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Notebook Primer: Debra Winger

An in-depth look at the singular career and performances of Debra Winger.
Cristina Cacioppo
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
As Debra Winger has told it, when she was fourteen and expressed interest in acting, her father had her meet George Cukor, whose alarm system he had previously installed. Unimpressed, the lauded classical Hollywood director dismissed her, saying she had “no class” and that her voice and her walk were all wrong. Much changed between then and when she broke through in Urban Cowboy (1980)—change in the industry as well as in Winger herself—but you can imagine the potential there, hard to recognize as she was never quite polished the way most actresses are, a quality that is likely what made her so beguiling in the early 1980s.
The origin story of Debra Winger is that several years after that Cukor meeting she got into an accident that left her blinded for months, and she vowed that if she recovered, she would follow her dream to be an actress. Her screen presence is of someone fearless, a lived-in quality that makes you believe her. At her peak, many would describe her as a “girl next door” type, which could be the result of how alive she feels on screen—like you could reach out and touch her. And that voice that Cukor didn’t know what to make of became one of her defining features. You might even find it in the vocal track of E.T. (1982)—Winger provided a temporary track for the darling alien, and some bits of her work remains in the final mix.
Above: Urban Cowboy (1980)
Finding images or video of Winger’s early appearance as Wonder Woman sidekick Wonder Girl in the 1970s TV series has a startling effect since in the following decades of her career she's rarely costumed.  Typically she has little to no make-up on, and most of her roles are that of working-class women. When she captivated audiences as Sissy in Urban Cowboy, she did so with her bright eyes, despite her iconic tight-fitting tank top and jeans. With a playfully seductive mechanical bull ride, her natural sensuality was undeniable. It was clear movies needed her.
Above: An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
Debra Winger was always thoughtful about the roles she selected, and having ample time to research her characters was essential to her. And if she wasn’t happy with the finished product, she would probably say so on the record. Following Urban Cowboy in 1982 she co-starred in both Cannery Row and An Officer and a Gentleman, the former of which is unremarkable, though she is charming and shows comedic promise. The latter helped solidify her stardom, but afterward she spoke of what an awful time she had on set due to the producers, whom she would call “pigs.” As Paula Pofrifki, a paper mill worker who chases the new air force trainees in town, Winger has a brimming physicality. In the most intimate scene between her and Richard Gere she embodies a complex mix of desire and sadness, tears not quite filling her eyes as her body moves over Gere’s. She has said the environment on set during this scene was so uncomfortable that she chose to let herself be raw with emotion, and it shows—she is naked beyond being nude, utterly exposed and vulnerable.
Above: Terms of Endearment (1983)
Following these roles, where she mostly played the love interest, Terms of Endearment (1983) put her front and center ( alongside Shirley MacLaine) as Emma Horton, a woman who balances her fraught relationship with her mother Aurora (MacLaine) with her own challenges of marriage and motherhood. Emma is satisfied being a mother, with no career ambitions, and here Winger makes her a bold, confident woman, even as she grapples with her husband’s infidelity (she’s got her own side-thing going on anyway). One striking scene finds Emma out of her element in New York City with her longtime friend Patsy and her social circle—all immaculately clothed and coiffed professionals who don’t know what to make of the somewhat dowdy Emma’s satisfaction with her place in life. It’s a heartbreaker of a movie and Winger brings humor and wisdom, maybe even reminds you of someone in your own family and this makes Emma’s fate even more devastating to witness because Winger wins your love so effortlessly.
With Terms of Endearment she reached her highest heights and the press began to focus on her reputation for being“difficult” on set. She and Richard Gere didn’t get along; Shirley MacLaine noted her “turbulent brilliance” in a backhanded compliment during her Oscar acceptance speech (both were nominated for Terms of Endearment). Winger herself didn’t sweat the label—she knew what “difficult” was code for. Directors that worked well with her would say she would fight for what she believed in and was usually right. James Bridges, who directed Urban Cowboy and wrote Mike’s Murder (1984) for Winger, said ''When you work with a nice person, what you get on screen is 'nice' and nothing more. When you work with fire, there's smoke on the screen.'' Winger has the distinction of gaining Bette Davis’s admiration—Davis said she saw herself in Winger’s temperament.
Above: Mike's Murder (1984)
Another admirer of Winger was critic Pauline Kael, who noted her as “a major reason to go on seeing movies in the eighties.” This comment seems to point at a decline in the quality of movies of that decade, and compared to the New Hollywood era that preceded it, broadly speaking, there is a shallowness to many mainstream movies of the 1980s. The films of Debra Winger defy that trend, and with qualities more akin to the New Hollywood aesthetic. Mike’s Murder was her first role after Terms of Endearment, and it is a hard movie to classify, even if James Bridges' original concept, that the story be told in reserve chronology, didn’t happen. Winger plays Betty, a bank clerk in Los Angeles whose sometimes-lover Mike is killed. Betty seeks answers, and here Winger’s entrancing eyes do most of the work as she observes and reacts to a distinctly L.A. world of debauchery.
Above: Legal Eagles (1986)
Next Winger appeared in the Ivan Reitman comedy Legal Eagles (1986). Not happy with the final product, she would say in an interview that she felt like “a slice of rye in a loaf of wonder bread” (her co-stars were Robert Redford and Darryl Hannah). She does seem out of place here as a lawyer clad in a boxy suit, with a knowing smile too smart for the material. 
