DOUBLE Oscar-winner Shelley Winters, who played a string of big, brassy, larger-than-life characters, has died in Beverly Hills, at the age of 85.

Her best-known films included The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and Alfie (1966). But she was as famous for her personal life, chat-show appearances and explicit memoirs. "It's everything you never wanted to know about Shelley's love life, but were afraid she'd tell you anyway, " said one review on Amazon.

Among her more famous lovers were Sean Connery, Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando, William Holden and reputedly Joe Kennedy, the president's father.

One story has it that a friend warned her that a certain Italian producer was a "terrible wolf" and would tear the clothes off her back. Winters assured her friend she would make sure to wear an old dress. "Compared to today, I wasn't Polly Promiscuous, although I wasn't exactly Vera Virgin either, " she once said.

She was married to actors Vittorio Gassman and Tony Franciosa, but three marriages all ended in divorce. On her death-bed she reportedly underwent a spiritual ceremony with Jerry DeFord, her companion for the past 19 years.

Her eye for the men was not restricted to their potential as lovers, however. She spotted and nurtured the talent of an unknown young actor called Robert De Niro, casting him in her semi-autobiographical play One Night Stands of a Noisy Passenger (1970) and securing a role for him as one of her sons in Bloody Mama (1970), in which she played the notorious Ma Barker.

The public image of this large, overbearing woman, who seemingly devoured men and battered chat-show hosts into submission with long, rambling anecdotes, overshadowed an actress who took herwork very seriously and studied at the Actors' Studio.

"I'm a Method actress, you know, " she said. "I find feelings of my own to correspond with what's in the script. On stage, I look at a bottle of champagne with craving. Inside my head, I'm thinking of a great big banana split."

Initially, Winters was regarded as just another sexy, blonde starlet. But she became a fine character actress, quite prepared to play middle-aged, selfish and neurotic characters. Even as one of the Jews hiding from the Nazis in The Diary of Anne Frank, she managed to come across as unsympathetic.

She was the one woman with enough self-assurance to get the better of Michael Caine's philanderer in Alfie. But often her romantic scheming would go fatally wrong.

She wooed James Mason in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962), unaware that the true object of his desire is her underage daughter. When she finds out, she rushes into the street and is knocked down and killed by a car.

On screen her characters' blustering sometimes masked their vulnerability. And that seemed true of the actress too. Kevin Thomas, a long-time friend, told the Los Angeles Times: "Shelley was a mass of contradictions, as only a Method actress can be . . . She was mercurial, adorable, infuriating, loyal, brave."

She was born Shirley Schrift into a Jewish family in East St Louis, Illinois, in 1920, though she knocked a couple of years off her age and reference books commonly cite 1922. She worked as a shop assistant and chorus girl while attempting to establish herself as an actress.

Her professional name of Shelley Winter combined her mother's name with that of her favourite poet, the final S came later. By the early 1940s she was beginning to land roles on Broadway and played Ado Annie in the musical Oklahoma!

Her film debut came in a tiny role in the romantic comedy The Beautiful Cheat in 1943 and over the next few years she appeared in more than a dozen uncredited supporting roles.

She knew Marilyn Monroe before either was famous and she took credit for teaching Monroe that distinctive, sexy, open-mouthed tilt of the head the two women shared.

Winters's career took off with the role of a lonely waitress in the film noir A Double Life (1947). She begins a relationship with an actor played by Ronald Colman, but he is consumed by the role of King Lear and strangles her.

A serial victim of love, she was the pregnant girlfriend drowned by Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951) and the wife killed by psychotic preacher Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter (1955).

Winters lacked the classic beauty of a conventional Hollywood goddess, but she had screen presence and she made it work for her, quickly graduating from young girlfriends to middle-aged women.

She played mothers in the two films forwhich she won the Oscar for best supporting actress - the unpleasant Mrs Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank and the racist Rose-Ann D'Arcy in A Patch of Blue (1965), in which her blind daughter falls for Sidney Poitier without realising he is black.

She was particularly memorable as the overweight exswimming champion who rescues Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure.

Winters returned regularly to Broadway, winning rave reviews as the mother of the Marx Brothers in Minnie's Boys in 1970, though her attempt to turn herself into a playwright fared less well. Her memoirs, Shelley, Also Known as Shirley (1980) and Shelley II, The Middle of My Century (1989), were bestsellers. TV credits ranged from playing Elvis Presley's mum Gladys in Elvis (1979) to a dodo in Alice in Wonderland (1985). Throughout the 1990s she also continued to appear in films, including Stepping Out (1991), with Liza Minnelli, and The Portrait of a Lady (1996) , with Nicole Kidman.

In a career spanning half a century, Winters made more than 100 films. She appeared in her fair share of rubbish and her characterisations could sometimes descend into caricature.

But at her best, she was an exceptional and often underrated actress.

Shelley Winters, actress; born August 18, 1920, died January 14, 2006.