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HOLLYWOOD AND THE EXERCISE OF POWER : THE MOVIE STAR

Times Staff Writer

Stars with real power have always known how to use it. When Marilyn Monroe walked off the bandstand after an umpteenth take on “Some Like It Hot,” she scowled at director Billy Wilder. “Put a black rinse on the blonde in the third row,” MM said coldly. Monroe was so conscious of her image as a star that she let nobody compete--there were no other blondes. Power, however, has little to do with identity, which even the best film stars admit can be a problem. (It’s why they play roles.) An identity crisis is why Monroe left Hollywood at her peak, in 1955, to study acting in New York. She wanted to be more than powerful, she wanted to act, to find herself.

Debra Winger--who’s on the brink of “moving my entire life to New York"--also has an identity that might be called fluid. Like Monroe, she operates from intuition, not intellect. And the Hollywood community can’t figure her out. She is one of the handful of Hollywood’s Yes People. Her yes gets a movie made, but Winger is more apt to say no--to “Broadcast News,” to “Nuts,” to “Peggy Sue Got Married,” to “Marie,” to “Crimes of the Heart,” to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” to “Arthur,” and a hundred others. Her movies aren’t always career moves--and that’s one reason why Hollywood is so taken with her. She makes decisions the business community doesn’t understand. (Example: She chose to do “Black Widow” and not to do “Bull Durham.”) And she doesn’t mingle. “I certainly tried to live like a movie star,” said the girl who never dreamed of being one. “But it didn’t work for me.”

Winger’s star behavior is different from Monroe’s--it’s not about glamour, or maintaining an image. At 33 Winger has a half-dozen years on Meryl Streep (her only real competition) and a career that doesn’t rely on looks. And yet almost every Winger movie features backstage trauma stories. On a set in Alberta filming Costa-Gavras’ “Betrayed” (it opened this weekend), Winger one day stopped a take midway through.

She didn’t like the approach to a scene with Tom Berenger, who plays a widowed Midwestern farmer who marries her and then reveals himself to be a white supremacist. Winger had known all along that Michelle Pfeiffer and Darryl Hannah--Winger calls them “young blondes with wheat-colored hair"--were first choices to play the undercover FBI agent who falls hard for Berenger. Within certain limits Winger can do anything, but she can’t play blonde.

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Winger remembers shooting Costa-Gavras a look, then asking him: “ How would Michelle do it?’ ' Her whine was from Cleveland, and so was the insecurity.

The director’s response: “You worry too much. You remind me of Simone Signoret.”

The idea of a list with the names Debra Winger and Michelle Pfeiffer and Darryl Hannah sounds odd. Hannah is merely this decade’s blonde. As an actress, Hannah can’t shine Winger’s boots--and it’s taken Pfeiffer 10 years and a half-dozen movies to do what Winger did overnight in “Urban Cowboy"--become a star. (Pfeiffer even now is relying a lot on cheekbones.) But putting Winger on any list seems odd; ultimately she’s a chameleon. Wandering the halls at the 1984 Academy Awards, on the arm of 20th Century Fox Chairman Barry Diller, Winger went almost unrecognized even by insiders--and she was a nominee that year for Best Actress. In short, a Winger could never be a sandwich at the Stage Deli.

On Saying ‘No’

Her major strength as a star--"my only real power,” as she put it--is her ability to say no. “I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t say no. Or walk away. Because I weigh it against my life every time. You have to have standards you won’t lower. To be able to say there are things you won’t do, and know what they are. For me that’s not hard. It’s like being in a family that’s too poor to buy things. It’s easy to say no. But then I learned real fast about this town.”

