FILM / Up where she belongs: A decade ago Debra Winger had the film world at her feet. A year ago her career seemed to be on its last legs. Now she is back, with an Oscar nomination. David Thomson is a fan
Sunday 27 February 1994
Debra Winger is up for the Best Actress Oscar as a wilful, aggressively attractive woman who dies of cancer. So tender, so tough; who else could get that dangerous fragility? It's just like 10 years ago. Now the film is Shadowlands; then it was Terms of Endearment. But now she is nudging 39, willing to make wry remarks about being 'in the twilight of my career'. Her Charlie Parker laugh is deeper now, or wiser; in 1983 it was full of challenge and wild hopes.
The intervening years might have killed most careers, and there have always been people in Hollywood waiting and hoping to see the end of Winger. She has never been as placid or obedient as they wanted. So many of her films flopped. Yet her cult following has endured, and even now, with Shadowlands in vogue, Wingerites will tell you that, yes, she gave a sensational performance in 1993 - the one in A Dangerous Woman, a drama directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal that did little business.
In 1983, she was at her peak, though everyone then saw promise of more. After playing Wonder Woman's kid sister on television and doing a few small movies, she lunged forward on a mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy. James Bridges, the director, had cast her in that film against studio disapproval and built up her part when he saw how uninhibited she was riding the bull. The whole film changed a little (and John Travolta was never quite the same again - such ballsiness daunted him).
Urban Cowboy was the first of three big box- office movies. The others were An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment. She was nominated for the last two and widely hailed as the most mercurial, subversive, in-your-face, sexy and unpredictable young actress around. She was hot and talked about: her gurgling, raucous laugh teased rumours that she was the voice of ET (she was only a part of it, mixed with the voice of an old lady).
There were projects lining up for her, but she was discriminating, or difficult. She turned down the soft female leads in hits such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Arthur. Instead she hankered for darker and wayward projects, such as the life stories of the drug-ridden silent-screen star Mabel Normand or the bisexual torch singer Libby Holman. Could such things happen? Could an outspoken, plainly Jewish girl from the San Fernando Valley, who dared anyone to look closely and say, 'Damn, I'm not sure you're pretty, not movie-star pretty]', could that kind of woman be a star? Aaron Latham (the writer on Urban Cowboy) had an odd intuition of her strength (and her problem) when he said, sure, she was like a star - just like Brando, Clift or Dean.
She had a new film coming, one that James Bridges had written as a vehicle for her: Mike's Murder. In advance, people said it would reveal her as a major star. I saw a test screening of Mike's Murder early in 1982 and I happened to be sitting behind Alan Ladd Jr, the then head of Ladd Company, which had made Mike's Murder. Mr Ladd is not much taller than his father, but long before the screening was over it seemed his seat was empty. He diminished as the audience started laughing at his thriller, talking back to it, mocking the dopey lines. To this day, that preview is famous as a Hollywood horror. The picture was put on hold and much re-editing was done. It was released in 1984, by which time it was no worse than wretched, and not as entertaining.
Winger had been over-extended in Mike's Murder. She had to be afraid for most of the film (as well as foolish), and neither mood played to her strengths. She came off as monotonous and hollow in the stupid fabrication. It might have been just a blip in her progress but Cannery Row had failed in 1982 and now there were stories that Winger was a little crazy, a little too far into sex and drugs, and so tough-minded she could be hell to work with. Though An Officer and a Gentleman had flourished, the rumours were that Winger, Richard Gere and director Taylor Hackford had co- existed in a state of desperate loathing. Hackford said Winger was impetuous and self- destructive. On Terms of Endearment, that famous maverick Shirley MacLaine had been rattled by the kid.
A magazine commissioned a picture of Winger from Helmut Newton - a brutal close- up, the scar on her cheek flagrant, her eyes seeming bruised, an ash-heavy fag drooping from battered lips. This wasn't Brando or Clift, this was more like Lee Marvin or Neville Brand. Her atmosphere had changed.
In the next few years, she worked less than one might have wanted. She was publicly involved in a love affair with Bob Kerrey, the Democratic governor of Nebraska, who would become senator and then presidential candidate. Then she married actor Timothy Hutton, had a son, Noah, and divorced after two years.
On screen, she allowed herself to be a part of Legal Eagles, a package put together by her agency so that several people could make easy money (her part had been set once for Bill Murray, which helps explain why you can't remember what she does in the picture). For Black Widow, she was offered her choice of roles: the serial killer or the investigator. She chose the latter, playing it blue collar, dogged and rather dull, whereas she might have been lifted and helped by the enigmatic killer. Betrayed lost a lot of money and was another of those pictures audiences talked back to. Not so with Everybody Wins, an Arthur Miller script directed by Karel Reisz. I saw it twice and there was no talk - because there was no one else in the theatre. It cost dollars 16m and grossed less than dollars 1m. Winger was trying to play a schizophrenic, but everybody lost.
