Hollywood’s Most Passionate Loves—Shelley Winters & Vittorio Gassman
At the Academy Awards last March, a young lady of apparent culture and refinement sat demurely in the audience, a picture of subdued charm in a pale blue gown.
She was a candidate for the highest honor Hollywood can bestow—the coveted Oscar.
When Vivien Leigh’s name was called as the winner, the audience eyed the girl in blue and held its collective breath. But there were no tantrums, no temperament, no tears.
Instead, the new Shelley Winters serenely left the Pantages theater and graciously shrugged, “It’s wonderful she won. I’m glad the suspense is over. I have nothing more to say.”
Shelley had nothing more to say?
This is the new Shelley Winters who currently is the talk over 5 o clock olives among the Cadillac set in glitter-glitter land. And behind the movie queen that night of the Academy Awards strode the reason for the metamorphosis of the blonde bombshell—29-year-old Vittorio Gassman who is tall, dark and handsome, just like in the movies.
Harried directors tried it . . . important studio executives tried it . . . scolding gossip columnists tried it. But where all else failed, Vittorio Gassman has tamed Shelley Winters.
Shelley, as lovers of the cinema know, used to bustle about in baseball caps, shorts and no make-up. The tales of how she pulled fireworks both off and on her movie sets are legendary in the magic city. In those hectic days, Shel went with Farl, as they say in Hollywood. That means Farley Granger.
Then the girl from Brooklyn decided to Tour Europe. Besides Culture and Broadening Travel, Miss Winters found love. At a theater in Rome last September, she met Gassman, one of the five top movie and stage idols of Italy. They had a passionate trans-oceanic courtship and finally decided to culminate it in marriage.
Shelley now wears skirts and lipstick. She smiles sweetly at her directors and is the model of decorum. She even has decided to live in Italy six months out of the year, and she doesn’t tablehop any more.
Gassman says he can offer no recipe for the change in Shelley because, as he says, “She is the same as when I first met her, and I did not know her before, so how could I know how I changed her,” which makes sense.
Therefore to discover the secret of this passion of the plaster city we have to flashback to this exclusive behind-the-scenes story of their romance.
The Italian Lothario was born in Genoa, Italy, Sept. 1, 1922. His father is a well-to-do construction engineer. Vittorio played basketball and studied to be a lawyer at the University of Rome.
Then he switched to acting. He studied at the Academy of Dramatic Arts for two years and turned professional. Since then he has starred in 92 plays in nine years, and is regarded as one of the top stage actors in Italy. His name has been up in lights in Italy for a long time for such stage successes as A Streetcar Named Desire, All My Sons, Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It.
He also has. been a leading idol of Italy’s silver screen since 1946. He has appeared in 19 movies, including one that was popular in this country, Bitter Rice. He was the villain who attacked the leggy and luscious Silvano Mangano.
Another picture, in which he co-starred with Hollywood’s Geraldine Brooks, Streets of Sorrow, will be released in the United States soon.
Thus Shelley was impressed with the handsome profile when her escort, Frank Latimore, an American actor living in Rome, introduced her to Vittorio in the lobby of the Spanish Ballet theater.
“The first time we met didn’t count,” Gassman said recently in his first interview after arriving in Hollywood.
“It was a very conventional meeting. And I told a lie. I said that I liked her in A Place In The Sun, when I hadn’t even seen it.”
The next day, Latimore tossed a party for Shelley and invited Gassman. The day after that, Vittorio decided to telephone her for a date.
Shelley, being Shelley, hadn’t waited for such convention.
“I called her but she wasn’t in,” he recalled.
“Then when I got home I found she had already called me.”
He looked a little puzzled.
“I liked her because she ate a lot,” he beamed. “She had no preoccupation with diet.
“I didn’t know very much about her. Most of her pictures hadn’t played in Italy yet. I just knew that she was a movie star, because I’d read about her in movie magazines.”