Winger’s laugh is that of a 14-year-old who’s tasted whiskey. “I say ‘This town’ like I was Barbara Stanwyck or somebody. ‘Honey, in this town. . . .’ ”

The company town can’t control Winger, or predict her moves. Either she fuses with directors (like Jim Brooks, Jim Bridges) or she rubs them the wrong way (like Taylor Hackford, Ivan Reitman). Bridges made her a star with “Urban Cowboy,” then wrote “Mike’s Murder” for her. Brooks directed her in “Terms,” then wrote “Broadcast News” and gave it to her first--but Winger got pregnant and missed the calling. (With 11-month-old Noah, her son by Timothy Hutton, from whom she’s separated at the moment.) In the ‘80s, how many directors have written movies for specific actresses and finally got them made?

Last week Brooks and Bridges commented on the actress they helped shape. Brooks went into a stream-of-consciousness to explain Winger: “At-risk, absence of cynicism, vibrant, no false pockets. There are only a few world-class talents in their early thirties. I think she’s having a wonderful career.” Bridges: “She’s one of those original people who’s made for what’s happened to them. I knew from the first image I saw on a screen--she has that thing that happens. I don’t think she’s gotten in her own way at all. She’s not worked enough. But if this was another decade she would probably be under contract to David O. Selznick and making six pictures a year.”

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Winger hasn’t worked in a year, since finishing “Betrayed” a year ago July. But she’s a case study in Hollywood power because of how she plays the game: In 1986 Winger was the first star to leave Creative Artists Agency (CAA), after being unhappy about being packaged with Robert Redford in the $39-million unfunny comedy “Legal Eagles.” (Redford and Winger were promised that it would be an updated “Adam’s Rib,” but it wasn’t. Winger complained that the movie was edited with a chain saw.)

Even without an agent--and in spite of Costa-Gavras wanting wheat-hair for “Betrayed"--a very pregnant Winger convinced the director that she was right. Costa-Gavras sat in Winger’s backyard at Point Dume and decided on the spot. Winger got an early look at the script because her attorney Barry Hirsch also represented the screenwriter Joe Eszterhas; the casting was a matter of timing.

Then late last year another Winger jolt hit the town: The actress returned to CAA--or, more specifically, to CAA agent Rick Nicita. Insiders felt it was like a KGB defector coming home.

In a Plain Envelope

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Ask Winger if she ever fantasized about stardom, and she looks at you like you are crazy. In person, curled up on a sofa in a West Hollywood office, Winger seems so open as to be almost naked. Wearing a black T-shirt dress and no makeup, smoking unfiltered Camels, she takes an observer on an uninterrupted four-hour trip. The way to keep up with her is simply to tune-in--closely. Director Brooks likens her to the smartest girl in class, the one you want to study with for final exams. As coffee was delivered in Styrofoam cups, she demurred: “I don’t want to be a prima donna, but could I have a mug or a real cup? White Styrofoam cups remind me of movie sets.”

The cracks-and-plaster voice has more octaves than E.T.--in fact, Steven Spielberg used a mix of Winger’s voice and that of an older woman’s for the little dickens. But Winger is too intense to be E.T.-like. Not that intensity means she’s actressy. Actresses prepare for interviews, but don’t admit it. Winger admitted to preparing the night before this interview by reading Henry Miller so as to be more quotable. “See, I don’t want to be an actress at any cost,” she said easily. “I only want to act if I can do it great.”

The star has said that the real Winger has never been seen onscreen. Offscreen she seems ready for any question, and blunt with her answers. Only when a phone call came from Timothy Hutton did Winger go off-the-record. “If you would ask me about him, I would say no comment. People see us together and say ‘Are they together?’ So silly. When you’ve been married, you’re always everything. . . . But I play straight with the press,” she said comfortably. “Every six months you have to put some gossip out there, and I do it.”

Whether it was her public relationship with former Nebraska Gov. Robert Kerrey or her private problems with co-star Richard Gere (on “Officer and a Gentleman”), Winger is controversial. She’d rather talk about D.H. Lawrence than Hollywood agencies--but she’s savvy enough to know what questions are coming. “On the last interview, for American Film, we were discussing quantum physics . . . and I knew any minute we’d be on to the CAA question. I could feel it coming.”

