ColumnsWhat A World

Let It Out: Screen legend Shelley Winters is gone, but her lesson still lingers

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by Nancy Ford

I love the work of the late great screen actress Shelley Winters. She was a dual Oscar winner in the 1960s for her unforgettable roles in the landmark films The Diary of Anne Frank and A Patch of Blue. Good mothers still shudder at her portrayal of the very bad mother in Lolita. But I think she was greatest as Ernest Borgnine’s swimming-for-life wife in The Poseidon Adventure—the first one. The good one.

I especially loved her as the cool grandmother on Roseanne, the mother of Bev (who, you’ll remember, turned out to be yet another of the show’s lesbians).

Admittedly, the fact that she was a hell of a swimmer and played the cool mother of a lesbian on a TV show doesn’t say anything about Winters’ personal attitudes toward gay equality. I have no idea where she stood on our issues. I never met the woman.

But a writer friend of mine did. Prior to her final big breaststroke to heaven, Winters was in Houston to promote one of the books she’d written about her life in old Hollywood.

Having landed an interview, my friend entered the hotel room one afternoon to find Winters reclining, spread out full-blown Hollywood-style, on a chaise lounge. This was years after she had stopped reclining on chaise lounges (or casting couches, for that matter) to convey her sex appeal. There she was, sprawling in flowing silks like a pasha, eating bon-bons or grapes or something a screen legend would suck on while reclining on a chaise lounge in flowing silks in a hotel room in the middle of the afternoon.

Well. My friend turned on her recorder and began the interview, asking Winters this and that, Shelley answering, no doubt, in that matter-of-fact, from-the-gut style she was noted for. After all, this was a woman who was able to fill the pages of not one or two but three books about her life as a Hollywood starlet harlot. She was her own Mommie Dearest. Hell, she was the former roommate of Marilyn Monroe, which may have prompted Winters’ famous quote about herself: “I have bursts of being a lady, but it doesn’t last long.”

But Shelley Winters’ notorious show-biz scandals are not what this story is about.

As the interview progressed, Winters leaned over toward my friend to answer one particular question, shifting her reclining frame presumably for emphasis. But rather than verbally accentuating her answer, she allowed an audible pfffffft to escape from the pillows under her ample, dual Oscar-winning ass.

Yes. Shelley Winters blew one.

“Bursts of being a lady,” indeed. Must have been the grapes.

Apparently, Winters was plenty used to relieving herself of unnecessary discomfort. She was, after all, married—and divorced—no less than three times. Offering no apology or explanation, she finished the interview with my stunned friend without missing a beat. Neither of them stopped to acknowledge the pfffffft that had infiltrated that hotel room that afternoon.

Maybe it was a noise from the hallway. Maybe it was a hiss from the A/C vent. Or maybe Winters had simply reached the blessed point in her life where she recognized her priorities and was unabashedly comfortable with them.

We’ll never know the real story, for sure. But I choose to believe Shelley Winters did indeed blow one. I did, after all, get to experience the playback of that interview—again and again and again and again—like Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl nip slip on TiVo. My friend has saved that tape to use as evidence whenever the opportunity presents itself for her to retell the tale. And believe me, she does retell the tale. And now you can, too!

It doesn’t come up often, but now, whenever I need a word to describe one’s natural passing of gas, instead of using the déclassé “stinker” or “fart” or even the more delicate “fitah” (a term my mother pristinely insisted her children use), I employ the term “Shelley.” As in, “Ewww, who cut the Shelley?”

Right about now, loyal “What a World” readers are probably expecting some moral to this story, some grand lesson to justify the outing of this legendary screen actress as a legendary fitah-blower at a time when we should just allow her to rest in peace.

Very well. I hate to disappoint. Here is what we can learn:

It is never a good idea to hold something inside about yourself that is real and natural—and, yes, God-given—just because it might offend others or embarrass them or make them feel a little uncomfortable. Whether you’re gay or trans or simply a little gassy—whatever it is, let it out! Get it out of your system. Eventually, it’s all going to come out anyway, just as it will eventually all blow over. Most of the time you’ll feel relieved after it’s out there. It might even make a great story after you’re gone.

Because, bottom line, if other people don’t like what you have to share, they can just leave the room. Or light a match.

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