My current Top 5

My current Top 5

12/20/2011

Best Actress 1951: Shelley Winters in "A Place in the Sun"

1951 was a strange year for the Best Actress line-up – besides Eleanor Parker, Shelley Winters also managed a nomination for a performance that can be considered a borderline-case between leading and supporting. Her Alice Tripp is an easy to overlook character, not only because Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor are so much more fascinating to look at but also because Alice herself is the kind of woman almost everyone overlooks because her exterior is basically as uninteresting as her interior. But in the case of Shelley Winters, the category placement is less controversial than in the case of Eleanor Parker – Shelley Winter’s character is, in some way, the motor of A Place in the Sun who always dominates the tone of the story and the direction it takes and whose ultimate fate also influences and shapes the second part of the movie even when her character is already gone. It seems as if every character in A Place in the Sun wants her to go away just as quickly as everyone behind the camera but even with all her flaws, there is one thing about Alice Tripp that cannot be denied: her persistence and her (ironically) longevity. Everybody may want her to go away but Shelley Winters and Alice Tripp are determined to stay, no matter what. Ultimately, both women will lose the fight against this constant disinterest but their cry for attention is still admirable.

I assume that I am not the only one who is always…let’s say surprised when it is mentioned that Shelley Winters actually began her career as a ‘blonde bombshell’ before she turned herself into a serious character actress. Shelley Winters has so completely embedded herself into the public memory as the open-mouthed, loud and somewhat overweight mother/grandmother that it’s just impossible to imagine that she could really be mostly praised for her looks at one time or another. Apparently, A Place in the Sun was the important turning point in her career when she could show her serious dedication as an actress when she brought the role of Alice Tripp to life – a lonely, stubborn, sometimes annoying but ultimately tragic young girl working in a factory and starting an ill-fated relationship with Montgomery Clift’s George Eastman. There is certainly nothing glamorous or bombshell-like about Shelley Winters in this part – her face almost constantly reduced to a variety of grumpy sadness or anger, her appearance as plain as possible, she fulfills the task of being the complete opposite of Elizabeth Taylor’s Angela Vickers who embodies beauty, elegance, class and sex-appeal. But even though Shelley Winters has to play second fiddle to Elizabeth Taylor when it comes to filling the movie with sexual tension or breathtaking sensitivity, she does have the benefit of actually being given a much more emotional and demanding character – the only problem is: nobody really cares. Shelley Winters and Eleanor Parker may be the two ‘supporting girls that could’ in this year but they also share another similarity: they play characters that are experiencing great personal tragedy (Alice Tripp even much more than Mary McLeod) but are stuck in movies that are never interested in them. Eleanor Parker has to learn that her life as it used to be is falling apart in just a few moments and this one day at the police station will change everything for her forever – but all this is never presented as Mary’s tragedy but only serves as a catalyst for the actions of Kirk Douglas’s character. In this way, Eleanor Parker is basically reduced to a plot device – there is so much to say about Mary McLeod, so much to discover and so many possibilities but none are ever used. Part of the blame here also falls on Eleanor Parker who added to this imbalance between herself and Kirk Douglas by reducing her character to a variety of teary-eyed reaction shots. Shelley Winters cannot be blamed the same way because she obviously invests a lot of thought and dedication into Alice Tripp and was truly able to turn her into the into the movie’s most deciding character. But just like Eleanor Parker, she also faces an almost lost battle because she, too, gets mostly treated like a plot device and very often it appears that Shelley Winters was as unwanted to the movie makers as Alice Tripp to George Eastman.

Shelley Winters’s performance is such an interesting one to observe because there are certainly few performances that are so dominant and lasting and at the same time so invisible and feeble. Ultimately, Alice Tripp is less a character than a presence in A Place in the Sun – she influences the story and always lingers in the back of George’s and the audiences’ minds and is able to dominate the story because her fate (or better: fates) is (are) always influencing the actions and thoughts of everyone else in this movie. But this is less the achievement of Shelley Winters but of the screenplay which in Alice Tripp created a character everything seems to circle around but who is always considered much more noteworthy for what she does than for who she is. There is a lot that is happening to Alice Tripp in her short on-screen time: she falls in love with a guy, she has to see how he slowly turns away from her, she has to face being pregnant out of wedlock and in the end (or better: in the middle) of the movie she has to realize that George would be much happier if she simply did not exist at all. All of this sounds like a heartbreaking and memorable role – and it is: Shelley Winters actually adds much more pathos to this role than expected and it’s commendable that she is not afraid to show Alice as an often impossible, difficult and annoying woman. But she suffers from the problem that A Place in the Sun tells the story of George Eastman – and not of Alice Tripp. It’s always interested in his actions, in his thoughts and in his fate – and because of this, it takes almost the same attitude towards Alice Tripp as George does: she’s a problem that needs to be solved. Considering all the tragic incidents that happen to Alice, she remains a strangely pale character. As previously mentioned she is feeble and dominating. Feeble in regards to the fact that she never becomes her own person and always only exists in connection to George – when Alice is visiting a doctor and talks to him about her pregnancy, Shelley Winters clearly shows all her misery and suffering but the structure of the movie never allows her to step into the foreground because A Place in the Sun makes it clear that much more interesting than anything Alice has to say is a close-up of George, waiting in the car, prompting the audience to wonder what he will do now and how Alice’s pregnancy will affect him. This constant connection to George is also the reason why the character is so strong because she always influences the actions of A Place in the Sun. So, yes, Alice Tripp is a very fascinating case just because it’s so rare to see a character so strongly dominating her movie while constantly remaining so pale and uninteresting. When George arrives late for a date in her home, the following scene so perfectly sums up everything that A Place in the Sun is doing to Shelley Winters and Alice Tripp: when she delivers a moving speech and talks about their relationship, the camera is not once interested in her face but always stays on her back to focus exclusively on how George will react to her words. So, Alice Tripp is a lot: a presence, a plot device, a catalyst – but never a character.