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Winger acted without an agent for her first three films. “So it wasn’t like I thought I couldn’t exist without an agent. Then after ‘Officer and a Gentleman,’ I went with Rick (Nicita).” Just after “Betrayed,” Winger returned to Nicita, but on different terms. The name Debra Winger is not now mentioned aloud in CAA corridors. When the agent sends the star a script, it’s in a plain white envelope. If a note is attached, it’s on plain white paper--no agency logo.

“I don’t see it as going back,” Winger said edgily, tired of the question but not ducking it. “I’ve strummed up a different relationship with Rick. I believe in championing the individual, and so does he. Being with an agent brings in something . . . the social atmosphere of the business. So you stay in contact more; you’re not as isolated, and waiting for things to come to you. It’s a dangerous thing to wait for things to come to you. It’s Newton’s Law of Motion that a body at rest will stay that way.”

What Winger missed during the hiatus from CAA was contact. The Hutton household at Point Dume is a long way from town, and Winger tends to her son without a nanny. “You won’t have very many friends at the end of the week if you only talk about work,” Winger said simply. “See, I have an old-fashioned idea of talking to an agent every day about work. It’s old-fashioned because even if an agent’s personality is that way, the business isn’t. The business is more package oriented. . . . But my idea of an agent is someone who knows you so well--what you are going through in your life--that he can say, ‘Do this. It’s Peter Brook directing, and it will take in everything you are going through.’ ”

Looking for Material

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Winger has an even more old-fashioned sense of being paid to work. She knows she could set up Debra Winger Productions at any studio, and she knows on some level it would wreck her. She is notorious for not having three films in development, for working full-out on one film at a time. The irony is that she’s one actress who’s obsessive enough to make a good producer--but she’s not interested.

“If a studio gives me money, I need to go to work,” she said simply. “There are a lot of people in Hollywood who spin plates. Remember the guy on ‘Ed Sullivan’ who keeps seven plates spinning at once? Well, I can’t spin plates. People collect money here without doing anything, and I’m politically opposed to it. It’s a middle-class Ohio Jewish work habit that I have . . . so I don’t fit into this hype-and-jive category. So I don’t really benefit from this modern way of dealing. . . . Maybe my mistake was in pointing my finger at CAA. They’re doing their thing, they’re doing it very well. It’s a modern thing, and maybe I’m just not up to modern times.”

Or maybe it’s just this community. Winger’s disappointment at the non-nurturing nature of Hollywood is idealistic, almost like an echo of Monroe. “I’m heading for New York because I’m not finding things I want to work on here. I’m not finding material. I feel maybe it happens more in theater. People coming together to work for natural, organic, artistic reasons. That sounds maybe too blunt, but it’s the way great things happen. My sense is that there are people there who aren’t afraid to sit down in a room and read plays. I may be naive and get my face slapped.”

On the other hand it won’t be surprising if Winger becomes a stage actress--the way Julie Harris went back to Broadway after “East of Eden.” That prospect doesn’t scare her. “I get weak knees at certain points. But I never turn back. I’m the kind of person, if I forget something at home, I keep driving. I don’t go back for it. I figure I gotta keep going forward, not looking down, not looking at the sides. It’s like when I left CAA. At times it did become scary. But I just forged through it. That’s the only courageous aspect. Because the decision was my choice.”

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Star Leverage

Smart people in the movie business inevitably say that they think they’d “like” Winger if they knew her--but haven’t met her. “With Debra,” says her friend Penny Marshall, who almost directed her in “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “It’s about living at the beach. And it being too far to schlep in. I’m a part of the community if somebody picks me up. With Debra it’s her own car, and it’s harder. But she and I are in sync. We have the same amount of staying power at Hollywood events. And she was the first person to ask me to direct.”

