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A string of roles in campy projects like the TV series "Wonder Woman" (ABC/CBS, 1976-79) gave no indication that Debra Winger was destined to become one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation. In fact, her fiercely committed and emotional performances in such popular and critically regarded films as "Urban Cowboy" (1980) and "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982) solidified her as a leading performer with few peers. Winger appeared to reach the peak of her popularity and abilities with her turn as a terminally ill daughter in James Brooks' haunting "Terms of Endearment" (1983), which earned her an Academy Award nomination and unanimous praise from the film community. But a mercurial personality - brought to light by her well-publicized squabbles with her "Endearment" co-star Shirley MacLaine and "Gentleman" director Taylor Hackford and co-star Richard Gere - cast a pall over her career, as did several ill-advised career decisions. By the time she had reached age 40, Winger had largely turned her back on the movie industry; becoming, in the process, a symbol of the plight faced by Hollywood actresses of a certain age. This unfair, unspoken Hollywood mindset was chronicled in the documentary,...
A string of roles in campy projects like the TV series "Wonder Woman" (ABC/CBS, 1976-79) gave no indication that Debra Winger was destined to become one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation. In fact, her fiercely committed and emotional performances in such popular and critically regarded films as "Urban Cowboy" (1980) and "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982) solidified her as a leading performer with few peers. Winger appeared to reach the peak of her popularity and abilities with her turn as a terminally ill daughter in James Brooks' haunting "Terms of Endearment" (1983), which earned her an Academy Award nomination and unanimous praise from the film community. But a mercurial personality - brought to light by her well-publicized squabbles with her "Endearment" co-star Shirley MacLaine and "Gentleman" director Taylor Hackford and co-star Richard Gere - cast a pall over her career, as did several ill-advised career decisions. By the time she had reached age 40, Winger had largely turned her back on the movie industry; becoming, in the process, a symbol of the plight faced by Hollywood actresses of a certain age. This unfair, unspoken Hollywood mindset was chronicled in the documentary, "Searching for Debra Winger" - which was the first public exposure the actress had received in years. Perhaps it was this confrontation of the issue raised by many middle-aged actresses which helped turn the tide, causing Winger to slowly return to acting in the new millennium. Although she would never again reach her early Eighties peak, Winger's later performances in such features as "Rachel Getting Married" (2008) proved age had no bearing on the actress' timeless appeal.
Born Mary Debra Winger in Cleveland, OH on May 16, 1955, she was the daughter of meat packer Robert Winger (who named her after his favorite actress, Debra Paget) and mother Ruth Felder, an office manager. The family relocated to Southern California when Winger was five, where she showed an aptitude for schoolwork that resulted in her graduating from high school at just 15 years old. She also developed a passion for acting, but kept it a secret from her family. Reports were conflicted about her late teenage years, which found her traveling to Israel to spend time on a kibbutz or participate in a youth group that visited one. She also allegedly joined the Israeli army's youth program for a brief stint, but left after only a few months. Upon her return, she found work as a performer at a local amusement park, but was involved in a traumatic car accident that left her both blind and paralyzed for several months. During her recuperation, she made a personal vow that if she regained all of her facilities, she would dedicate her life to acting. After she recovered, she left her studies in criminology at California State University at Northridge and relocated to Los Angeles to try her hand in Hollywood.
After studying under actor and playwright Michael V. Gazzo and appearing in a string of television commercials, she made her film debut in a hapless sexploitation film called "Slumber Party '57" (1976), which also marked her first time appearing nude on screen. Slightly less embarrassing was a three-episode turn as Drusilla, a.k.a. "Wonder Girl" and younger sister to Lynda Carter's Diana Prince on "Wonder Woman" (decades later, Winger would spoof her participation in the show by appearing in full Wonder Girl gear on "Late Night with David Letterman"). Eventually, she found straight dramatic work in episodic television, graduating to studio features with the cheesy disco comedy "Thank God It's Friday" (1978) and "French Postcards" (1979), though neither film would increase her profile.
Her big break came when Sissy Spacek turned down the chance to play John Travolta's love interest in James Bridges' "Urban Cowboy" (1980). Winger was cast over fellow newcomer Michelle Pfeiffer in the role of Sissy, a fiery and independent young woman whose skill at mechanical bull riding puts a wedge in her new marriage to Travolta's self-styled cowboy. Her confident and appealing performance in a huge hit picture helped put her on the map, and Winger was soon fielding offers from producers for leading roles in major motion pictures. Her choice of follow-up for "Cowboy" was "Cannery Row" (1982), a drama based on the John Steinbeck novel that was already earning negative press for the firing of Raquel Welch as female lead after only eight days of filming. The film landed dead on arrival in theaters, but her next project, "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982), thrust her back into the spotlight. A sudsy romance about a working class Navy aspirant (Richard Gere) and the local girl (Winger) he loves, the film registered strongly with viewers yearning for an old-fashioned movie romance. Winger herself was nominated for an Academy Award as the tough but soft-hearted factory worker who falls for Gere's white-suited hero who sweeps her off her feet to the timeless song, "Up Where We Belong." And while "Gentleman" solidified her status as one of the decade's most popular leading actresses, it also cemented her reputation as a demanding and often difficult talent, thanks to her frequent off-screen clashes with Gere and director Taylor Hackford. In fact, it was later rumored, Gere and Winger could barely get through their love scenes together due to the level of contempt between them.