Above: Black Widow (1987)
Rounding out the 80s with a couple of thrillers, Winger had her pick between the two lead roles in Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow (1987). Ultimately she opted for the role of the federal agent looking for a woman who is murdering her rich husbands, opposite Theresa Russell. Her instincts were right as she is quite believable as Alexandra, a workaholic who avoids romance and doesn’t think much about her appearance. But when she goes undercover in Hawaii and befriends Russell’s murderous Catharine, she gets a makeover and is suddenly tan and glamorous. There is a sexual chemistry between Winger and Russell but the movie doesn’t have the guts to explore it beyond a kiss.
Above: Betrayed (1988)
Her other late 80s thriller is a strange one—Betrayed (1988) by Costa-Gavras with a screenplay by Joe Eszterhas. Here she once again plays a federal agent who gets in too deep as she is investigating a white supremacist militia, falling in love with Gary (Tom Berenger) before she realizes he is directly involved in the militia. We first see her driving a combine (back to her working-class roots) which establishes her regular-gal status before Gary and company bring her into the fold. Winger plays both sides well because she can be both the down-to-earth country girl type and the plucky agent. As she is put in harm’s way, having to downplay the horrors she is witnessing as Gary’s lover, she projects a unique and very Winger-esque vulnerability.
Above: The Sheltering Sky (1990) Below: A Dangerous Woman (1993)
Throughout the 1990s, Debra Winger continued to challenge herself. In The Sheltering Sky (1990) she has cropped hair and a chic wardrobe as Kit, a woman following her husband through post-World War II North Africa. For the final thirty minutes or so, she is covered in robes and silent, her eyes framed effectively to express disorientation and surrender. Her dedication to thoroughly fleshing out complex characters that are rarely seen on film was very present in A Dangerous Woman (1993), though the movie itself cannot match her. As Martha, a woman with an undiagnosed developmental disorder, she is all ticks and tension, but it is never cartoonish. Winger pushed to include a scene in which Martha masturbates—she felt it was important to show how a woman like  Martha expressed her sexuality. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t really work, because there are not often female characters like this. The very same year found her in another Oscar-nominated role, here as Joy Gresham in Shadowlands (1993), which depicts the relationship between her and author C.S. Lewis. It is the first time Winger, who was raised an Orthodox Jew, plays an overtly Jewish character, a recognizably brassy New York type who is too loud for the Oxford environment of Lewis. 
Above: Searching for Debra Winger (2002)
Shortly after a busy 1993, with those two intense roles (as well as the more playful Wilder Napalm—where she met future husband Arliss Howard), Winger stepped away from the movie business—something that shocked many in the industry. When she talks about it, she doesn’t mark it as a devastating choice. She just felt like exploring elsewhere and she ended up teaching at Harvard, buying a farm, and writing the book “Undiscovered,” a collection of essays and musings more than a straight memoir. So she was surprised to find herself the title subject of Rosanna Arquette’s Searching for Debra Winger (2002), a documentary in which Arquette set out to try and understand what happens to actresses as they age within the industry, and how they balance motherhood with a career. Winger thought she was just one of several actresses being interviewed for the project, not considering herself the “poster child” for any trend. The documentary finds her at her upstate New York home, perfectly content with her choice. She describes it as “taking a break,” and thankfully this wasn’t the last we’d see of her.
Above: In Treatment (2010)
She returned to the screen for a few roles in the early 2000s, including husband Arliss Howard’s TV Movie Dawn Anna (2005) which earned her an Emmy nomination, Winger gained more attention for her small but impactful part in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (2008). As Abby, distanced mother to damaged Kym (Anne Hathaway), she has a surface smile that tenses up as her daughter seems to need more from her. This builds over a few encounters until it finally breaks, and Abby turns violent against Kym, hinting at the past horrors between the two. Many were thrilled for this return of Debra Winger, but she wasn’t in any rush. It would be a couple more years until she showed up again, this time in the TV series In Treatment (2010). With a performance limited to a therapist’s sofa, she conveys depth as Frances, a famous actress grappling with her sister’s imminent death and a teenage daughter who has shut her out of her life. 
Above: The Lovers (2017)
Continuing to be selective over the past decade, mostly appearing in TV series like The Ranch (2016), Winger eventually found a character she could really sink her teeth into as Mary in The Lovers (2017). She worked closely with director Azazel Jacobs, who she admired after seeing Terri (2011), to find the right script, and it is a credit to Jacobs that he was open to collaboration because in Mary we find a seldom seen female character, one over 60 who displays sexuality in a complex way. The story finds Mary and Michael (Tracy Letts), a longtime married couple both being unfaithful and separately plotting to leave the other, suddenly finding each other again. Winger seems completely at ease about showing her body, and inhabits Mary in such a believable way, glancing half-suspiciously, half-indifferently at Michael as he fumbles for excuses that she isn’t asking for. It is such a welcome dynamic, one can only wonder if Winger would star in more movies if she had something better to work with?
Above: Kajillionaire (2020)
Most recently she was unrecognizable in Miranda July’s Kajillionaire (2020), as a cold, delusional grifter so intent on training her daughter to follow her parents' lead, she forgets to be a nurturer of any kind. The only other time Winger was more disguised was her uncredited role in Made in Heaven (1987), as Emmett, a sort of anti-guardian angel. Chain-smoking, dapper in a three-piece suit and full of nervous ticks, her voice pitched to the deep part, Winger plays this other-worldly character with ease. Maybe she took the part to be around then-husband Timothy Hutton; maybe she liked the chance to play at something completely different—probably both. Whatever the reason, we can trust that now as then she’ll continue to surprise us with her choices.
Above: Made in Heaven (1987)

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