Partly what people like about Winger are her choices. They are fascinated that she would say no to Steven Spielberg (on “Raiders”) or to this year’s very sought-after “The Good Mother,” which ultimately went to Diane Keaton. Saying no--especially in a sparse era in terms of good screenplays--is seen as strength.

“It’s part of my creative strength, yeah,” she agreed. “I get transformed every time I make a movie. That’s the big argument with agents. ‘Say you like a project now,’ they say. ‘Don’t be afraid of it.’ But who knows how I’ll feel when the time comes? Saying no is your only real bargaining power. I need time for my life. I don’t have the stuff to go from one film to another. That’s like lining up your life, and it doesn’t work. If you know what you are going to do next year, you become that.”

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Winger learned about star leverage even before she had it. “ ‘Urban Cowboy’ was the first real deal I ever made, and I learned real fast.” Winger was maybe the 200th actress to read for the part of Sissy (for which Sissy Spacek was first choice). “The stuff was hitting the fan, cause it was like Scarlett O’Hara Wars. They were flying actresses in and out of Houston. (Director) Jim Bridges really wanted me, but the powers-that-were at Paramount didn’t.”

Winger paused to light a cigarette, then walked to an unopened window, opened it, and exhaled. “At one point I said to Bridges, ‘No more.’ I told him, ‘Either I do it or I don’t.’ Because at that point I was starting to feel bad about myself. And nothing was worth that. So even when you have no leverage. . . .”

But still you have competition: There are only so many “Terms of Endearments” or “Bull Durhams” in a given year, but Winger doesn’t see herself as competing. “You always know there’s the next young starlet coming along. There’s already another actress right next to you. There’s always another blonde. I can remember being in waiting rooms to audition for commercials, being a little overweight. There would be every possible choice for beauty, and then there’s me. You feel awkward. You have to give up the awkwardness.”

The Bumps

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Early on Winger was unspectacular, unpromising, hardly a candidate for stardom. George Cukor, as a favor to her father (who had installed Cukor’s burglar alarm system) saw Mary Debra Winger when she was 14; Cukor saw no particular promise. After leaving home (and trying Israel briefly), Winger did TV things like “Police Woman” and “Wonder Woman” (playing Lynda Carter’s kid sister). Then came the kind of corner-turner (or career maker) that Hollywood novels are made of.

On New Year’s Eve 1973 she fell out of a truck at Magic Mountain, where she worked as a costumed troll. The cerebral hemorrhage and temporary blindness gave her resolve--to become not just another actress but a star. Suddenly there was chutzpah: Winger’s grandfather had been the first Ohioan to ride a Harley Davidson to California, so there was spirit in the family. But not until Debra Winger fell off that truck did she have any real ambition. “In the hospital I decided I’d become the first blind actress"--she means star--"with speed bumps on stage.”

The bumps are off-stage, of course. Winger’s career looks like a game of chance at almost every point: Spacek was only one of many wanted for “Urban Cowboy,” but the chemistry with John Travolta was off; Raquel Welch was fired from “Cannery Row”; Bill Murray was originally wanted for Winger’s attorney role in “Legal Eagles.”

She laughed about her luck. “I followed in everybody’s dust for a while.” Now people follow in her dust. It was Winger who turned down “Marie” before Spacek got it. “Yeah. Now sometimes I turn around and say, ‘Wow! She took that and I turned it down.’ Like Susan (Sarandon) was meant to do ‘Bull Durham.’ It came clear to me when I saw it. If I had done it, it wouldn’t have been the same movie.”

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Eight movies, eight years, no disappointments? “I believe you get in when you are supposed to. If you believe in something more than anyone else . . . they’d be a fool not to hire you. I mean I felt very passionate about ‘The Good Mother’ (based on the controversial novel by Sue Miller about a woman involved in an ugly custody case) but I couldn’t do it. Maybe because it was a package, I don’t know. It’s too weird for me to talk about. ‘Cause on some level it’s saying I turned parts down.”