After the success of "Gentleman," Winger earned her oddest credit to date: her husky tones were mixed into the vocal track that would give voice to "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982). That blip preceded one of her greatest screen achievements as Emma Greenway Horton, who manages to find personal happiness and peace in her tumultuous relationship with her mother (Shirley MacLaine) before succumbing to cancer in James L. Brooks' Oscar-winning family drama, "Terms of Endearment" (1983). A huge success with audiences in nearly every demographic, the film swept the 1984 Academy Awards, though Winger did not bring home the trophy for her nominated turn. In fact, MacLaine, her rival in the Best Actress category, did and much was made in the press - who would win: the mother or the daughter? Despite the tidal wave of love and acclaim for the film, "Endearment" was marked by conflict between nearly all of its participants, but few were as well-covered by the press as Winger's feud with MacLaine. Unfortunately, her reputation as a combative performer was beginning to cast a pall over her career just as it was taking off.
Speculation over the various factors that contributed to Winger's fall from grace in Hollywood were dissected for years. Some believed that her relationship with Robert Kerrey, governor of Nebraska, may have had an effect on her status, while others cited her refusal to appear in a number of projects that went on to become huge hits, including "Fatal Attraction" (1987), "Bull Durham" (1988) and "The Fabulous Baker Boys" (1987). The films that she chose to participate in yielded little by way of critical or audience response; the drama "Mike's Murder" (1982) for "Cowboy" director James Bridges was completed in 1982 but took an additional two years to reach theaters, whereupon it flopped mightily. A comeback of sorts was sought with the comedy "Legal Eagles" (1986), but the results were wan and largely joyless, and Winger's comments to the press about director Ivan Reitman being the second worst director she had ever worked with (after Hackford) did not endear her to many filmmakers.
For the next few years, Winger stumbled through one forgotten project after another; "Made in Heaven" (1987) was a ghastly arthouse-styled comedy that cast Winger as a chain-smoking male angel, while "Black Widow" (1987) was a stylish return to detective noir that generated little heat, despite hints of romantic yearning between Winger's agent and Theresa Russell's femme fatale. Winger closed the decade with what looked like a surefire hit - the comedy "Everybody Wins" (1990), which reunited her with "Cannery Row" co-star Nick Nolte for a script written by famed playwright Arthur Miller, but the film expired quickly at the box office. Even her personal life seemed in turmoil - a marriage to actor Timothy Hutton in 1986 produced a son, Noah, but ended in divorce just four years later. A 1994 newspaper profile which described her appetite for alcohol, illegal substances and men as "rapacious" certainly did not help change public opinions of her.
Detached from her longtime agency, CAA, Winger drifted through arthouse and mainstream features for much of the early 1990s. Some earned critical respect, like Bernardo Bertolucci's adaptation of Paul Bowles' "The Sheltering Sky" (1990), while others, like the Steve Martin comedy "Leap of Faith" (1992) and "Forget Paris" (1995), in which she co-starred with Billy Crystal, were commercial flops. She also continued to turn down potential hits, as evidenced by her departure from Penny Marshall's "A League of Her Own," in which she would have played Geena Davis' leading role. The sole bright spot of the period came in 1993, when she co-starred opposite Anthony Hopkins in "Shadowlands," a modest drama about the relationship between English author C.S. Lewis and p t Joy Gresham (Winger). Her performance landed her a third Oscar nomination and her first positive reviews in some time. That year, Winger also met actor and filmmaker Arliss Howard on the set of the largely forgotten film, "Wilder Napalm;" the pair fell in love and married three years later.
In 1995, Winger began her self-imposed exile from the film industry. Her attention shifted to the birth of her son Babe Ruth Howard, as well as to caring for her ailing parents. For six years, Winger kept her distance from acting - save for a semester as a teaching fellow at Harvard University and a turn opposite her husband in the play "How I Learned to Drive" at the American Repertory Theater in Massachusetts. Her absence from films was soon cited by critics and fellow actresses alike as the unfair fate awaiting many female performers once they reached the age of 40. In 2002, actress Rosanna Arquette made her the focus of a documentary about this struggle called "Searching for Debra Winger," which culminated with a thoughtful explanation of Winger's reasons for leaving the Hollywood scene in favor of a personal life she feared to lose.
Perhaps rallied by the documentary and the spotlight it had shone on the actress, eventually Winger made in-roads back to acting. Her first feature film after her hiatus was 2001's "Big Bad Love," an indie drama starring and directed by her husband, who cast her as the ex-wife of his struggling writer. It failed to reach a wide audience, but her appearance generated considerable press. Hollywood soon beckoned, but her efforts in that area - the syrupy drama "Radio" (2003) and "Eulogy" (2004), a terrific black comedy that was scuttled by the dissolution of Lionsgate - also met with early demises. Apparently undaunted, she continued to seek acting roles, earning an Emmy nomination for Howard's "Dawn Anna," a 2005 Lifetime movie about a woman who recovers from a brain operation only to lose her daughter in the 1999 Columbine High School tragedy.
In 2008, Winger gained rave notices as the mother of two radically different daughters - one (Rosemarie DeWitt) on the verge of happiness through marriage; the other (Anne Hathaway) attempting to recover from years of drug abuse - in Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married." Critics hailed Winger's performance as a powerful return to the strength of her 1980s heyday, though the years had clearly given the actress a degree of clarity and composure that may have been missing from that early period. Winger also earned critical praise for a memoir, Undiscovered, which was released that same year.
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