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A somewhat nervous, extremely humble Shelley Winters faced a Kirkland House audience last night in a talk that marked "the first time I've ever attempted to lecture anyone about anything--calmly."
Despite a fear "that I should have tried this out in New Haven first," and a feeling that "we're going to take an exam in this later," Miss Winters was a hit in her new role "in front of you highly literate, intellectually alert...kids."
Miss Winters discussed the ways in which the actor and the audience participate in the dramatic experience, and she deplored the decline of "social drama" in the U.S. since the middle Fifties.
"The writer of A Hatful of Rain didn't know what he wrote." Miss Winters said. "He wanted the force of death to win," but the audience sided with Miss Winters as a pregnant girl.
"The actor is a part of the experience of education and enlightenment," she explained. "The playwright just gives the words; you must give the subtext and the understanding." And, she added later, "the audience is a large part of the dramatic experience going on."
Miss Winters said that the flow of powerful American social drama of the late Forties and early Fifties had stopped, and that now all the important intellectual plays are British. Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Truman Capote, the inheritors of the tradition of Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets, "deal with unnatural subjects--maybe the only safe ones to write about." McCarthysim had a damaging effect on social drama. Miss Winters said.
In her more informal remarks, Miss Winters told how she reached the pinnacle of Hollywood success--three movies on Broadway at the same time, and two hus- bands. But, she said, "I was not happy being a blonde bombshell and all that jazz." She reflected, "I missed a great deal of life.... I'm sorry I accepted those values."
To a suddenly quiet Junior Common Room, she said, "I was going to talk about Hollywood--what Jimmy Dean was really like, who Tuesday Weld's mother really is--but after being at Harvard a few days, I don't feel like it."
Some people, but not so many as before, still become performers "to get the love of an enormous amount of people every night that maybe you didn't get somewhere else," Miss Winters said.
She spoke of the emotional involvement an actress must experience--the kind that makes her "look at her hair-dresser and say, 'Why are you persecuting me?' "The only performer she knew who did not have to wind himself up to play a part was Frederic March, Miss Winters said. She recalled a scene in which March "was weeping and pinching my bottom at the same time."
Finally, the question on everyone's lips found expression: what was Jimmy Dean really like? "Very like you all, but enormously talented," Miss Winters said. "He captured the imagination of young people because of his sense of hopelessness."
At the end, the woman who never finished high school but became one of America's great actresses told the audience that her lecture was "one of the proud achievements of my life. I will brag about it.
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