Dishing

Winger is at a tricky age for an actress. The desperation about age crops up later, closer to 40. It’s what writer/director Joe Mankiewicz calls “the Four-O Syndrome. Fortyish. The bitterly sad point of no return for an actress. A kind of professional menopause.” Winger isn’t yet worried, but she knows what happens to actresses as they curve in on 40.

“An actor’s greatest gift is to know what she looks at any given time. Faye Dunaway has always been good about that. In acting class, 20-year-olds want to play old. It’s an actor’s disease. To know what’s right for you at your time of life is a gift. I always want someone to catch me before I do something stupid, and say, ‘No, Debra you are too old.’ I’ll take that very well, by the way. Even though I’ll probably feel like I’m 19.”

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But what about her looks, is Winger smart about them? Her eyes became the size of black agates. “I don’t know if I’m smart, but I try to pay attention. It’s definitely something I think about. I’m always worrying because I feel older than I am. . . . Once you’re a mother, man, once you’ve carried this kid around, and given birth to it, you pretty much never feel the same.”

Looking at Winger and knowing the wild-youth stories about her, you wonder something: Why doesn’t she look beat up? And why does she no longer swear like a truck driver? Off the record, Winger co-workers will tell you what she puts herself through on a set--the I-can’t live-through-this torture one associates with a Wunderkind composer--and the question becomes: Why doesn’t the torture show physically?

“Some roles use your sexual energy, and some passion inside of you. You know what happens when you fall in love? You change. It’s a life force that comes up in you.” And it’s temperament, too, that’s been there in every female movie star from Bette Davis to Betty Hutton. Davis says Winger is the one actress with enough temperament to inherit her mantle. “When you work with nice, what you get is nice,” as Brooks put it. “When you work with fire, you get smoke on the screen.”

To be clear, Winger does not storm off movie sets like scenes from cliche Hollywood movies. She is more apt to be overbearing--not in a star-ego sense but in terms of the work. On “Urban Cowboy” she stayed up all night before the cemetery scene, then got Bridges to stay up all the next night to rewrite it. (“I thought I was going to go insane,” Bridges said at the time.) For “Cannery Row” she moved into her trailer on the MGM lot, and went all-night bowling and carousing in Culver City with (co-star) Nick Nolte. For the noir -cult film “Mike’s Murder,” she moved into the Westwood Marquis hotel to get the sense of the simple Brentwood girl who falls in love. (To prepare for a crying scene she listened to tapes of her mother talking.)

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Compared to Men

Winger’s cabin in the outback of New Mexico was her favorite hideaway before her marriage to Hutton. One doesn’t sense she’s very rural; the mind is always working. “But for an actor to be good, you have to recharge. It’s not a bottomless pit. I think you can name the actors who probably thought it was.” Words like revitalize , nurture and fed come up. “I spent a lot of years trashing myself when I worked, then recovering when I didn’t. I can’t do that anymore.”

Winger curled her finger like a schoolteacher who’s caught you telling a fib. “Your mistake,” she said lightly, “was you thought I took care of myself when I worked, and trashed myself the rest of the time. The truth,” she added, laughing hoarsely, “is that I’ve learned how to trash myself when I’m not working. I’ve learned how to do it in my time off. By trashing, by the way, I mean emotional badgering of myself--not physical.”

There’s machismo here. Winger more than any actress of her generation is compared to men--to actors like Robert DeNiro and Jack Nicholson. (Nicholson has said, “She’s a lot like me.”) She says the comparison to male stars “helps me . . . it makes me feel more courageous. The female stuff I got genetically, right? So I like having a little macho in there.”

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Or is it intensity? Winger tucked her legs under herself, and responded: “We’re talking about intensity, yes. Women often shy away from intensity. How many actresses--as great as you think they are--would you call intense ? Not very many. Intensity means present tense, full of life. Human development doesn’t care about gender.”

