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On Her Own Terms: The Work of Debra Winger

Early in “Urban Cowboy,” Debra Winger steals the film with a pause. Having spotted Bud (John Travolta) across a honkytonk dancehall floor, Sissy (Winger) ambles up to the bar, flirting first with an appeal to his manliness (“I thought [your beard] looked good, you shouldn’t have shaved it”), then by asking him if he knows how to do a two-step. He answers, “you bet.” The conversation lapses. Winger leans her back against the bar, not looking at him, and lets a full ten seconds pass, in which her body is still but her eyes dart in three different directions. She’s silent, but her expression is loud and clear: “Are you really going to make me ask you?” Instead, she turns her flirtation, and her question, into a way to challenge him, sticking her neck out: “Wanna prove it?”

It’s a short scene, but it sets a tone for Winger’s stretch in the ‘80s and early ‘90s as one of the most consistently exciting presences in mainstream American movies—whether she wants something complicated or something very simple, she’s going to get it on her terms, without begging and without being afraid to prod if need be. That independent streak in her characters is reflective of her career: Winger attained a reputation as being tough to work with, butting heads with co-stars, directors and executives over the work and usually making the films better in the process. She earned three Academy Award nominations and maintained a status as one of Hollywood’s best-respected leading actresses from 1980 to 1995 before taking a six-year absence from the screen.

Winger has appeared in supporting roles on film and television since, but Azazel Jacobs’ “The Lovers” marks her first leading role (not counting the Lifetime movie “Dawn Anna”) in over 20 years. It’s an exciting prospect: a starring role for a true independent in Hollywood, an actress who for a decade and a half animated stories of women seeking independence, self-realization or respect in some form or another in otherwise traditional institutions.

Winger began her career in the late-‘70s with appearances in films like “Slumber Party ‘57” and the disco movie “Thank God It’s Friday,” as well as with a brief stint on “Wonder Woman” as Diana Prince’s younger sister, Drusilla/Wonder Girl (she had a good sense of humor about it). She took off, however, in 1980 with “Urban Cowboy.” As Sissy, a Houston girl who falls in love with and marries Travolta’s Bud a little too quickly, Winger radiates a unique combination of steeliness, sexiness and emotional openness for a character who loves Bud but refuses to buckle under his demands. Winger’s mid-film mechanical bull ride likely made her a star, but just as notable as her swinging her hips atop the bull is the look of pure satisfaction on her face. She’s proven herself as far from fragile while reminding him of what he’s missing. And yet, there’s sadness there. She does want him back.

The desire to meet a man but keep him on her own terms carries over to her two 1982 features, “Cannery Row” and “An Officer and a Gentleman.” In the former, Winger’s Suzy is quick to poke fun at Nick Nolte’s marine biologist (“Slow down, Doc, you’re wearing me out”) and says early on that she won’t be “made to feel small.” Even when she’s working as a prostitute, she won’t let any john treat her poorly (“I paid $12.99 for this goddamn dress … I ain’t takin’ it off until you tell me you like it”).

Her role as Paula in “An Officer and a Gentleman” carries the same deceptively assertive quality; her key scenes being her attempts to reach out to Richard Gere’s hotshot wannabe pilot. When Gere lashes out at her, she gives him a dressing down (“you ain’t nothin’ special”). She’s been wounded, her naturally throaty voice now sounding like there’s a waterfall running in it, but her outburst comes out of strength and recognition that she deserves better. That stays throughout, whether she lets on that she knows new officers tend to leave women behind or flatly states during their love scene that she’s not going to end up stuck at the local factory like her mother. Winger disliked the film, but she elevates it considerably, and her vulnerable but forthright performance earned her first Oscar nomination.

Around the same time, word began to travel that Winger was difficult to work with. She fought Gere (calling him “a brick wall”), director Taylor Hackford (“an animal”) and producer Don Simpson (who called her “not fuckable enough”). Within a few years, her “Legal Eagles” director would refer to her as “historically difficult to work with” (while acknowledging that he liked her work in the film), and she would clash with co-stars like Shirley MacLaine and John Malkovich. Other collaborators, however, have spoken warmly about working with her, with Bob Rafelson stating that “no actress I’ve worked with has sharper instinct,” while her “Urban Cowboy” and “Mike’s Murder” director James Bridges related a story from the set of their first film to the New York Times:

“When you lock horns with Debra,'' he explains, ''you never feel it's anything personal. We had a horrendous fight on 'Urban Cowboy.' She refused to play a scene, and I had to shut down the set for a whole day. I was furious with her, but then I looked at the scene and realized that there was something wrong with the dialogue. Her instinct had been right.''

Winger herself acknowledged taking out insecurities on others while standing by the claim that it was always about the work. One gets the instinct, then, that some of the less charitable brandings of her as a “difficult actress” have more than a tinge of sexism to them, their tone being slightly more vilifying than one put on a difficult male performer like, say, Dustin Hoffman. When taking into account an outright hostile situation like that on the set of “An Officer and a Gentleman,” Winger’s combativeness seems outright heroic.

