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Showing her soft edges

Special to The Times

FOR A period in the early ‘80s, no one could do it like Debra Winger.

She was just 25 years old when she made “Urban Cowboy,” and her emotionally ferocious performance sent shock waves through the movie world. In the film, when she asks costar John Travolta if he’s a “real cowboy,” audiences could immediately grasp what Winger was all about: Here was the kind of woman who craved the truth and had to seek it out.

In 1982, she gave Richard Gere all he could handle in “An Officer and a Gentleman.” There was an Oscar nomination, then another for “Terms of Endearment,” in 1983. However, as the decade faded and Winger moved through her mid-30s, and then into her 40s, she drifted away from Hollywood, eventually retreating to her farm in upstate New York.

The considerable legend that surrounded Winger deepened. What was going on? Had she quit the spotlight for good?

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Not quite. Turns out, she was just recalibrating her internal compass. Now, in her early 50s, , Winger has decided to return to the game, but it’s clear that she doesn’t have a master plan -- or need one. This is improvisation for her, and although she’s not entirely comfortable with it, she’s going with the flow and offering up some impressive work.

For starters, she’s become an author. Her first book, a memoir titled “Undiscovered,” was published a few months ago by Simon & Schuster. And she’s back on the big screen, appearing alongside Anne Hathaway in director Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” a daring, dysfunctional-family drama that already has Oscar buzz building around Hathaway’s performance as Kym, a recovering drug addict trying to redeem herself in time for her sister’s wedding. .

Welcome to the new Winger, a whole lot mellower but still as artistically uncompromising as the old Winger. You could call it a comeback, but Winger won’t, because she hates the term. Maybe “existential struggle” would be more appropriate. “That’s the thing about showbiz these days,” she says. “Nothing is the same. So what am I coming back to? I’m just living my life and looking to work as an actress again.”

In “Rachel Getting Married,” Winger plays Kym and Rachel’s mother, Abby, divorced from the girls’ father (Bill Irwin) but living nearby and participating in the raucous, music-drenched nuptials that Demme has created out of Jenny Lumet’s script. Next to Kym, Abby is the most damaged member of her fractured clan; actually, they share each other’s damage, at a profound level. It’s a condition that achieves violent display in a critical scene between Winger and Hathaway, and both actresses, the veteran and the up-and-comer, bring it and bring it hard.

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“Jonathan said, ‘I want you to develop your character and show up,’ ” Winger recalled. Essentially, the actors never got to stop acting. Adding another wrinkle was the presence of a roving soundtrack, in the form of a band of musicians whose constant jam sessions were woven in to the tapestry of the movie.

Winger says of her character that “she didn’t understand her at first,” how to imbue a tragedy-tinged woman with both disorganized rage and a powerful survival instinct. But at the heart of her performance is her own experience as a mother.

She had a son with her first husband, Timothy Hutton, and a second with her current husband, actor-director Arliss Howard. For a period of time, she home-schooled her kids. It’s no stretch to say that her enthusiasm for mothering has defined her more mature years. The days when she could be tagged as a “capacious consumer of drugs, drink and men,” as she was in a New York Times profile from 1994, are pretty much over (“I didn’t do anything worse than Jack Nicholson or Roman Polanski,” she said back then, a retort that provided insight into whom she saw as her contemporaries).

Her toned-down lifestyle appears to agree with her. When she was in Los Angeles several months ago to promote “Undiscovered,” she sat down for coffee near Book Soup on Sunset. For an actress who gained a reputation for, in the parlance of the industry, being “difficult,” she’s an effortless conversationalist, a far cry from the scrappy upstart who was known for wrangling with directors and taking on the likes of “Terms” costar and co-Oscar nominee Shirley MacLaine (Winger still isn’t ready to let that one go).

“It was like armor,” she said. “It kept the fainthearted at a distance. But perhaps I was too tough. It was overkill.” Not that she’s trying to bury her reputation. “People on the outside of the movie business don’t understand that artists fight sometimes.” Or, as she puts it in the book: “I sent a somewhat raunchy, often rude version of myself out there to deal with many of the indignities that film acting could provide.”

In retrospect, that approach seems justified, and well worth the payoff. Winger has always been relentless. Her ability to commit to a role can be awe-inspiring, and she has earned the respect of such cinematic luminaries as Bernardo Bertolucci and Richard Attenborough. But she’s also come to represent, unintentionally, the contemporary Hollywood problem of grappling with thoroughbred female talents as they age.

Rosanna Arquette made Winger into an emblem for this depressing state of affairs by titling her 2002 documentary on the plight of older actresses “Searching for Debra Winger.” In it, a jaw-dropping cavalcade of just plain gorgeous, mature women -- Diane Lane, Charlotte Rampling, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, to name a few -- discuss why the good roles just aren’t there for them anymore.

Winger appears toward the end of the film and lends an uncompromisingly wise tenor to the proceedings. It’s as if she’s taking a bewildered Arquette and stroking her gently on her rocker-chick head before giving her a quick lesson on how to trim boxwoods. Placid is also part of her repertoire.

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Wisdom, of course, is usually presaged by brains, which Winger does not lack. But she seems to think by feel, organizing her thoughts on the fly, or in fragments of writing. Her smarts on screen come across with immediacy; on the page, they build to subtle crescendos. Much of “Undiscovered” was composed on movie sets -- one section was even written in longhand on a jacket, when no paper was handy. The manuscript was shaped over several years, with the assistance of freelance editor David E. Outerbridge.

The resulting book is deeply unusual; it blends memoir, meandering speculation, the occasional poem, musings on country life and illustrations by Winger’s friend, French aerialist Philippe Petit (he walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, an event celebrated in the recent documentary “Man on Wire”). Ever wonder what it might be like to go inside the head of an actress whom Pauline Kael called “a major reason to go on seeing movies in the eighties”? Well, that’s pretty much what you have here: slow-burn scriptotherapy.

“Debra demonstrates tremendous skill and appeal as a writer,” said David Rosenthal, executive vice president and publisher at Simon & Schuster, who has worked with Bob Dylan, Hunter S. Thompson and James Carville. “She’s very opinionated, but she challenges you to do things the best way you can. She has a clear vision of what she wants.”

In the movie business, Winger’s steadfastness can intimidate. “Jonathan had to gather enough courage to send Debra the script,” said Neda Armian, a longtime collaborator with Demme who produced “Rachel Getting Married.” (Winger and Demme ran in similar circles in the ‘80s, and they currently live near each other in New York, but they had never worked together, or even met, prior to “Rachel Getting Married.”)

But Armian balks at calling her performance a comeback. “That’s not her style. She’s talented, in demand and has a large fan base. Someone who’s in that position doesn’t need a comeback.”


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