One of the girls who’s one of the boys. There are those who would have predicted the burn-out of Debra Winger by now. Possibly in a James Dean sort of way. As Jim Brooks put it, “There’s no second gear with Debra. She goes all out.”

“It’s the chance you take,” Winger answered about burning out. “Henry Miller trashed himself every day until he was 85. He said we wake up daily, only to slaughter our best instincts. Me, I would die before I burned out. See, to me, intensity is the opposite of burn-out--I get ignited. . . . It’s not like fizzling out. Physical trashing will burn you out. But I’m talking about sticking it to yourself. Am I being honest here?”

Winger can go off on more intelligent tangents than Marlon Brando but unfailingly she gets back to the point. “Sometimes I worry that in this media age we just talk at each other, meaninglessly. People aren’t listening--they’re just thinking of the next thing to say. It’s a National Enquirer mentality where we talk about a woman who ate a dog to survive. We have become a lot about garbage and fiction.”

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Hollywood Money

Debra Winger does not want to be a conglomerate--she doesn’t particularly want to develop and co-produce movies like Goldie Hawn and Sally Field. She wants to be an actress only. “My only interest--and sometimes my self-flagellation--is about ‘Did I work hard enough?’ ‘Did I go deep enough?’ ‘Did I understand enough?’ ”

Winger understands business when she wants to, but money is one of her real contradictions. Her family was the Winger Bros. Meat Packers in Cleveland, before grapes-of-wrathing it to Van Nuys in 1960. “I have an image that will explain the socioeconomics of my family,” she said spontaneously. “OK, we’re in the ’57 Chevy, right, driving into our new driveway in Van Nuys for the first time. And it’s 116 degrees, it’s Labor Day. So my father says, ‘Roll up the windows. I want them to think we have air-conditioning.’ So we roll up the windows, and there we arrive, deep rivers of sweat rolling down our faces.”

Hollywood money is something Winger was forced to grapple with early. “You have to know something about business. Otherwise a studio will make you think they’re doing everything for you. And you find out they’ve sold your film down the river. So you have to know enough to find out if they’re lying.”

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You have to pay attention. “Yeah. I have to earn it a little bit, at this point. When your life becomes somewhat privileged, you have to earn it. Again that’s Ohio thinking, but it’s my thinking too. My grandfather always worried that I wasn’t saving enough money. But I never understood how to save or how to spend it. So, I ask you, where does that leave me?”

In control, whether she sees it or not. Winger could easily have remained at the career level of Wonder Woman’s little sister, but she took a leap. She perceives what’s happened as natural steps. “I only did two episodes of the TV series. I remember saying, ‘Oh, excuse me--I’m in the wrong place--this isn’t it.’ I didn’t know anything about the business. I didn’t know anyone. It only took one ‘Wonder Woman’ experience.”

There was no fear of flying--of starring in a feature with John Travolta? “I don’t believe in fear that way. You don’t go out and have an affair in order to have the guts to leave your wife. So I didn’t go out and find out if I could have a film career before I quit TV--I just quit. It didn’t work for me. I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t going to secure something because I’m not that kind of person. You just go out into the void.”

Or, in Winger’s case, she rode the bull, in one of the most erotic scenes ever put on screen, in “Urban Cowboy.” Winger laughed in remembrance. “I rode the bull! That’s so correct--I’m still riding the bull! The bull of this business. It’s because everybody’s full of it that I’m riding it, including myself mind you. . . .”

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Sense of Electricity

Hollywood is an opinionated town, and that’s one reason it has soured somewhat for Winger. Because nobody here much listens, or pays attention. Winger without a Bridges or a Brooks is questionable as a movie star. “I’m a director’s actress,” she agreed. “That’s why I have such turmoil when I don’t get along with them.” By “them” she means directors Taylor Hackford (“An Officer and a Gentleman”) and Ivan Reitman (“Legal Eagles”), both of whom she has referred to as “crude” or “animals.” Winger explains that what she is seeking in a director more than anything “is not direction but inspiration. I need to inspire and I will re-inspire. It works both ways.”

