Debra Winger: A woman of substance

Debra Winger abandoned Hollywood at the height of her fame to make a real life. Sholto Byrnes hears how a childhood trauma changed the way she sees the world
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The Independent Online

Whatever happened to Debra Winger? Ten years ago the Oscar-nominated actress told her agent not to accept any more scripts, and walked away from Hollywood.

Whatever happened to Debra Winger? Ten years ago the Oscar-nominated actress told her agent not to accept any more scripts, and walked away from Hollywood.

The star of An Officer and A Gentleman and Urban Cowboy wasn't just turning down parts that she thought beneath her, as she had once done with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Nor was she bothered about being stereotyped as the "tragic female lead" - as characterised her roles in films like Shadowlands or Terms of Endearment. Debra Winger simply wasn't having anything more to do with the film industry. Period.

She vanished so successfully, that three years ago Rosanna Arquette made a documentary called Searching for Debra Winger. An indie-hit, Arquette's quest focussed on the pressure Hollywood places on women to change once they reach 40, the age at which Winger turned her back on the big studios. "I didn't see it because I was very embarrassed by it," she says. "Don't you get embarrassed when people compliment you?" she asks. "Perhaps I should fawn over you and see how you like it.

"I hear women got something out of it, seeing actresses who are put up on a pedestal talking about their lives," she finally concedes when I push her. "But that whole thing seems untoward to me. People who make lots of money at what they do should just shut up about it. If you want to get a facelift, get a facelift. Don't sit there and talk about why you got it because of the pressure."

Did she speak to Arquette about it afterwards? "Yuh, I called her and said I've worked for seven years on my obscurity, and thanks to you in one fell swoop my name's back out there again. I mean, next time just ask!", she laughs - a deep, gurgling, throaty affair she once described as sounding like walnuts being crushed underwater.

Obscurity is overstating it somewhat. The petite, pretty actress sitting opposite me in the Colonnade Townhouse hotel in Little Venice, London, has not exactly been hiding herself away. After a long break, she has recently returned to film. Although the ones she does tend to act in appear on cable television - especially the housewives' favourite channel Lifetime - and the roles are not as glamorous, her performances still reach millions of viewers.

Still, it's a very different tale from her glory years in the Eighties, when the not-quite-beautiful girl from Ohio tore through Hollywood - and a lot of her fellow actors.

She started as Linda Carter's kid sister in Wonderwoman, but soon made a name for herself on the big screen, excelling at terminal illness roles and at playing, as the film writer David Thomson put it, "witches, pirates, gangsters, and wild, wilder women".

Off-screen, she was truculent with journalists - when filming Shadowlands in 1993, she famously insisted one interview be conducted in the open air so that she could leave if she didn't like any of the questions - difficult with directors, and given to lobbing insults at her co-stars - Richard Gere was "a brick wall" and John Malkovich "a runway model".

Her love life was chaotic, and her attitude to convention was summed up by a photo-shoot she did with Annie Leibovitz. Not many A-list actresses would be happy to be pictured French-kissing their German Shepherd dogs, no matter how fond they were of them.

But then she left celebrity behind her. She taught a course in "The Literature of Social Reflection" at Harvard for a year, travelled to China in search of giant pandas, and moved to upstate New York with her second husband, Arliss Howard, and their three sons (two from previous unions), Sam, Noah and Babe.

Some may expect Winger to be dissatisfied with her lot. It seems odd that the actress should be so willing to give up the limelight at the height of her fame. Or that her subsequent career in made-for-TV films seems like a comedown. But she remains emphatic.

"It doesn't matter what I feel [about my films ending up on television], because it's going to happen anyway," she says. "I mean, when I started my career VCRs didn't exist. I remember saying that casually in front of my children and they looked at me like I was a fossil in a museum, ha! But then everyone went to the movie theatre, because the film wasn't going to be on TV for a long while. Now there are umpteen actors, and celebrity is so cheap. It's like a huge supermarket, and you don't know what to get. But if you have a mom and pop store at the corner where you know that they did the work, you can just get anything off the shelves."

I take her somewhat illusory speaking style to be her way of praising the integrity of independent film-makers, or of actors like her who have refused to bend to Hollywood's demands any more. Frequently found working together, Winger and her husband could be described as their own "mom and pop store". Together they make films about subjects that matter to them, like Sometime in April, in which Winger played Prudence Bushnell, a US government official working in Africa during the genocide in Rwanda, and Dawn Anna, about a woman whose daughter was shot in the Columbine school incident. She seems very content with her lot, still celebrating her "liberation" from the tyranny of auditions and agents' phone calls. Besides, there are other subjects to occupy her now.

Two years ago she was approached by Sightsavers. Winger has travelled to Belize and Kenya with the charity, and will go to India later this year. She has a particularly personal connection to the work; as a teenager, Winger was thrown from a moving vehicle and suffered a cerebral haemorrhage.

She was blind for nearly a year. The experience made her very aware of the stigma that can accompany such a disability. "I even cringe now when you bring it up," she says. "You know, I was 17, a time in your life when you feel immortal. You don't sit around thinking that everything could just end."

The trauma of losing her sight, she says, left her with a feeling of shame.

"If trauma is the door," she explains, "shame is the foot that sticks itself right at the bottom so you can't slam it shut, but I didn't know that for years.

"I don't know if it changed my life forever, but it did give me some ballast at that age that I might not have had."

It also, she thinks, marked her out. "I remember Francis Coppola once looked at me and said 'what happened to you?' We had just met, so I said 'what?'"

Coppola, who had had polio as a teenager, could instantly identify Winger as someone else whose childhood had been interrupted by devastating illness. "He said, 'you're in the club, what happened?' He just knew."

Even now, she says, not a day passes when she doesn't think about it. "It's not negative, it's not dark, just that death is an accepted part of my life most days. That can inspire you to decide that you're not going to end up in a malaise."

Once she decided to work with Sightsavers, Winger knew that this was a cause she would be involved with for the rest of her life.

"You see people on TV flying in to places just to pick up a baby, or brush some flies away. That's great if they can bring that issue to public attention. But that's not what I wanted to do. I was interested in committing to something that I could function in whether I was Debra Winger or not. Because nobody might care about that next week."

There are few movie stars one can imagine treating the transience of fame so lightly. Debra Winger seems to be one of the lucky ones, someone who's been able to leave it all behind her without a regret. Next time someone wants to include her name in a documentary, though, perhaps they should ask.

www.sightsavers.org; 07000 14 20 20

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