On this momentous occasion, Shelley and Vittorio had a heated discussion about acting. Shelley believes in the “naturalistic” school of histrionics. Gassman, whose first love is the theater, goes in more for “stylized, formal acting,” as he calls it.
How they carried on this intellectual debate is somewhat of a mystery, since Shelley couldn’t speak Italian and Vittorio knew very little English. They insist that they “got along and understood each other.”
Shelley stayed over in Rome four more days while Vittorio helped her see the city. When she left for Paris, he followed her there and they toured the red-checkered-tablecloth restaurants . . . the tiny shops, and all those other love locales.
“She called her agent to postpone her next picture, but he wouldn’t let her stay any longer, so she went back to Hollywood,” Vittorio sighed.
“There was a lot of money spent calling between Paris and Hollywood.
“I returned to Rome and we wrote each other many letters in which we got to know each other better. Then she cabled me that she was lonely. I was, too.”
Vittorio had five days before shooting started on his next movie in Rome. So he flew to Hollywood to be with Shelley for five days, a bitter financial blow to the overseas telephone company.
At the end of the five days, Vittorio called his director in Italy who, to put it mildly, was somewhat astonished to hear his star was sauntering around California instead of preparing to report to work the next morning. Vittorio won a few days’ more vacation and went to Arizona with Shelley to gaze in rapture from the sidelines while she did location work on a movie.
Gassman finally went home to Rome and began patronizing the overseas telephone company again to talk to the vivacious blonde in Hollywood. When her movie was finished, Shelley zipped off to Italy. As an example of her devotion and of the new Shelley Winters, she knitted a scarf with her own hands and presented it to Vittorio as she stepped off the plane. The news photographers happened to be on hand to record this bit of domesticity.
After Gassman ended his picture, the pair announced their engagement in the accepted mode of the cinema city. They called a press conference. Then they sped to New York and Hollywood where romance flourished under the light of photographers’ flashbulbs. When Shelley stepped off the plane in Hollywood, she smiled wanly, said she had nothing to talk about and drifted home.
In typical stop-dash Shelley Winters style, Shell & Vittorio hopped down to Juarez, Mexico, and were married two hours after he obtained his divorce.
Before dawn broke over Schwab’s drugstore, Hollywood buzzed with talk about the new Shelley.
“She certainly is more subdued,” one of her close friends said. “Why, she doesn’t even table-hop in restaurants any more!”
Another pal observed, “She’s more interested in looking at you when she talks. She used to gaze to the four corners of the room to see what everybody else was doing. She dresses in more feminine clothes, too, and she wears lipstick in public.
Shelley herself admits she’s changed. Her explanation of the new Shelley Winters is simple, honest and mature.
“I’m very much in love with someone extraordinary who loves me back,” she said. “That is security.”
Shelley sighed happily. “We talk for days at a time. We never run out of things to talk about. And we haven’t had a fight since we met.
“I wasn’t so frantic about winning that Oscar for my role in A Place In The Sun as I would have been a year ago.
“Naturally I wanted to win, but a year ago I would have been desperate.
“I used to be involved with the craziness of this town,” she confessed. “Last year I did six movies, more than any other star. They should have given me an Oscar for doing the most, anyway.
“I worked so hard I had to spend three week-ends in a hospital so I could rest where people couldn’t get at me. I used to throw up all the time, I was so nervous.
“I can eat more now. I learned one important thing in Europe—we don’t take time to do anything in this country. In Italy they take three hours for lunch.
“Nobody takes much time to live over here,” Shelley said. “Through Vittorio I met European artists and writers and I realized that the world is a big place. Hollywood has taken on its proper perspective for me.”
Shelley further floored Hollywood by announcing to her studio that she and Vittorio would live in movietown and work in pictures for only six months of the year. The other six they’ll spend in Italy where they plan to appear in the theater together and where Vittorio will continue his picture career. Shelley’s U-I contract doesn’t allow her to appear in Italian movies.
