Still on Her Terms


She may be well versed in Tolstoy and James Agee these days, but Debra Winger would still feel just fine taking a ride on that mechanical bull. Debra Winger--remember her? If your memory span is short or you’re under say, 30, you have every right not to. She was last on the screen in the very forgettable “Forget Paris” opposite Billy Crystal. That was six years ago.

“It’s true you haven’t seen me in a long time unless you go to the legitimate theater in Boston or you’ve been a student at Harvard,” says the actress, who has reemerged as producer and co-star of “Big Bad Love,” a small, offbeat film directed by, and starring, her husband, Arliss Howard.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 7, 2002 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 7, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Actress’ marriage--Debra Winger and her husband, actor-director Arliss Howard, met in 1991 and married in 1996. A Sunday Calendar story incorrectly characterized the length of their marriage.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 10, 2002 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Actress’ marriage--Debra Winger and her husband, actor-director Arliss Howard, met in 1991 and married in 1996. A March 3 Sunday Calendar story incorrectly characterized the length of their marriage.
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 14, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Director’s name--The director of the film “Everybody Wins” is Karel Reisz. His first name was misspelled in a March 3 story about actress Debra Winger.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 17, 2002 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Director’s name--The director of the film ‘Everybody Wins’ is Karel Reisz. His first name was misspelled in a March 3 story about actress Debra Winger.

It’s based on the short stories of Mississippi writer Larry Brown, and features Paul LeMat as Howard’s war buddy, Rosanna Arquette as a funeral home heiress and Angie Dickinson in what could only be described as the Gena Rowlands role. But clearly it is Winger, still charismatic after all these years, who has the best chance of bringing anyone into the theater--if for no other reason than to see what the heck has become of her.


Well, rest easy. The navy-blue eyes are still as expressive as ever. The velvet croak is intact. As is the voluptuous body that memorably rode that bull in her 1980 movie breakthrough, “Urban Cowboy.” OK, she’s looking close to her almost 47 years, but she doesn’t seem to mind. Nor does she look back at her quiet exit from mainstream Hollywood for most of the ‘90s with anything resembling regret. She just got fed up with the lack of interesting offers and made other choices.

“I didn’t like announce my retirement, but I didn’t look back and I was busy all the time,” says the three-time Oscar nominee (“Terms of Endearment,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Shadowlands”), sitting in the offices of IFC, which is distributing the film. She’s dressed in black slacks and sweater, her auburn hair brushed out. “Time accelerates as you get older, and now when I hear it’s been six years, it doesn’t feel like it. I mean, I had a baby, my mom passed, I taught, I did two plays. I lived my life.”

Still, to those around her and the industry in general, it felt as if she had said good riddance. “I realize that I’d created this system of roadblocks around me, so that even if there was some good material, it probably wouldn’t have gotten to me,” she concedes. “I wasn’t reading and I wasn’t out there looking. My agent bugged me for about a year, then he saw I was doing my thing and I was happy.”

That agent, Rick Nicita, says that after 20 years, he knows his client well: “It’s always been about the process more than the end result with Debra, and I just wouldn’t send her material that would lead to an experience I knew she wouldn’t enjoy. There has been an assumption she didn’t want to be in the business, and maybe having her back on screen will correct that assumption.”

Nicita admits that “Debra doesn’t always go down easily,” referring to her sometimes tempestuous behavior. In fact, some might have believed the wild-child leanings--difficult on the set and a lover of some of the finer vices in life--ultimately led to her disappearance.

“I definitely think I filled a slot,” she says. “Nobody could do everything they said I did or else I’d be dead. And there always seems to be a slot for the Hollywood bad girl. As for being tough on set, I spoke my mind and it wasn’t gender correct. Those were the days that when the male star went to his trailer, it was because he must be getting into a really intense scene. If a girl went to her trailer, she was having her period. I kind of knew it at the time and didn’t care, as long as I got to do what I wanted to do.”