At any rate, her tendency to fight informs and aids her most iconic work, the Best Picture-winning “Terms of Endearment.” As Emma, the earthy daughter of the high-strung Aurora (MacLaine), Winger capitalizes on the qualities she brought to her earlier films while exhibiting greater playfulness. Winger frequently seems to play slightly against a line’s expected intention: instead of pouting that her own mother isn’t coming to her wedding, she gives a hurt but amused “of course this would happen” laugh. At MacLaine’s less than enthused reaction to her pregnancy, she laughs before matter-of-factly intoning, “I’m gonna get so mad if you’re not happy.” These choices paint a portrait of a woman who’s learned how to live with a loving but difficult parent, someone who sees the strange humor in her mother’s trouble with natural affection. It’s as if she saw the late-film exchange between Aurora and Emma (“I always think of us as fighting.” “That’s just from your end”) and applied it throughout, giving an unconventional performance in a “conventional” film.

If nothing else, she always knows where she stands with her mother, even if she’s frustrated with her. That contrasts with her scenes without her, in which she tussles with her philandering academic husband (Jeff Daniels) and engages in an affair with a square but sweet man (John Lithgow). Emma is a stay-at-home mother isolated in Iowa from her Texan home, but again, she refuses to be pushed around, searing her husband as he tries (poorly) to hide his affair while finding some small piece of personal freedom in her own extramarital relationship. Even when she’s diagnosed with cancer late in the film, she’s still fighting, whether she’s refusing to be seen with pity or condescension by her best friend’s snooty acquaintances or gently but firmly pushing for her children to live with her mother, not her husband.

Winger earned a second Oscar nomination for the film (losing to MacLaine) before taking on a series of unconventional thrillers in the mid to late-1980s. The best of the bunch, James Bridges’ “Mike’s Murder,” was conceived as a sort of proto-“Irreversible” (or a variation on Pinter’s “Betrayal”), in which the film would open with its climactic showdown between Winger’s Betty and Darrell Larson’s wigged-out junkie before gradually moving to a memorable one-night-stand between Betty and Mike (Mark Keyloun) that set her on a journey to find out who was responsible for his death. The studio balked and forced Bridges to reedit the film in chronological order, but it’s still a corker, with Winger’s magnificently responsive performance creating a character who’s ecstatic when reminded of her onetime lover, then melancholy and obsessed after his death. She admits that she’s “not quite sure” what she’s looking for when asking around about Mike, but we can see her actively searching for what it is, determined to find it.

After being given little more to play than the idea of a Hepburn-esque half of a romantic-comedy pairing in “Legal Eagles,” Winger made a greater impression as an FBI agent, twice, in Bob Rafelson’s “Black Widow” and Costa-Gavras’ “Betrayed.” In the first, she’s the only person in her office who gives a damn about Theresa Russell’s femme fatale apparently murdering a series of older husbands. Winger plays her eventual meeting with Russell as the recognition of a similarly obsessed person; she also seems two steps away from falling in love with her icy counterpart, having seen someone who takes what she wants from men instead of having to fight tooth-and-nail against them and their unwanted advances. In one scene, her supervisor (Terry O’Quinn) gives an exhausted Winger a neck massage before interpreting her comment about young women with older men (about Russell) being an invitation, sliding his hand to her breast. Not wanting to hurt her career, she shrugs her shoulder to rebuff his advance without openly acknowledging it.

“Betrayed” is less successful, straining credulity and growing exploitative even while finding some uncomfortable truths about racism in America. Winger plays an undercover agent investigating a suspected white supremacist outfit while falling in love with the man who turns out to be its leader (Tom Berenger). The film is at its most effective when Winger is caught between admiring the common man decency Berenger projects and the hatefulness of his ideology, attempting to find any sign that he’s not in as deep as he is.

Winger’s brief run in the 1990s saw her taking greater risks with projects and with her own craft, giving more heightened performances in “The Sheltering Sky,” “A Dangerous Woman” and “Shadowlands.” In Bernardo Bertolucci’s magnificent epic, American couple Kit and Port (Winger and Malkovich) travel to Africa to give new life to their troubled marriage, only to be encountered by their own emptiness. Winger is more aristocratic here, widening the gap between her outward appearance and her internal desire. She has a blithe affair with Campbell Scott’s annoying party boy and, later, with a Tuareg tribesman, the latter of which sees her finding brief ecstasy (communicated primarily in her eyes and, in a love scene, her legs). But her defining scene in the film may be an aborted attempt at lovemaking with Malkovich at a cliffside. She’s briefly relieved, even euphoric, as they seem to connect once again, only for her to recognize that something has broken, that they can’t keep a connection, with a laugh and a strange bellow. Here, she’s a woman looking for anything other than emptiness, and she won’t pretend she’s not lost when she sees it.

