Published 27/01/2013 | 05:00
The film director, best known for his work on 'Death Wish', later became a restaurant critic, writes Ryan Gilbey
Michael Winner, who died on Monday aged 77, belonged to that peculiar group of celebrities famous largely for being famous. By the time of his death he had been a film-maker for more than half a century, but he had not completed a picture since Parting Shots in 1998; that black comedy, about a man who hires an assassin to kill him, had the distinction of being the worst-received effort in a career that, for the three decades before his death, had been met mostly with critical contempt and public indifference.
But Winner was unmistakably a prominent figure, if not a celebrated one, in British popular culture. Secrets of his love life were big news in the tabloids in the Nineties (for several years he was in a relationship with the actress Jenny Seagrove). His ruddy face, topped by a halo of white candyfloss hair, beamed out from chat-shows and television advertisements; indeed, an entire generation knows him only from the insurance ads that gave him his own catchphrase ("Calm down dear, it's a commercial"). And he had arguably become more associated with his decadent lifestyle than with any of the movies that had made his reputation.
He was born on October 30, 1935, to George Winner, a property developer, and his wife Helen in London, and educated first at St Christopher's, a Quaker boarding school in Letchworth (Cheltenham College had refused him because, he said, "their Jewish quota was full"), and then at Downing College, Cambridge, where he read Law. His early ambitions were journalistic. He was writing a syndicated newspaper column of celebrity interviews for the Kensington Post at the age of 14, and later edited Varsity.
Winner began making films for the BBC, and quickly graduated to his first feature assignment – Play It Cool (1962), with Billy Fury and Helen Shapiro. Winner was well placed to document the shifting mores of the Swinging Sixties, and one of his zaniest films from that period – The System (1964), photographed by Nicolas Roeg – won Winner acclaim in the US.
His popularity brought offers from America, and he made the western Lawman there, in 1971. Subsequent features could be either unsubtle, tough-nosed action movies such as The Mechanic (1972), Scorpio or The Stone Killer (both 1973), or more fanciful projects that tended toward the wilfully perverse like The Nightcomers (1971) and Won Ton Ton – The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976). The Sentinel (1977) was an exploitative horror movie that attempted to cash in on the success of The Exorcist and The Omen.
Winner had his biggest hit during this period with the 1974 thriller Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson, whom Winner had already directed in three other pictures, as an ordinary man driven to violence by the rape and murder of his wife and daughter. While hardly explicit by modern standards, the film remains as insidious as they come, parading a casual racism that would become more pointed in the 1981 and 1985 sequels, both of which were directed by Winner.
Bronson voiced concerns over his director's attitude toward the female characters in those movies. "Winner is a very sadistic man," he said. "He loves women jumping out of windows and landing on picket fences." The films briefly became the subject of revived notoriety in 1984 when New York commuter Bernard Goetz shot four muggers on the subway in an incident reminiscent of Death Wish.
More fascinating than any story that Winner ever committed to celluloid was his relationship with his mother. He rarely discussed his father in interviews, beyond proclaiming him "an angel". It was his mother who remained the dominant influence over his life, even after her death in 1984, when he would speak frequently and at great length about her gambling addiction, on which he claimed she had wasted the equivalent of £25m of the Winner fortune.
Helen Winner's life as a gambler far overshadowed her maternal duties, if the account of her son is to be believed. Winner junior often spoke forlornly of his Bar Mitzvah, which his mother transformed into a poker party while he sat alone in the bedroom among her friends' mink coats. After his parents moved to Cannes in the early Seventies, her habit deepened, and following his father's death in 1972 Winner would be called upon to send money from London to settle her debts.
"Before they moved to France, my father proudly showed me his collection of paintings and antiques in the house I now occupy. 'Michael, one day this will be yours,' he'd say. But they all went to pay Mumsy's casino debts. She'd literally take a painting off the wall, put it in a taxi, tout it round the dealers of Cannes and Monte Carlo, collect the cash and go back to pay off the casino."
Winner would receive legal demands from his mother demanding that he pay back non-existent loans, or return valuables that she had given him as gifts. He attributed her behaviour to a traumatic upbringing in Poland, during which she had witnessed the public humiliation of Jews. But much of his own life seemed to have been spent compensating for the lack of interest and affection that she had given him. "I didn't understand it at all. She was not interested in me and my considerable achievements."
Critical opinion of Winner's film work has in Britain often been obscured, or at least polluted, by a disapproval of the ostentatiousness, the tendency toward self-promotion, that undoubtedly resulted from this volatile mother/son relationship. Foreign eyes have sometimes been less clouded. The esteemed American biographer and film writer Lee Server, for instance, saw Winner's "radical" retooling of The Big Sleep as "more faithful to the original novel than [Howard] Hawks's version".
Possibly cinema was the one area in which Winner's famous bullishness eventually deserted him. Late in his career, he declared directing to be nothing more than one of his hobbies. He was loved by readers, and feared by restaurateurs, for his restaurant columns in the Sunday Times; sub-editors on the paper were said to be bewildered about the failure of Winner's reviews to fill the allotted space on the page, even though the word-count was correct, until they realised it was because he used the word "I" so much.
Winner wrote three volumes of memoirs, Winner Takes All (2004), Unbelievable! (2010) and Tales I Never Told (2011), as well as several books about food.
He also became a keen gardener, and found time to make table mats: "I buy cheap prints and then put on six coats of varnish and cut the felt. On my obituary they'll say 'M Winner, Film Director and Table-Mat Maker'. Or if things get really bad, it might just be, 'M Winner, Table Mat Maker.'"
In 2006 Winner said he had been offered an OBE but had turned it down, adding, "An OBE is what you get if you clean the toilets well at Kings Cross station." He had suffered ill-health in the last few years and was told last year by liver specialists that he had 18 months to live. In 2011 he had married Geraldine Lynton-Edwards, whom he had known since the mid-Fifties. In December he announced that he was ending his restaurant column: "Geraldine says it's time to get down from the table. Goodbye."