Part of the erratic behavior stemmed from a near-fatal accident (she fell off the back of a truck) when she was 17. “Once you’ve come up against death, you’re part of a club,” she says. “In my 20s, I went into its negative side for a while where I felt immortal, that I could do anything, live crazily. Then it started to resonate in a good way.”

At that point, she says, she started to get more picky in her choices, and during much of her 30s was seen (or not) in less commercial fare, (“Betrayal,” “Everybody Wins,” “Sheltering Sky”), working with foreign directors such as Costa-Gavras, Karl Reisz and Bernardo Bertolucci. She was responding to an independent spirit unhampered by the money side of the film business.

Her growing disenchantment was confirmed during the unhappy experience she and Robert Redford endured on “Legal Eagles.” (“We were like POWs together,” she says, laughing.) The death knell was in 1995 when she, Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp were 21/2 weeks into shooting a film called “The Divine Rapture” in a tiny town in Ireland when the producers lost their financing, closed shop, and everyone but Winger was gone within hours.

“I’ve always said you can’t put a film together--as I just did with ‘Big Bad Love’--until you’ve seen one fall apart, as I did in Ireland,” she says. “Everyone just left in the middle of the night while I stayed until I saw that all these local people--like the fisherman who’d given us his boat and hadn’t been able to use it for weeks--got paid. I didn’t know about anyone else, but I wanted to be able to come home and sleep at night.”

From then on, the focus changed. She and Howard--who have been married 11 years--were living in New York, raising two sons, one his by a previous marriage, one hers by first husband Timothy Hutton. Both are now 14. She and Howard had a son four years ago and have since moved about 20 minutes out of the city.

There is a warm and effusive maturity about her now, and a piercing and quick wit: “Her extraordinary ability for comedy has never been tapped by Hollywood,” claims Howard, who first met Winger when they made “Wilder Napalm” (1993). “Debra started as a stand-up and is naturally very funny.”


A few years ago, she and Howard performed in “How I Learned to Drive” and “Ivanov” at the American Repertory Theatre in Boston. The timing was exquisite, as she’d simultaneously been invited by Harvard University professor and child development expert Robert Coles to be one of his teaching fellows for a class called “The Literature of Social Reflection.” She’d been introduced to Coles through her onetime companion Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska governor and senator, and had met with Coles in connection with a documentary she was researching on the spiritual life of children.

Suddenly she was cramming the classics for her work with 20 seniors whom she would lecture once a week about interpreting great literary works through their life experiences. “Debra is an intellectual, well-grounded in literature, and her contribution was phenomenal,” says Peter Emerson, a political consultant who was also a teaching fellow that semester. “Celebrity doesn’t really have any currency at Harvard, and for these students reflecting on their lives, her great facility in storytelling was what mattered.”

“I’d had a terrible lower education so this was a thrilling experience for me,” Winger recalls. “That summer before the fall I was set to teach, I never felt so alive. I’d never read in such a vibrant way. I can’t compare it to anything except when I hear the film going through the camera. You have a level of [alertness] that is like a drug.” The reading seriously slowed the past two years during which she and Howard took on “Big Bad Love.”

He and his brother James wrote the script, financing was found, and cast and crew moved to Mississippi to shoot. A few weeks in, the financing disappeared. Rather than let everyone go home while they regrouped, Winger and Howard decided to produce the film themselves, shoot and edit, and worry about distribution later.

“Arliss and I took this long walk that ended in a Mississippi graveyard at dawn and decided we’d do it ourselves,” Winger says. “We would make the film we wanted to make, not allow some Edward Scissorhands at a studio to take it over at some point.”

They were impressed with IFC because its marketing staff had experience opening small films slowly. “These are human beings who have ideas about grass-roots campaigns,” says Winger, who is involved right down to the ads. “We’re trying to pioneer having ads without those freaking quotes on them. Like Joe Shmo saying, ‘It will make you laugh, it will make you cry.’ I said just run it clean or I’ll get a quote from my gardener, because that’s what it’s come to.”