Less lost but equally moving is Martha, her mentally impaired heroine in “A Dangeorus Woman.” A naturally unguarded actress, Winger’s more reserved turn here is genuinely startling, her smile strained and puckered as Martha seems to try to be regular, self-assured Debra Winger when at a social event. The role never comes off as a stunt because the actress is still actively listening throughout, brightening as Gabriel Byrne’s sensitive cad begins a romance with her. Martha doesn’t ask for much—something for herself and recognition of her honesty (or outright inability to tell a lie—but by the time she sees what it is she wants, she’s willing to push for it, whether she’s fighting her aunt (Barbara Hershey) or her friend’s skeevy boyfriend (David Straithairn).

“Shadowlands,” meanwhile, sees Winger with a thicker accent than usual a sort of clipped New Yorker tone as Joy Davidman, the American poet and friend (and later wife) of C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins). Like her “Terms of Endearment” performance before it, Winger’s turn is one of rare playfulness in a largely conventional setting. Her every word and gesture seems designed to slightly challenge Lewis, not out of spite, but just enough to puncture the dead air of politeness and get to his heart. When the two do marry, she calls out Lewis’ tendency to keep even those close to him at a remove, arranging a life “where no one can touch you.” If he’s to be her friend and husband, he’s to allow for the possibility of being hurt. That possibility becomes reality when (shades of “Terms” again) Joy is diagnosed with cancer, but as in “Terms,” the playfulness doesn’t leave the performance, with her still teasing his English propriety.

Winger earned her third Oscar nomination for “Shadowlands” before ending her run with an appearance in the Billy Crystal comedy “Forget Paris.” Though a more conventional (and frequently cloying) vehicle, it does still cast her as a woman who expects more from her marriage and her life, with Winger usually coming off as the more emotionally mature and flexible than Crystal while pushing him to make the same sacrifices she’s made for him. Winger signed onto one more movie, the Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp costarring “Divine Rapture,” in 1995 before the film fell apart due to financial woes, before abruptly disappearing from movies for six years. In her hiatus, she appeared in a production of Anton Chekhov’s “Ivanov,” married her “Wilder Napalm” costar Arliss Howard, and had a son. Her lengthy absence inspired a documentary, “Searching for Debra Winger,” in which director Rosanna Arquette explores the difficulties of being an actress in Hollywood (though Winger herself seems wary of attributing larger reasons to her absence).

And yet, Winger’s decision is in keeping with her choices over her career, her choices in characters, the choices her characters make to try to find whatever it is they’re looking for, with the success of a Paula or Sissy rather than the sad failure of a Kit. As someone with a clear love for acting but an open dislike for the business that goes into it, there’s no need to take roles just to take them. In her not-exactly-a-memoir Undiscovered, she writes:

“Although I have participated in the odd film project here and there over the last twelve years, I had no real desire to hop back on that merry-go-round. I watched others as they grabbed for the golden ring and felt fine out in the country on my pony. It is a strange experience to be so in a certain world, and then not. I tried to imagine how to start anew.”

Those odd film projects haven’t always been worthy of her talents (her husband’s “Big Bad Love,” “Eulogy,” “Lola Versus”), but at least three of her supporting roles in the last decade have been events. In “Rachel Getting Married” (directed by the late, great Jonathan Demme), Winger’s own absence from the film world seems to inform the more painful absence of Abby from Kym (Anne Hathaway) and Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) life. She’s colder and more distant here than she’s been before, her smiles forced, her husky laugh covering up a lack of comfort being there for her children. Where Rachel is, by nature, gentler when asking her mother if there’s anything more she’d like to do for the wedding, the more troubled Kym brings the fire out of her, with Abby first avoiding her gaze in their confrontation, then lashing out violently. It’s a startling performance that wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if not for Winger’s break.

The same break informs her arc in “In Treatment,” reunited with her “A Dangerous Woman” costar Byrne as Frances, an actress having trouble remembering her lines after she fixates on her sister’s impending death from breast cancer. Closer in demeanor to the Winger of old (even teasing Byrne’s therapist about a possible attraction he might feel for her), she nevertheless self-excoriates for being a bad daughter to her now deceased mother, a bad sister, a bad mother, while relishing in addressing the ageism and sexism that fiftysomething actresses face. By the time she reaches her final episode in the season and brings up her sister entrusting her with an important decision, we’ve seen a woman who hasn’t totally overcome the resentment and guilt she’s dealt with for years, but someone who has come closer to reckoning with unintended consequences that sometimes come with forging your own path.

Even Winger’s turn in the more middle-of-the-road sitcom “The Ranch” sees her in a complicated role as Maggie, the hippieish, bar-owning wife of Sam Elliott’s stubborn, hard-bitten rancher, Beau. The show’s best scenes are between the two, with Maggie carving out an independent way of living with her semi-estranged husband (living in her own trailer and meeting him for sex) and hashing out why their marriage doesn’t work anymore. If anything, Winger taking on a complex role in a modest series suggests a performer comfortable with the choices she’s made and confident that the work, on its own, counts. Her return to a lead role has been a long time coming, but she never really went away. She just found a way to stay on her own terms.

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