So, Shelley Winters basically lost the fight before she could begin it since she faces a director and a script that is obviously never interested in Alice or Shelley. But even despite this, Shelley Winters never went the easy route in her performance but still realized that it’s worth a shot and did her best to get the most out of her material. As stated in the beginning, she lacks glamour and obvious appeal in her part but she does possess a certain sweetness and friendliness that makes it easy to understand why George would be attracted to her for a short period of time before losing his interest again just as quickly. Shelley Winters is not trying to win any sympathy with her role even though it would be very easy – she is not afraid to show Alice as a woman whom the audience could easily detest despite all the tragic things that are happening to her. Since the movie makes it so easy to sympathize with Clift’s George, Shelley Winters can easily be seen as the intruder, a woman whose nagging and demanding could become tiresome very soon, no matter how justified her demands may be. Shelley Winters manages to turn Alice into a very believable character who somehow neither receives any sympathy nor any hate but who ultimately always remains the pale, almost unnoticeable girl nobody ever seems to think of except when her action are interfering with the lives of somebody else. This appears to be Alice’s tragic fate and Shelley Winters was brave enough not to try to cover this but emphasize it in her work. Alice Tripp may mostly be an invisible presence in A Place in the Sun but Shelley Winters gave her a face and a voice that haunts the viewer for the entire story. Her sad expressions, almost completely covered in darkness during her and George’s ride on the lake, her anger when she calls George on the phone after her left her to celebrate with Angela while Alice remains alone at home or her desperation when there is no judge to marry them are all done beautifully and memorably despite appearing so insignificant at the same time. Shelley Winters did her best to create Alice as the complete opposite to Elizabeth Taylor and, just like Alice, refused to be ignored for the sake of a more beautiful and fascinating appearance. Shelley Winters performance works almost in contrast to A Place in the Sun because her work always calls for attention and makes the viewer want to know more about her while A Place in the Sun does its best to constantly push her in the background for the sake of its main character. In this way, she succeeded in turning Alice into a pitiful, heartbroken and sadly neglected person. She also triumphed in the difficult aspect of making it believable that Alice knows that she cannot hold a man like George forever while desperately trying to at the same time. Shelley Winters shows that Alice is aware of George’s disinterest and very often it appears that she does not even love him herself, that she was attracted to him for a short moment only, just like George to her, but she combines this with her longing to have him forever, not just because she wants to have a husband and a father for her child but also because, in some ways, she still loves him and hopes that, some day, he will feel the same. Shelley Winters portrays this nervousness, this determination, this naivety and this intelligence with clear precision and made the part of Alice seem much easier than it actually is. She willingly portrayed Alice as the aforementioned `problem that needs to be solved` without trying to come out at the end as a poor victim of circumstances and her own doings. Alice Tripp certainly deserved to be treated better for all her trouble – by George Eastman and by George Stevens. But Shelley Winters understood the structure of the role and A Place in the Sun and settled for the little chances she was given – and filled them with touching poignancy.

In the end, it seems almost fitting that Shelley Winters thought that Ronald Colman called out her name as the Best Actress of 1951 during Academy Awards night and was almost on the stairs leading up to the stage before she was called back – like Alice, she got her hopes up only to realize that, in the end, nobody really wanted her there. But also like Alice, she refused to be pushed aside too easily – Shelley Winter’s portrayal works in great harmony with the character of Alice Tripp and while she cannot overcome the limitations of the role and the resistance of the screenplay that always considers her a mere plot device, she still got the most out of what she had been given. Alice Tripp may be feeble because of the way the movie makers presented her and only strong whenever she changes the direction of the movie – but this strength is also owed to the sensitive portrayal of Shelley Winters. Ultimately, Shelley Winters does suffer from the sheer fact that she simply could not turn Alice Tripp into more than what George Stevens would allow her (and this is rather little) and often Alice also does feel too one-dimensional in her attempts to get George to marry her. But if Alice is a plot device, then Shelley Winters made sure that she would at least be a beautifully realized one. For all, she receives



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5 comments:

dinasztie said...

Now this is a great review! :) I always wanted to see her. I imagine I would love her.

Now there's only Kate left until Vivien. I suppose your review of Vivien will be a brilliant Christmas present for all of us. Just a hunch... :D

Louis Morgan said...

I would probably go higher, although I do not really disagree with your review exactly.

JC said...

I agree with your review, but I myself would have given it a higher grade. 4 or 4.5 if I'm generous. :)

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I don't like Shelley Winters much, generally or in this specifically and even though it's not Liz's finest work I think she'd have been a much worthier nominee from this film. It does amuse me how this would hardly be considered a leading performance today.

Anonymous said...

I think all of this is not right