to your original career?”, implying Marilyn had once been a prostitute. Marilyn didn’t react. Her smile froze on her face but later she exacted her revenge. She pretended to sprain her ankle and was “laid up” for several days, ceasing filming and causing the studio thousands of dollars. Never again did Preminger make a crass statement to the clever actress.
Harry Cohn, not the most astute executive producer at 20th Century Fox advised Winters to do the same as he told Marilyn: go home. “If you stay out here, you’ll have a few years as a leading character actress, and then you’ll end up on a hill with your Oscars.” Stubborn like Marilyn, she ignored the so-called advice and stayed in Hollywood. Winters and Marilyn began in the same starlet mode: bombshells with comedy chops, students of the Method. But on-screen Winters took her vulnerability to a darker, braver, less attractive place. With her needling voice and overripe gaze, she particularly excelled at rapacious clingers, albatrosses, and bad mothers. The end result was indeed a hill full of Oscars. Shelley entered into Hollywood film just as the golden age of character acting established itself and she was a master in the field. Cohn, as usual, didn’t see it coming. Actor Ernest Borgnine described her as a wonderful bitch…but nice lady.
Later in life Winters was accredited with brilliant, humorous quotations including:
- “I think onstage nudity is disgusting…but if I were 22 with a great body it would be [an] artistic, progressive experience.”
- I have bursts of being a lady but it doesn’t last long.
- I’m not overweight I’m just nine inches too short.