She’s not just babbling. Brooks and Bridges have both had their downs and ups with Winger. “I argued all the time with Brooks, and with Bridges,” she said almost righteously. “Bridges I’ve thrown things at, and he’s thrown them back. When I speak out against someone, I sound like a bitch. But the truth is, I have to keep that anger inside of me. If I don’t, it’s like someone saying, ‘Your God does not exist--only mine exists.’ How can they think that? So what must exist is respect.”

Studio Smarts

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Did Winger find a flammable set with her latest director Costa-Gavras? “Not in the same way as before, because we’re so new to each other. But, yeah, there were days. . . . One day he put his hand through a plate glass window,” she said, and she left it at that. “For me, a day on a set is like a month, it’s that intense. We had a collective frustration, Costa and I, and I’ll tell you why. With all due respect to Canada (where “Betrayed” was shot), their film industry has grown so fast that people who would have normally been assistants for three more years are now head of the prop department. So you ask for something, and three days later it’s still not there. When you are on the razor’s edge of trying to create something . . . you want the tray with the cold beer to be there for the scene. If it’s not there, I’m not able to fly.”

Because there’s so much money involved, no star today can afford to be dumb about studio politics or producer’s policies or power in general. “I think if I ever lost my soul,” Winger said cavalierly, “I’d go to work for a studio. I could do it pretty good. Not to say that every studio executive is soulless by any means. . . . But having a soul is not a prerequisite for the job.”

A question then arises: Does Winger or doesn’t Winger feel a part of the Hollywood community? “In and out,” she said quickly. “Not with other actors so much because there are too many of them. I don’t find a common approach often with other actors. Dustin (Hoffman) and I have to work together one day because we went to dinner, and he has a plate of mine. I took the dessert on a plate, and he kept the plate. So I figure we have to work together because I’m still waiting to get my plate back. That’s probably not the right reason to work together. . . . But you know, it’s such a long process to find the right thing, and to have the energy behind it.”

But she’s offered everything good. “Oh yes. They say, ‘This is a go, this is a go. This is the studio that has such-and-such. So-and-so is the director.” They come at you while you are working on a hard project. They say, ‘You’ll get to the location and everything is going to be ready for you. . . .’ ”

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Winger began to weary. “Somewhere I always wanted to be the hired actress.” Like Meryl Streep? “Well, if you can get the cream of the material. . . . Oh, OK,” she relented, “I guess I do get offered whatever. . . . There’s not a lot of things out there that I would say, ‘I’d kill to do that.’ ”

Why does Winger say no so much? “One wrong movie--it’s amazing the mileage the bad taste leaves in your mouth. You know how long it stays there?” Her look says forever. “So it’s better not to work than it is to get squashed. Because that takes a chunk out of you that takes a long time to repair.”

She continued: “It takes a long time to recover from ‘An Officer and a Gentleman.’ I don’t know how to say that and be political about it, or diplomatic. Yes, I was nominated (for an Academy Award, as she was for “Terms.”). I was thankful. But I’m embarrassed about it. I’m physically wounded from it. That doesn’t mean I’m afraid to work with directors I don’t know, by the way. It’s not like I’m afraid to go into unknown situations. Unknown is fine--but if I already sense something bad. . . . One rule of this business is that it doesn’t get better--it gets worse. It festers.”

Where did she learn so much? “From being on movie sets. Everything’s so peak when you are working. You are probably more receptive then than with any other learning experience--all the nerve endings are alive, everything. So whatever information goes in stays in. And hopefully you get that way about other things that you need to learn in your life. I’m talking about your spiritual development--your way to work through life.’

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Maybe Winger was best understood by Ray Bellamy, her location driver in Nebraska on “Terms of Endearment.” As he wisely observed, “She’s a nice girl who’s very ambitious.”

In Hollywood that takes you the distance.


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