Gran Dame Shelley
Born in St. Louis 97 years ago today, the unmistakable Shelley Winters (1920-2006) made her mark in the early part of her screen career as an untimely slain victim. She was strangled by Ronald Colman in A Double Life (1947), run over by driver Betty Field’s car in The Great Gatsby (1947), drowned by Montgomery Clift (and got an Oscar® nomination for her pains) in A Place in the Sun (1951), mowed down by a city bus in The Big Knife (1955) and other random drivers in Mambo (1955) and Lolita (1962), and had her throat slit by Robert Mitchum in The Night in the Hunter (1955), becoming one of cinema’s most ethereally lovely aquatic corpses. Perhaps it’s no wonder that the two-time Academy Award® winner would later take on – and play with relish – roles in which she would be homicidally inclined, whether out of criminal amorality (1970’s Bloody Mama, 1973’s Cleopatra Jones) or mental derangement (the Curtis Harrington double-play of 1971’s What’s the Matter with Helen? and 1972’s Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?). One very odd and very intriguing opportunity came her way when respected director Mauro Bolognini (1922-2001), known for sexually provocative romances (several scripted by fellow firebrand Pier Paolo Pasolini) and evocative historical period dramas, offered her a feast of a role inspired by real-life serial murderer Leonarda Cianciulli (1893-1970), known in Italy as the “Soap-Maker of Correggio.” As Lea, the unhinged matron whose crusade to keep her only son safe from army conscription on the eve of World War II drives her to “become friends with death” and offer human sacrifices of three lonely women to ward off the “greater evil,” Winters is a mystical marvel in Gran Bollito (1977), a little-known but compulsively watchable exercise in Grand Guignol. Lea’s local circle, whom she serves as a sorrow-ridden but soldiering-forth queen-bee, mother confessor and spiritual advisor, doesn’t suspect that the delicious baked delicacies and handcrafted soap she shares are comprised of the body parts of recently missing neighbors. But the viewer does, because her reassuringly seductive solicitations and detailed recipe preparations are eerily portrayed in immaculate detail to a degree that just stops short of cringe-inducing. What could have been howl-provoking grindhouse fare in another filmmaker’s hands becomes, as Bolognini asserts in an on-screen prologue, “the mystery of an insanity which is not individual, but collective. It is basically the fairy tale of humanity, in which history is made through monstrous massacres which are immediately forgotten.” At the center of this blatantly cautionary tale, which also stars Laura Antonelli, Rita Tushingham and as the three “sacrifices,” a trio of world-class talents – Alberto Lionello, Renato Pozzetto and the elegant Max von Sydow – all in performances with both feminine and masculine components (convincingly brought off to a jaw-dropping effect to be savored), is the quietly volcanic Winters; when viewed as a comment on her screen history, her no-frills, vanity-stripping, delicately restrained commitment to Lea’s aberrant but morbidly righteous indignation is formidable. Frumpish and jittery and blowsy performances might win you Oscars®, but Lea might just be the Winters role that is her truest, most earth-shaking mirror into the tortured human soul. In any event, for the game viewer with an appetite for the offbeat, it’s also delectable fun. Winters kills it, cooking up a storm in Gran Bollito on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, which features a carefully analytical commentary of the film and its veteran star by historians Derek Botelho and David Del Valle. She’ll return, to much more benignly – if still possessively – maternal effect for another esteemed moviemaker, on our label next year.