“If the studio doesn’t like the arrangement,” shrugged Shelley, “all they can do is take me off salary for six months. That’s all suspension is, you know. And I get 12 weeks of lay-off every year, anyway, when I’m not paid.
“I’m not so frightened about money any more. I used to be scared silly if they’d just mention suspension. I’d think about that money I’d miss. But I have somebody to take care of me now.”
Shelley’s trip to Europe probably had a large part in her switch from the temperamental, insecure girl to a more mature woman in love. To the girl who had known only New York and Hollywood, her trip brought her a new sense of values, and a realization that “there are so many wonderful places in the world to see and so many things to do.”
Vittorio, being European, fits into this new mood. He is cultured, well-traveled and far more mature emotionally and intellectually than his 29 years. Shelley had known one previous failure at marriage (and so had Gassman).
“I like Shelley because she is a very alive and nice human being,” he says. “She has not been spoiled by her success, and not stopped by it, either. She has many more ambitions.
“She is attractive to me physically, of course, which is important but not sufficient.
“She is enthusiastic about life and curious about it. I have much less curiosity, as you say, so I appreciate it in other people. I am not curious,” he shrugged. “I am interested in just two or three things in life . . . the theater, literature. I have good friends.
“Here life is quicker. In Europe you take longer to eat, more time to talk. This makes friendships. In Europe we have more friends, and more enemies, too.
“I didn’t know much about Shelley when I met her. I didn’t believe the stories that were written about her. I am not interested in her past, but in her future.
“We have and many fascinating things to talk about. We are interested in the same things.
“Shelley desires spiritual and emotional security. This is her first problem, she has told me. She wants a happy marriage and I hope ours will be one. I hope our marriage will give her that security.
“I was told that before she met me she was, much more easily nervous and unquiet. I didn’t know her before, of course, so I don’t realize any difference. I have no two portraits of her to compare, so to speak.”
One factor that Shelley and Vittorio believe will cement their union into a lasting one is that both believe in the European formula for marriage: the husband is the boss.
As has been often said by psychiatrists and other experts, American women suffer from a dilemma. They fought for their independence, for the right to vote and to work side by side with men in the business world. But in so doing, the experts say, they became the most unhappy women in the world.
European women are more the devoted slaves who do their master’s bidding. Most don’t enjoy the privileges or independence of the American girl. But, most experts agree, they’re happier in their subordinate role of dutiful and feminine wives and mothers.
Both Shelley and Vittorio think the European system is better. At least Shelley does now, anyway.
When Vittorio was subjected to a press conference in New York, one newshound shot the question, “Who’s going to be the boss in the family?”
“What a question to ask an Italian man!” Gassman snorted.
Shelley later chattered to me. “Do you think I could get Vittorio into an American barbershop? In Italy they cut hair in those funny waves.
“I’m already decorating our apartment in Italy and we’re going to live in a modest apartment in Hollywood. I’m busy learning how to cook and washing dishes. I love Italian food.”
“I don’t,” said Vittorio. “I like French food.”
At last report, Shelley was learning how ‘to cook French food, and Vittorio still wore his hair Italian-style.
“The man must be the boss in the family,” says Gassman. “Not in the sense of being a dictator, nor in taking advantage of a woman, but more as a duty than a right. A really feminine woman likes that and wants it from a man.
“Of course,” he weakened, “it should be the woman who makes the decisions in the details of life, around the house. That seems to be the right division of authority to me.
“Man actually is more intelligent than woman. He has more reason. Women are more shrewd and practical, however. Shelley is a better business manager than I am. She can get along in any situation.
“Women are very often more courageous than men, too. They can stand more physical pain. If the man had to bear children, I am sure humanity would be ended.
“But, getting back to Shelley, I seldom went out with actresses in Italy. They all tend to be very sophisticated and snobbish. They’re impossible to talk to. But Shelley takes to everybody. That is a very sweet quality. I’m not used to that. In Europe, actresses are more critical, more severe.
