For me, the #MeToo era isn’t just an acknowledgement of the near-ubiquity of sexual harassment and assault in far too many industries. It’s also given me a sort of retroactive lens that I can’t help but apply to movies, TV shows, books, and any other works of art that pre-date 2017. It magnifies clues that have always been there, telling us that the game has traditionally been rigged in favour of white men. One movie in particular, Rosanna Arquette’s 2002 documentary “Searching for Debra Winger,” is so much more salient now in light of the recent reckoning, if a little more difficult to watch.
Her film explores being an actress and trying to balance the work you’re passionate about and the realities of raising children. She manages to round up an impressive lineup of Hollywood women who are remarkably candid about their struggles. Holly Hunter, Alfre Woodard, Jane Fonda, Meg Ryan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Diane Lane, and Sharon Stone are just some of the women who weigh in.
It turns out that it’s impossible to talk about an actress’s work-life balance without addressing the hostile misogyny and ageism that pervades every nook and cranny of the Hollywood machine.
Midway through the movie, many actresses gather at Melanie Griffith’s house. Around her dining room table, they dole out some harsh truths about the business.
Arquette’s sister Patricia relates how a producer secretly elbowed his way into her closed set so that he could sneak a peek at her while she filmed a sex scene. Julianna Margulies describes movie executives deciding which woman to cast by asking, “would you fuck her?” Daryl Hannah refers to the “guys who run the studios,” explaining that they tend to choose projects they relate to.
Later in a restaurant, Arquette speaks to Adrienne Shelly, Martha Plimpton, and Ally Sheedy. Shelly remembers meeting a producer who stared at her tits the whole time. When she wasn’t cast, she knew her bosom lost the part.
“There are men doing great work who have a face like a fuckhead, but there aren’t any ugly women,” Plimpton says. “There aren’t even regular women.”
Sheedy shares a sentiment that most women express at some point in the movie: there’s just a dearth of exciting roles for women. A female lead is either the significant other or the quirky best friend, whose every line is a question (“What do you mean?” “What did he say?”). Or perhaps she’s a victim who’s on the receiving end of some sort of physical perpetration.
“People wonder why movies stars do television … (it’s) because the parts are more interesting,” Samantha Mathis says at Griffith’s house. “In television, they’re more interested in showing women in a real way, in giving us something to do.”
Meantime, many of the women confess being told that in their 30s and 40s, they’re just too old for most parts. But they actually become better actresses as they age.
“Men in their 40s find women in their 40s attractive, but the whole American movie industry is skewed towards the male teenage demographic; and the problem with teenage boys in America is, they’ve lost interest in sex altogether,” says Roger Ebert, the one man Arquette interviews.
These paradoxes actresses deal with aren’t limited to the studios. They also happen at home.
Robin Wright tells Arquette that she is—at that point—working about once per year.
“That’s what it’s come down to,” she says. “But when you get to 11 months, you’re chomping at the bits.”
Arquette asks Wright if her then-husband Sean Penn would ask her to forgo her project so he can do his. Wright hesitates, eventually saying, “it depends on what his ‘big thing’ is.” Just the same, from 1992 to 2004, while their children were born and growing, Wright worked once or twice per year, accumulating 17 titles to her credit. Meantime, Penn earned 24. In 1997, he got 6 credits while she got 2 (one of those titles was “She’s So Lovely,” starring both).
Wright chose to work less in the absence of someone else making that choice, but it’s clear that she would have liked to work more. She doesn’t because someone has to look after the children.
“Anyone who says that having children is not a sacrifice is pretty much lying, or not taking care of their kids,” says Debra Winger, the titular interviewee, who took a break from the business at least in part to raise her kids with actor Arliss Howard.
Apart from considering what has and hasn’t changed since the movie’s 2002 release, what makes it harder to watch now is that it’s a painful reminder of just how long we haven’t been listening to women. While it received decent reviews, most of them focused on the execution rather than any of the claims made by the actresses.
Wasn’t anyone curious about the producer who tried to ogle a professional actress during her love scene? Why weren’t we infuriated when these women confirmed that executives cast them on their fuckability? Why didn’t we scoff at the notion that a woman in her 40s is too old to be interesting? Why did it take the most horrific stories of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual misconduct—of which Arquette was also a victim—to realize that women in show business have so many odds stacked against them?
It’s Salma Hayek, a woman of color, who prophesies the roadmap that will turn the tides. And knowing what we know now about her trajectory, and her own Weinstein tale, it’s all the more significant.
“I think the way to change it, is if the women … go behind the camera,” she says. “We need female writers, female directors … to use our creativity and talent to support other women. I think we have a lot to say, and we have to find those stories, and support those stories, and we have to tell them.”
And then we have to listen.
"Searching for Debra Winger" is available to order on DVD via Amazon. Click here to get your copy.