1947’s A Double Life was Shelley Winters’ big break.
Playing a small but crucial role, the film gave Shelley a rare opportunity to show she was a sensual blonde who could act. Under the meticulous direction of the great George Cukor, with a nuanced screenplay by husband/wife writing team Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, and co-staring the gentlemanly Ronald Colman, Shelley couldn’t have asked for a better star-making vehicle.
Shelley Winters and Marilyn Monroe
In the years following her success in A Double Life, Shelley became roommates with another young starlet, Marilyn Monroe. According to Shelley, she and Marilyn shared everything, from their Hollywood dreams and aspirations, to mink coats and bathing suits. It’s possible that Shelley, six years older than Marilyn, influenced a critical part of Marilyn’s iconic look, and helped Marilyn out of a tricky situation at the height of her stardom.
You can purchase A Double Life here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot, then go behind the scenes to Shelley’s years as a struggling starlet, and her friendship with Marilyn.
Anthony “Tony” John (Ronald Colman) is a respected stage actor enjoying great success on Broadway in a comedy role. With the play closing soon, a producer friend asks Tony if he’s interested in doing Shakespeare’s Othello as his next show. Tony, aware of how his personal life is always affected by the parts he plays on stage, decides to think it over before accepting such a heavy role. Ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso), still Tony’s good friend and frequent co-star, seconds Tony’s hesitation to play the role, and advises him against it.
Tony meets waitress Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters) at a restaurant late one night during his internal debate over accepting Othello, and the two hook up. Later that night, Tony decides to move forward with Othello, and rehearsals begin. Ex-wife Brita is cast as Desdemona.
Tony’s performance is hailed by audiences and critics alike, but the line between Othello onstage and Tony’s life offstage gets more and more blurred with each performance. The jealousy Tony’s Othello feels for Desdemona and Cassio in the play, follows Tony offstage. He begins projecting that jealous insanity onto Brita and Bill Friend (Edmund O’Brien), the publicity agent for the show.
Life Imitates Art
By the play’s 300th performance, Tony loses touch with reality. He nearly strangles Brita, as Desdemona, to death on stage. Luckily, he snaps back to reality just in time.
By the play’s two year mark, Tony becomes truly dangerous. One night after a performance, while mentally still acting out Othello, Tony goes to Pat’s apartment. She invites him in, but Tony’s behavior gets stranger by the minute. Afraid, Pat tries to get Tony out of her apartment, but it’s too late. He’s completely overcome by Othello, and strangles her to death.
The "Kiss of Death" Murder
When Tony wakes up the next morning, he finds himself sleeping on Brita’s couch with no recollection of murdering Pat.
When Pat’s murder is discovered, the medical examiner says she died by a “kiss of death,” as it’s clear that the murderer held Pat in a sensual embrace and kissed her during the murder. Bill Friend sees a publicity opportunity for the show, and uses Pat’s murder to advertise Othello, drawing parallels between Pat’s “kiss of death” murder and Othello’s “kiss of death” murder of Desdemona in the play.
Tony is enraged by the ad, and tells Bill to immediately pull it. Based on Tony’s over-the-top response, Bill begins to suspect that Tony is Pat’s murderer.
Bill voices his suspicions to the police, and Tony becomes a suspect. Bill and Police Captain Bonner (Joe Sawyer) decide to test Tony by hiring an actress to dress and act like Pat at the restaurant where she and Tony met. From Tony’s emotional reaction to this Pat “double,” it’s clear to Bill and Captain Bonner that Tony is guilty of Pat’s murder. They continue observing him that night in the play, hoping to garner evidence to prove Tony’s guilt.
A Double Life: Tony Realizes the Truth
That night, Tony, as Othello, once again almost strangles Brita as Desdemona, coming closer than ever before to killing her on stage. Tony then realizes that he’s being watched suspiciously by Bill and Captain Bonner in the wings. In a flash, Tony realizes that Othello has taken over his life: he murdered Pat, and continues to put Brita’s life in danger each performance. Tony can’t live with the guilt, and at the end of the play, when Othello stabs himself, Tony stabs himself for real.
Tony dies backstage after confessing to the murder.
And that’s the end of the film.
George Cukor Meets Shirley Schrift
Director George Cukor met Shelley Winters long before casting her in A Double Life (1947). In fact, Cukor was possibly the first of Hollywood’s elite to recognize that Shelley Winters had talent, way back when Shelley was still called Shirley Schrift.