In the same period, she had declined to take the Holly Hunter role in Broadcast News (written and directed by James Brooks, who had won best picture with Terms of Endearment). Of course, career decisions are only proved in hindsight, and no single actor or actress is responsible for a disaster. Failure begins in the script, in the large team of players and production team; it is determined by money, timing and luck. Still, Winger had become famous for woeful choices, in great part because she was fierce about choosing. She did not intend to be pushed around - a fine attitude, Hollywood says, but watch out if your nerve starts to crack. When Melanie Griffith couldn't or wouldn't do The Sheltering Sky, Winger stepped in - by then, the line waiting for her had gone for a walk. The Sheltering Sky seemed like an important picture: a great novel by Paul Bowles, which directors had dreamt of doing for decades, and Bernardo Bertolucci in charge, the man who had just done The Last Emperor.
Winger had never been better, or more daring. With great skill, she had appropriated the look of Paul Bowles's wife, Jane. She allowed several kinds of nudity, always stirring yet casual and ordinary, too, so that you felt you were seeing sex for the first time. She seemed moved by the spaciness and the moral emptiness of the north African desert. There are moments of greatness in The Sheltering Sky. On the other hand, she and John Malkovich never seemed to like each other, and as the film went on it lost Bowles's magisterial coolness and became a bizarre remake of The Sheik, with Western woman learning the secret of great sex from the Arab. Winger is astonishing in The Sheltering Sky, but the film baffled audiences. It was her fifth flop since Terms of Endearment and it seemed like the end of the line.
She was off the screen for a couple of years. As The Sheltering Sky wrapped, it was said, she had drifted off into the desert to make her private peace. She was intent on being a good mother to Noah. She began to make a radical move from Los Angeles, where she had been raised, to New York. At the same time, director Penny Marshall replaced her with Geena Davis on A League of Their Own.
Then there was talk of a return, one last burst of activity. But she had been passed by a new generation, considered but rejected for many roles taken by Holly Hunter, Geena Davis, Jodie Foster, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sigourney Weaver. Actresses have no more time than an athlete to be as good as they want to be.
So she took the female lead, very subsidiary to Steve Martin, in Leap of Faith, where her role is sneeringly referred to as 'Gidget in the Dustbowl'. It's a humdrum picture and she's routine in it. When the film opened, she was hardly used in the advertising. Then there was Wilder Napalm. This was a real movie, with Winger, Dennis Quaid and Arliss Howard. They are carnival fire magicians and both in love with her. The film opened in the US early in 1993, and it played like a rain shower. I never got to see it; I've never met anyone who saw it. In a way, it's better not having seen it, for in its limbo it stands as the ultimately forlorn Debra Winger picture.
In its way, Wilder Napalm would have been a perfect farewell: a thunderous title, flaming passion in the mind's eye, but a lost film, straight from the can to legend, without passing video. But Debra Winger is wiry in spirit, tenacious, fuck-you impertinent and no polite candidate for never-never land. She kept at it. A Dangerous Woman is not a good film; it went through much re-editing without finding solution and I can't believe that too many people had much hope for it. Part of the film's problem is that we're never quite sure how retarded the Winger character is, or whether she's mentally disturbed. Her status floats, as if blurred in the re-editing.
She plays a plain-looking woman in a small town, a woman who isn't quite all there, but who is honest about what she sees and feels - that's what makes her dangerous. The film didn't do good business in America, but Winger was noticed: she got a Golden Globe nomination. Much as I admire Holly Hunter in The Piano, I think that Winger's performance in A Dangerous Woman had no equal in 1993 for heartfelt technical accomplishment devoted to the revelation of a rare personality in a movie that offered scant help.
None of this is meant to disparage her Joy Gresham in Shadowlands. Joy is an ideal Winger role: an American poet a little overawed at first by her own predicament and by English propriety, but gradually drawn out until she strips away the hypocrisy of one Oxford don and gently guides another into love. Winger is prettier than ever, and heartbreakingly haggard as Joy becomes ill: she never lends herself to glamour, but approaches beauty in extreme circumstances. She is funny, smart and always ready to explode.
The film is a success and now Winger has a fresh chance at a cantankerous and enchanting maturity - like Ethel Barrymore or Katharine Hepburn - a really dangerous old lady. This is an actress who needs to play witches, pirates, gangsters and wild, wilder women.
'Shadowlands' (U): Odeon WE (071-930 7615) and selected cinemas from Fri, general release 18 Mar. 'A Dangerous Woman' follows in May.
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