Debra Winger: Dangerous Woman

  • Share
  • Read Later
In the jungle called Hollywood, there are two tribes. One is the brown-eyed honey drippers, the other the blue-eyed truth tellers. The honey drippers address their valet parkers as darling, glad-hand everyone who brunches at Patrick's, and make movies they hope the whole world will pay to see. The truth tellers take risks and make trouble. They sign up for roles in eccentric movies and turn down parts in surefire hits. They go their own way, never fretting if others don't follow.

In Hollywood the honey drippers are legion. As for the blue-eyed truth tellers -- those strange, spiky creatures who might be avoided and ought to be cherished -- they could all be called Debra Winger.

Truth teller is perhaps the kindest name that the industry would think to call the actress, whose strong will has often butted against Hollywood's tender backside. She was outspoken in her early plush years, when potent turns in Urban Cowboy, An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment made her the movies' most promising -- and delivering -- young actress. She wore her wild streak in public: sex, drugs, locking horns with directors and co-stars. She turned down meaty roles in several popular films (including Broadcast News) and walked off another (A League of Their Own). Her star waned with brash parts in The Sheltering Sky and Everybody Wins. She made amber waves in Nebraska while trysting with Governor Bob Kerrey, before and after her two- year marriage to actor Timothy Hutton.

Winger is unlikely to change, now that she is a full-time mother with a revived career -- earning critical kudos for her role as poet Joy Gresham in Shadowlands and a Golden Globe nomination for the aptly named A Dangerous Woman. "I really don't care," Winger sighs, in her champagne-and-cigarettes voice, when the subject of her reputation is broached. "I'd rather have the freedom to say what I want. Sometimes I wish I were more graceful, but, hey, I'm not -- though I'm working on it. And frankly, I'm more interested in people who are deemed difficult. Usually difficulty is just another word for friction, and friction creates heat. I think friction is a good thing."

Fortunately, Richard Attenborough came to the same conclusion. In casting Shadowlands, the director was looking for "an actress who in her own personality had some of the feisty, slightly abrasive elements of Joy Gresham. I knew of Debra's 'difficult' reputation -- of being quite a girl, as we say at home. So I said, 'I don't mind if you slap me around the head -- if at the end of the day what appears on the screen is what we all want.' And of course what happened was that she absolutely came up with the goods."

She had never lost them. At 38, Winger is no longer Hollywood's prime smart cutie. But this dangerous woman is still a beautiful one, with the searchlight intelligence radiating from her blue eyes and the seeming spontaneity, even surprise, at the corners of her famous smile. And her pretty gifts have matured. She mixes the old guts and softness more daringly now, and the lock she has on her characters is stronger than The Club.

For much of A Dangerous Woman and Shadowlands, Winger plays against her comely strengths. She almost shields her eyes -- she knows they can too easily seduce the camera -- and she makes the audience struggle to like her characters. Her Joy Gresham, dressed dowdily and flaunting a broad Noo Yawk accent, seems at first punished into caricature. Martha in A Dangerous Woman trudges through town as an ostentatious object of pity. The actress won't do all the work; viewers must meet her halfway. With a Winger woman, it's always worth the effort. Joy grows subtly to human size -- to a humanity that grows as her body decays. And Martha is eventually illuminated with audacious grace notes: a sick smile at a saleswoman's kindness, a tongue stuck out helpfully for her first lover.

The success of Shadowlands is "just icing" for Winger. "I was lucky enough early on to have huge blockbusters, and I saw what that meant to my life. It wasn't something I wanted. Unless you want to do the same film all the time, you have to take chances. For me it's not about box office anymore. Some people treat movies like a business, like playing the stock market, and I admire them if they do it well. I like seeing wildly entertaining films like The Fugitive and In the Line of Fire. I just don't want to be in them. That much. Part of me thinks it would be fun to run around and be silly, but I'm sure that feeling would last about two weeks."

Winger senses a mystical bond between her reel and real lives. "I don't know what comes first, the life or the art," she says, "but I think the life does. I feel it coming on, and boom! a script appears. Always it works that way. I had just endured two horrible deaths of dear friends from cancer, and then Shadowlands appeared. It's really sort of magical. If it stops being like this, I'll get out."

She has already gotten out of Hollywood. The Los Angeles area, where Winger had lived since she was six, had become "just a place I touched down. The minute I had to spend any real time there, I'd go nuts." She keeps adjacent apartments on Manhattan's Upper West Side, but home for her now is a farmhouse in upper New York State, where she plants feed corn, harvests apples ("That was a pain in the butt!") and raises Noah.

Noah is her six-year-old son by Hutton. He was a year old when his parents separated, though Hutton has become closer to Noah as the child has grown. A neighbor takes care of the farm, especially when Winger is away, but she has no cook or nanny. Noah is learning French and the recorder at a local school, but Mom is his home-room teacher. She takes him on all her film shoots.

"It is hard," Winger says, "when you split and the kid is so young. Noah would walk for the first time and I'd go 'Ahhhh!' and nobody was there to share it. But at some point I realized that I could be alone." She now conducts what she describes only as "long-distance romances," but Noah is her main man.

"It's lonely sometimes," Winger says, "but I am really pals with my kid. I can't talk to him about everything, but he's great company. If it weren't for him, I'd really begin to wonder what the hell I was doing here. Of course, there are some days when I put him to sleep and say, 'Well, Noah, this was a cop day. I felt like a cop all day.' He'll say, 'Ohhhh, sorry, I'll try to do better tomorrow.' "

These days, Winger isn't worried about her career tomorrows; she has no , films in her immediate future. Her main mission is, in her words, "to send someone off who will be able to go further than I go. I was my parents' third kid; the other two were normal. And now, as a parent, I know that the deepest, darkest secret about children is, 'Where did they get it from? We didn't teach them that -- where did they get it?' "

If Noah grows up to be a strong, willful, sensitive fellow with a great gift for acting, he should have a clue where he got it. And if he doesn't, a certain blue-eyed truth teller will let him know.