Teenage Shirley was one of countless young hopefuls to audition for Cukor during the two year search for the actress to play Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Shirley, armed with no training or experience, but plenty of ambition and confidence, was convinced she was destined to play Scarlett. She assuredly showed up at New York City’s Grand Central Building to audition:
“Having read that enormous book several times, I decided there was only one person to play Scarlett. ME….I got myself done up in Blanche’s [her older sister] high-heeled shoes and a huge straw hat of my mother’s with real pink flowers picked from the empty lot across the street pinned under it—a regular southern belle. I wobbled into the building, found the office and in my best southern Brooklynese announced to the secretary, ‘Ah’m heah to play Scarlett O’Hara.’
…the secretary must have figured her bosses needed a laugh, so she sent me right in. With complete confidence I slithered in to see the film moguls. They stared at the sight before them—a tall, skinny teenager in a pastel violet dress, an off-the-shoulder bargain-basement special, with a black ribbon tied around my neck and three powder puffs stuffed in each bra cup.”
The other two studio big wigs in the room laughed out loud as young Shirley did her best to impress with her southern Brooklynese accent.
But not George Cukor.
Sensitive to Shirley’s young age and obvious ambition, Cukor shushed his laughing colleagues, ordered Shirley a Coke, and asked about her acting goals and dreams. Perhaps he even sensed a kindred, artistic spirit in the untapped talent of this gutsy newcomer.
Cukor then offered Shirley some invaluable advice: learn the craft of acting in New York—study play acting and speech, gain some experience on the stage—then come to Hollywood. Cukor’s time, care and advice meant the world to young Shirley, and she never forgot it, even after becoming Shelley Winters, movie star:
“I didn’t get the part, true, but Mr. Cukor made me feel as though I had—he was the first person to treat me as if I were really an actress.”
Shelley took Cukor’s advice. She trained at the New Theater School, and gained some stage experience. By the time she caught the eye of Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures, Shelley was a skilled actress who played comedy and drama with equal skill.
Realizing Her Passion
If you remember from my introduction article on Shelley Winters, Shelley married first husband Paul Mayer shortly before signing with Columbia Pictures. But ultimately, Columbia didn’t know how to use Shelley’s unique look and talent. Just as husband Paul came back to the US after his WWII service overseas, Harry Cohn dropped Shelley’s option, releasing her from her contract.
Paul encouraged Shelley to take a hint, and set her acting dreams aside.
And at first, Shelley agreed.
The two made plans to move to Chicago, where Shelley would be a housewife, and Paul a military flight instructor. But long, hard analysis about her passion for acting, and the drift apart that she and Paul both felt since his return from the war, soon led Shelley down a different path:
“In some mysterious way, the decision was out of my hands. I really had no choice, I didn’t want the money so much; I didn’t need the fame…But I had to perform. There was no other way I could live.”
Shelley stayed in Hollywood.
Paul respected her decision, moved back to Chicago, and the two amicably divorced.
The Weather Girl Gets Her Big Break
It’s a good thing that in all her soul searching, Shelley discovered that her passion was for acting itself, not stardom: success in the movies was still a ways off for Shelley Winters.
In fact, Shelley was preparing to move back to New York and pursue a stage career when a gutsy phone call changed the course of her career.
Shelley nervously called famed playwright, Garson Kanin, to see if he’d accept her as understudy to Judy Holliday in Kanin’s Born Yesterday, currently one of the most successful shows on Broadway. Shelley barely knew Kanin, but she figured she had nothing to lose with the request.
When Garson Kanin himself answered the phone, and even remembered Shelley from their chance meeting in Walgreens years before, Shelley got so nervous, all she could do was talk about the weather.
And hang up the phone.
“Oh, it’s the weather girl again,”
Kanin said when Shelley worked up the courage to called him back. Kanin told Shelley his play already had an understudy, but that he’d have George Cukor give her a call to test for a new film, which Kanin and his wife Ruth Gordon wrote the script for.
It was A Double Life.
Shelley gratefully thanked Kanin, but didn’t think he’d actually follow through with setting up this dream opportunity:
“[I knew] they would give the part to Lana Turner or someone like that…I thought he was just trying to let me down easy.”
Shelley Keeps Her Hopes Down
Shelley was beyond surprised when George Cukor’s office contacted her the next day for a reading at Universal. The reading and audition went well, despite Shelley’s best efforts to sabotage her chances: to save herself from disappointment, Shelley convinced herself that there was no way she’d get the role, and almost missed her audition. She showed up hours late after hitching a ride to Universal from comedian Lou Costello. (A Shelley Winters tall tale? I can’t be sure, but it’s a good story.)