“Shelley is very natural. She laughs when something amuses her. She is very emotional, too. She took me to see all the plays in New York, she was so anxious that I get to know the American theater. We went to see Judy Garland at the Palace in New York. Shelley was so excited she yelled.
“I am pretty sure,” said Vittorio, “that I chose well when I chose Shelley.”
Some cynics on the Hollywood scene, however, take a dim view of Shelley’s discovery of Love, Life and Culture.
Miss Winters has announced that from now on she’s interested only in interviews with the press about her roles and her art on the silver screen.
This does not sit too well with the press that helped to elevate her to stardom. The stars who stay on top, like Alan Ladd, give out interviews any time on any subject, and they’re glad they’re asked to do it.
Shelley also has served notice she is interested from now on in the drah-ma, not in those wise-cracking roles she has ground out down the years.
Skeptics also yawn at her latest mood and predict a short end to the Shell-Gas combo, as they call it. One says, “Only Shelley would think of going to Europe with one guy and coming home engaged to another, and an Italian star, at that. She is just interested in making the headlines.”
Another points out that Miss Winters recently was given a raise by her studio and a promise of good parts, so “it’s hard to see how an ambitious girl will give all that up for love.”
One columnist insisted Vittorio asked how much money Shelley made. This isn’t true, however. Research discloses he’s well-heeled.
Meanwhile, Shelley ignored the pessimists and charged full-steam ahead to establish Vittorio’s career in Hollywood. She arranged the contacts and interviews that brought Vittorio his first American picture. She introduced him to executives who showered him with offers of long-term contracts at major studios. He turned these down; he says his theater work in Rome is more important to him. Like any feminine woman, she tried to keep from him the fact that she was partially responsible for the roles he won.
Shelley took him to Hollywood parties. She introduced him to his idol, Charles Chaplin, and to her former instructor in a Shakespeare class, Charles Laughton. One of her happiest moments came when Laughton told Vittorio, an expert in Shakespearean drama, that Shelley would make a fine Shakespearean actress.
“See?” chortled a proud Shelley to Vittorio.
His approval and admiration, you can see, is important in her life.
“Shelley has been very anxious that Vittorio be as fond of America as she is of Italy,” a friend says. “He always had been impressed with the technique of movie-making. But he was skeptical of the cultural side of Hollywood. So she took him around to the local art galleries.”
She also escorted him to the Circle Theater, where she has worked, and that meeting led to Vittorio’s giving a reading of Italian poetry to an audience of selected big-wigs of the plaster city.
Shelley and Vittorio hope that they can establish a theater in Rome where they can give English-language plays for the large American colony there. Vittorio is a director of note, too, in Italy and the government is scheduled to subsidize a theater that he will open in the Fall.
Some critics of la Winters point out that the new Shelley won’t be as exciting as the old. They think her bombastics of yore meant showmanship.
But Shelley insists that the new Shelley will be an even better actress.
“I feel my living in Rome half of the year will expand my career as an actress,” she says. “Any artist reflects to his audience his own experience, and the more experiences, the more you can give to the public.”
Shelley recently was loaned to MGM for a picture directed by William Wellman. This movie-maker is known for his penchant for rugged he-men actors and his scorn of any thespian in skirts. Shelley, the old Shelley, anyway, was famous as an actress who demanded the best, found it hard to compromise and rode hard over anybody’s feelings to get what she wanted.
Hollywood expected an explosion. But Shelley and “Wild Bill” Wellman got along just dandy.
Whatever the outcome of the controversial Shelley-Vittorio combination, one thing is sure.
Hollywood can rest more easily, now that the old Shelley Winters is on the shelf.
“If Shelley has found happiness at last, that means 500 people in this town have found happiness, too,” cracked one of her pals. “The producers and others who work with her can sleep nights now.”
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE JULY 1952