As usual with this blog, I am late to the party, but I was very excited to join in the Shelley Winters Blogathon, celebrating the dynamic and gorgeous actress in all her glory. I opted to write about Shelley’s appearances in the 1954 drama Executive Suite and the long-running TV series Roseanne. These roles were vastly different, but I chose them because they highlight Shelley’s range as an actress.
Shelley’s role in Executive Suite is small, but her character’s importance to the message of the film is impossible to overstate. She plays the beautiful Eva Bardeman, personal secretary to high-ranking executive J. Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas). She also happens to be his mistress, and she is deeply unhappy with their obviously doomed romance.
Shelley manages to bring real pathos to a character engaged in morally questionable behavior, and she conveys Eva’s heartbreak and dignity in equal measure. Embroiled in a relationship that cannot and will not last, she breaks down briefly in her apartment as Dudley leaves her to attend to company matters. The scene is light on dialogue, but carried completely by Shelley’s emotive and moving performance.
My favorite thing about Shelley’s role in this film is the way she pulls herself away from a toxic situation, regardless of how painful it is to do so. The movie itself is about the all-consuming forces of greed that frequently masquerade as ambition. And while it focuses mainly on the professional manifestation of this greed, Eva represents the more personal repercussions of lurching at easy solutions to complex problems without considering the consequences or the people involved.
But Eva quickly realizes the hopelessness of the situation and is smart enough to leave it. In her parting speech to Walter, she tells him she’s leaving for good, instructing him to “find [him]self another aspirin tablet.” The juxtaposition from emotional wreck to cool-headed woman in command of her personal life is effective and beautifully acted, even in this small turn by Shelley. She offers this character of The Other Woman a real humanity and savvy, and gives her more integrity than most of the businessmen who make up the rest of the film’s characters.
Another role that Shelley breathed real life into despite its small size came decades after Executive Suite. In the 1990s, Shelley took on the recurring character of Nana Mary, Roseanne Conner’s foul-mouthed and utterly loveable grandmother on the long-running sitcom Roseanne.
One reason I love this role is simply because I love actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age making the transition into more modern work. It offers a more human side of their personalities and skills, as they’re freed from the constraints of the production code and can be more relatable on-screen. But this character is also genuinely entertaining, and Shelley fits into the comedy ensemble with ease.
Nana Mary has a tendency to speak with such bluntness that she horrifies her daughter Beverly (Estelle Parsons) — which is hilarious — and thoroughly amuses everyone else. She discusses sex freely and tackles taboo subjects without hesitation, including discussing her experience with abortion in the pre-Roe era. But again, Shelley weaves humor into serious subjects with the grace and talent of a complete pro. (For example, when discussing having to go great distances to access abortion care, Nana Mary says with a wistful look, “I used to love to travel.”)
Always decked out in ball caps and holiday sweaters, Nana Mary is a walking riot. There’s occasional concern for her lucidity, which is quickly shut down by Mary herself as she frequently outwits and out-quips the younger characters. Sharp and quick, Shelley elevates the role above being just a “quirky old lady.” She’s alive in every sense — having relationships, partying to her heart’s desire, and expressing her opinions without shyness or trepidation. An inspiration, honestly.
Shelley Winters was an actress who was able to put her range on display not just across different roles, but within individual ones. She brought nuance and dimension to every part she played, and her self-deprecation and vivid personality shows through frequently, especially in her more comedic performances. Whether she’s being hysterical or devastating, I always love watching Shelley on screen because I know she’ll deliver.