Shelley stayed pessimistic about her chances with A Double Life as days went by and she still hadn’t heard from Cukor. She took Cukor’s silence as a negative. Rather than harp on the disappointment, Shelley auditioned for the stage musical, Oklahoma!. She was quickly cast as Ado Annie for the vitality she brought to the stage at her audition.
But wouldn’t you know it, after signing with the Theater Guild to do Oklahoma! on Broadway, George Cukor called and told Shelley that the role in A Double Life was hers.
After so many years without exciting acting opportunities, Shelley Winters now had two plum roles, on opposite sides of the country, set to go into production at the exact same time.
A nice dilemma to have, but a dilemma nonetheless.
Luckily, Cukor and Lawrence Langner of the Theater Guild worked everything out, and Shelley got the best of both worlds: she would film A Double Life in Hollywood before heading to New York for Broadway and Oklahoma!.
Shelley's Nerves on A Double Life
Though George Cukor didn’t initially recognize her from that long ago Gone with the Wind audition, he was just as reassuring with Shelley—nervous about her first big film role—as he had been over a decade earlier.
The reason for Shelley’s nerves was her handsome co-star, Ronald Colman.
The English Colman, a World War I hero with an impressive stage and film career that dated back to silents, was revered for both his classy looks and acting skill. Shelley, after admiring Ronnie onscreen for so many years, couldn’t believe she was now acting alongside him.
Shelley was so stunned that she couldn’t talk in Coleman’s presence.
As Shelley shared in an interview [aff. link]:
“The first day on the set, Ronnie introduced himself, and we started to rehearse. I was so terrified; suddenly acting with Ronald Colman in the flesh…I had a Brooklyn accent–I was the kid from Brooklyn who had finally gotten a big Hollywood part and was absolutely dumbfounded.”
The simple exchange between Colman’s and Shelley’s characters in their first scene filmed involved him asking her, a waitress, how the chicken cacciatore was. All Shelley had to say was “Well, it’s your stomach.” But the words just wouldn’t come:
“Would you believe we rehearsed for an hour and I couldn’t get it right? Then we did ninety-six—NINETY-SIX—takes. Even for those days that was a record. Everything imaginable went wrong. I stumbled in, I poured coffee on Ronald Colman’s hands, I poured coffee in his lap…I poured the water in the glass, and it overflowed. The next take I broke the glass…I kept four prop men and the Wardrobe Department cleaning up after me. It wasn’t funny; it was a nightmare.”
Shelley's Friend Ronnie
Shelley was certain that Cukor and Colman viewed her as “the village idiot,” and that Cukor would have her replaced.
But then the unexpected happened: Shelley’s chivalrous co-star invited her to lunch. After a nervous start, Ronnie made Shelley feel at ease, and she began to relax. When they went back to the set, Shelley now viewed Colman as a friend. She delivered her lines flawlessly. From there on out, Shelley was a dream to work with. Shelley’s new friend Ronnie even taught her a few invaluable things about film acting:
“I remember Ronnie taught me how to hit marks. You do it technically with your feet and then you feel it, when the light is the hottest, then you are in the right place. You develop a kind of seventh sense. If you see a shadow on someone else’s face, you know you’re not on your mark. They never teach you that when you’re a starlet in school, and that’s exactly what they should teach you.”
Keeping One Foot on the Ground
Thanks to George Cukor’s status as one of the most important directors in Hollywood, filming was done sequentially. Shelley appreciated this luxury, which allowed her to build her character in accordance with the progression of the storyline. Even the Othello scenes in the film were shot in order, as if Colman and Signe Hasso were actually playing their scenes as Othello and Desdemona on stage.
Other than Shelley’s initial difficulties getting over her awe of Colman, there were only two other hitches during filming. One was the insistence of the Hays Office that Ronnie keep one foot on the ground—and that said foot be shown on camera—while he strangles Shelley’s character on her bed.
That, the Hays Office arbitrarily decided, made it morally acceptable for Pat to have a man she wasn’t married to in her bedroom.
Not Too Glamorous
The other hitch was Shelley’s disappointment over George Cukor’s insistence that she not be too glamorous in her role. According to Shelley, Cukor:
“would never let me wear false eyelashes, and I used to go in the corner and cry because I wanted to look glamorous. He wouldn’t even let me curl my own eyelashes: here I was finally in a Hollywood movie, and I looked awful!”