Although she doesn’t have specific expectations for the film--”Hope is a four-letter word; the movie will have its life”--clearly there’s more at stake now, evidenced by the fact that she is doing the film festivals and interviews to promote it. Should audiences find this little tale of a struggling writer and the family he abandoned, they’ll be rewarded by Winger’s take on what could have been a traditional role.

“I was intrigued with the idea of the ex-wife, which is often such a negative title,” she says. “I wanted to play how hard it is to keep the heart open when the well-worn groove is toward bitterness. Here is a woman who has every right to be bitter--he’s not helping with the kids, she’s holding down two shifts. I also didn’t want to go too far the other way, with just enough antidepressants to end up a doormat. In this world of exes we’ve become, it’s not all about lawyers and alienation.”

The chemistry with Howard is palpable, a connection that was there even before they met. Winger recalls sneaking into a multiplex and standing to watch some of “Men Don’t Leave,” starring Jessica Lange and Howard as the new man in her life. “After that movie, women referred to his portrayal as the Best Boyfriend Award,” Winger says, laughing, “so I guess I could take that one step further.”

Truth is, she’s one of those heat-generating actresses who has mustered chemistry with many of Hollywood’s leading men. Travolta was, as she says, “at the acme of Travolta-dom” when she played his young wife in “Urban Cowboy.” Still the fireworks were there. “John was and is sweet,” she says. “I didn’t say fun and I didn’t say easy, I said sweet.”

Although audiences loved her and Richard Gere in “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982), the experience was a nightmare for her. “There was a mutual respect, but it’s well-known we didn’t connect,” she says. “I was dealt an unbelievable deal during that film and felt I needed to be saved in real life, but I was only saved in the last scene of the movie. Let’s not forget I was being handed water-retention pills after they saw dailies,” she says of producers who feared she appeared overweight on screen. “The whole experience was reckless and the film was just about shelved. They had no idea what they had when they threw it out there.”

She looks back much more fondly toward Redford--”How can you not love a guy who hasn’t had facial surgery?”--and Anthony Hopkins, her co-star in “Shadowlands” (1993). “We still keep in touch. I only wish he would work a little less. He’s more complex than his roles allow him to be.” Her favorite was John Malkovich, with whom she starred in “Sheltering Sky” (1990). “I just so admire the arc of his career and he doesn’t [care] in the right way.”


From the days of “Terms of Endearment” (1983), when she hung with Jack Nicholson while locking horns with Shirley MacLaine, Winger remains a guy’s gal. “I do still have more male friends,” she says, “though it’s not like I love the way a man’s mind works. That’s an oxymoron! It’s just a lot easier sometimes, there’s not so much twisting and turning. Even though there are a lot of female executives at studios these days, for example, you need to check the long fingernails for flesh.” She’s back and still speaking the mind that is sharper than ever, and tempered only by age and experience and a healthy perspective tailor-made for these post-Sept. 11 times. “We have a really normal life--these days mostly it’s about JV basketball games,” says Winger, who says living closer to the action was really never for her. “Ever since I was a kid and lived in Los Angeles, I was spooked by the [unchanging] weather. And there’s just a consciousness on the East Coast that I prefer.”

Taking a smaller but mature role in “Big Bad Love” is not, she insists, any kind of message to Hollywood: “I don’t really know who those people are and I don’t think they offered me many movies before I disappeared, except when I was very young. For the first year and a half or so, I questioned my decision of fading out, but then, I’m a self-examiner by nature. But my mom, right before she died, reminded me how fleeting life is, and I’ve been trying really hard to witness the deal. It all goes so fast you might as well try to catch some of it.”

When she looks back at the girl on the bull, she recognizes her: “I’m basically the same, though hopefully I’ve grown at the way I look at life. It’s about how long you let yourself get away before you start the road back. I’d never claim to be evolved, but I’ve certainly re-volved several times.”


Michele Willens is a freelance writer in New York City.