Shelley may have felt unglamorous, but she’s an absolute knockout in the film. It’s true that the waitress uniform, which Shelley wears for a good chunk of her scenes, is not the fanciest of costumes. But Shelley’s platinum hair, styled similar to Rita Hayworth’s celebrated main, does add glamour to the role. Not to mention the lacy nightgown Shelley’s character wears on the unfortunate night she lets the murderous Tony into her apartment. Indeed, Shelley’s glamour, in this, her first great screen role, surely influenced Universal’s decision to market her as their resident blonde bombshell in the ensuing years.
A Double Life: A Successful Film
A Double Life was a different kind of film for George Cukor. It broke from the sophisticated comedy mold Cukor so excelled at (think The Philadelphia Story (1940)). And this haunting drama, with Cukor’s careful direction, beautiful film noir cinematography, and the nuanced performances of each cast member, was rewarded at the box office—earning $1.7 million in the US—and during awards season. A Double Life won two of the four Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Actor for Ronald Colman.
The whole cast and crew rooted for this classy gentleman to win the Oscar. And Ronnie, after three previous nominations, more than deserved the prestigious accolade for his stellar work in his dual role in A Double Life. The gracious Colman reportedly cried with joy over the long-awaited victory. To all visitors to the Colman home after his win, Ronnie would jokingly point to his Oscar on the mantle and say:
“I hope you’ve noticed how inconspicuously I’ve placed it!”
No one was happier for Ronald Colman than his grateful co-star, Shelley Winters, who never forgot Ronnie’s kindness and help in making her first prestigious film such a success.
Shelley Winters and Marilyn Monroe
Not too long after completing A Double Life, Shelley Winters and Marilyn Monroe became roommates. Shelley most consistently puts her time rooming with Marilyn around 1951, though she sometimes included the late 1940s in the date range. The two starlets were, according to Shelley, roommates “on and off for about a year.”
Shelley Winters and Marilyn Monroe: Shelley's Embellishments
Some of Shelley’s Marilyn anecdotes must be taken with a grain of salt.
Like for instance, the time Shelley says that she and roommate Marilyn went to a preview of Marlon Brando’s 1954 film, On the Waterfront, and James Dean showed up afterwards to freak them out with a game of “chicken” on his motorcycle…
Sounds like an anecdote with at least one too many Hollywood legends in it to be taken as fact, and a bit more like the plot of Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
And, there’s also the fact that by 1954, when Shelley says the crazy night occurred, Marilyn was a megastar and married to Joe DiMaggio.
Sorry Shelley, it doesn’t add up.
Shelley Winters and Marilyn Monroe: Roommates and Best Buds
Embellishments aside, many of Shelley’s Marilyn stories ring true. Or, at the very least, there’s no evidence to refute them: it’s fun imagining Shelley Winters and Marilyn Monroe furnishing their shared apartment by pooling their meager starlet earnings, and making lists of which men they’d each like to add to the notches on their belts.
According to Shelley, the men on Marilyn’s list were all intellectuals, and not one was under fifty.
The Striped Swimsuit of Shelley Winters and Marilyn Monroe
Shelley says that she and Marilyn even shared a few articles of clothing, specifically mentioning a striped bathing suit. And indeed, photos from circa 1947 can be found of each starlet wearing the bathing suit Shelley describes. According to Shelley, this was another case of not having the funds individually to buy a cute swimsuit for modeling photos, but together, she and Marilyn did. They took turns wearing the stylish striped suit on their respective shoots.
Shelley Winters and Marilyn Monroe Share a Mink
More extravagantly, Shelley and Marilyn went in together on a mink coat, and alternated wearing it to premieres and other ritzy events. Shelley describes the mink as:
“the most beautiful one I ever had. If you see pictures of Marilyn or me around 1950 in a mink coat, you’ll know it’s the same one. Huge turned-back cuffs, a stand-up collar and ankle length. I still have this coat; only now the minks are a little tired…”
Shelley later said that she didn’t realize at the time of their friendship just what a role model she was for Marilyn, who was six years younger. It’s possible that Marilyn’s famous decision to train with the Actors Studio in New York was influenced by her friend Shelley, who made the same decision a few years earlier.
The Open-Mouthed Smile of Shelley Winters and Marilyn Monroe
There are a few more ways Shelley claims to have influenced Marilyn.
According to Shelley Winters, the open-mouthed smile Marilyn became so famous for was actually something that Marilyn picked up from Shelley. Shelley’s film career took off before Marilyn’s, and one day, Marilyn came to visit her friend on the set of 1948’s Larceny. Shelley played yet another sensual blonde in the film, and Marilyn noticed that Shelley consistently smiled with her mouth open at the end of each scene. She asked Shelley why she did this unique smile:
“Well, I have slightly buck teeth,’ I told her, ‘and when I smile with my mouth open, you can’t tell.’ Marilyn thought it was very sexy and used that smile forever…I gave it to her with pleasure. I hated it on me.”
Marilyn does sport the open-mouth smile before 1948, the year Shelley says that Marilyn adopted the look from her.
But at the end of the day, it’s still a great story, and not necessarily an untrue one: Marilyn’s use of that open-mouthed smile did increase over the years after she met Shelley. Perhaps Shelley was an influence on Marilyn’s decision to use the smile more, and make it her trademark.
Shelley Winters and Marilyn Monroe in Canada
Another way Shelley claims to have influenced Marilyn occurred on the set of Marilyn’s 1954 film, River of No Return.
Production of this Western was particularly difficult for Marilyn. Shot on location in the Canadian wilds, it was a physically demanding set. Adding to the difficulties of location shooting was the fact that Marilyn and her director, Otto Preminger, didn’t get along. Preminger, famous for unleashing his tyrannical temper on film sets, chose Marilyn as his unlucky target on River of No Return.
Otto had his reasons—Marilyn’s difficulty remembering her lines and frequent tardiness could not have been easy to work with. But his treatment of Marilyn was beyond cruel.
On top of all the drama with Preminger, Marilyn broke her ankle during filming.
Or did she?
A Heartbreaking Scene
Shelley Winters was filming her own epic Western, Saskatchewan (1954), at the same time and on the same location, and frequently visited her buddy Marilyn on the River of No Return set. One day Shelley ventured over while Marilyn was filming a river rafting scene with a child actor.
What Shelley witnessed was heartbreaking:
‘There were about 300 tourists watching the filming and listening to what was going on. Otto Preminger was standing on a tall ladder with a bullhorn, directing her [Marilyn] and the little boy. I immediately gathered that they’d been at the short scene all day, and now Marilyn did what she always did when she was confused. She just opened her mouth and smiled her sexy smile at anything in sight. At the tiller, the little boy, the camera, whatever.
Preminger was looking slightly crazed because he was losing the light…As they fixed Marilyn’s makeup, he began to use dreadful language, implying to an imaginary friend…that she [Marilyn] was so untalented she should stick to her ‘original’ profession. Marilyn never looked up; her fixed smile just became more frozen.”
Preminger’s insults were so bad, the young child actor playing the scene with Marilyn tried to divert Preminger’s fixation on her by flubbing his own lines.
It didn’t work.
Preminger continued humiliating Marilyn as 300 tourists and fans watched.
Shelley Plants An Idea
At the end of that terrible day’s shooting, Shelley helped Marilyn off the raft. Marilyn had to step from the raft to a pier before getting to land again. She slipped a little in the process.
Shelley caught her friend before a serious fall could occur, and warned Marilyn to be careful:
“Watch your step, you can break a leg on this slippery wet pier.”
With Shelley’s warning, an idea was planted.
Shelley and Marilyn drove back to their hotel together. When they arrived, suddenly Marilyn was in pain and couldn’t get out of the limo. Marilyn told Shelley she broke her ankle.
The tearful Marilyn was carried to her hotel room, where a local doctor examined her ankle. But he could find no break…
Marilyn Gets Her Way
According to Shelley, Marilyn’s tears continued, and she insisted on getting a walking cast that extended from her ankle to just below her knee. Darryl Zanuck, worried about his investment in the film and his star, sent another doctor over to get a second opinion. The second doctor offered the same opinion as the first—no break. A sprain perhaps, but no break.
But Marilyn was adamant that she needed that cast. And being Marilyn Monroe, who could refuse her? The doctors ignored their own diagnosis, and put that unnecessary cast on.
Shelley Winters and Marilyn Monroe: Partners in Crime
Shelley says that Marilyn returned to the set the next day limping, making sure that Otto Preminger, the sympathetic cast and crew, and fans observing, saw her leg in the cast before she covered it with her costume. Then, as Shelley recounts, Marilyn sweetly asked Preminger how he would like her to play the scene.
There was no way Otto Preminger would dare insult her now.
With the cast, crew, and crowd on Marilyn’s side, Preminger would be booed off the set if he now treated Marilyn any way less than gentlemanly.
“Dumb? Like a fox was my young friend Marilyn,”
Shelley remembered. That night, the two friends celebrated Marilyn’s victory on the dance floor, with Marilyn occasionally forgetting that she was dancing on a broken ankle.