Winger of Destiny
An Oscar nominee and box office sensation in the '80s, Debra Winger abruptly vanished in 1995, taking a six-year hiatus and then returning as an indie star. Her latest film, "The Lovers," hit theaters in time for her 61st birthday on May 16. Here are 15 slides that outline the surprising path of a Hollywood icon who refused to follow the straight and narrow.
Photo: Paramount Pictures
It All Began With an Accident
As a teenager, Debra Winger worked in an amusement park. One day, dressed as a troll, she was thrown from a pickup truck and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that left her partially paralyzed and blind in one eye. She was told the blindness might be permanent. Lying in a hospital bed, Winger vowed that if she ever got her life back, she'd become an actor.
Photo by Robin Platzer
The Wonder Years
In her first TV role, she played Wonder Woman's kid sister Drusilla for three episodes of the 1970s series based on the comic book superhero. Winger—seen here with several "Amazon" extras—hated the part and spent much of her salary trying to get out of her contract.
Getting in Character
Although she didn't have much training as an actor, Winger took a "method" approach to her breakthrough role as Sissy in 1980's "Urban Cowboy." To prepare for the part, she took a waitress job at Gilley's bar. After the movie went into production, she hung out with Gilley's regulars and drove Sissy's red Mustang on her days off. During filming, according to People magazine, Winger "refused to wear underwear (even beneath her bridal gown) because she thought the character wouldn't."
The Voice of E.T.
Her voice has been described as "five pounds of walnuts being cracked underwater" (People magazine) and a "sleepy, sandpapered voice rasping to an indignant squeak" (The New York Times). It was the voice of E.T. in a rough cut of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," though what you heard in the final film was mainly Pat Welsh, an elderly chain-smoker. (Fun fact: Winger also appeared in "E.T."—she played Nurse Zombie Carrying Poodle in the Halloween scene.)
Her Contract Left Her Exposed
Winger represented herself during the negotiations for 1982's "An Officer and a Gentleman" but neglected to ask for a no-nudity clause to her contract. As a result, she was obligated to play some nude scenes. Winger was less than thrilled. It didn't help that she and Richard Gere were like oil and water, keeping their distance from each other whenever the camera wasn't rolling. She later referred to her co-star as "a brick wall."
Another Famous Feud
Even worse than the tension with Richard Gere was Winger's notorious feud with Shirley MacLaine, who played her devoted mom in 1983's "Terms of Endearment." It got so bad one day that MacLaine fled the set. Both received Oscar nominations, but it was MacLaine who won. In her acceptance speech, she praised "the turbulent brilliance of Debra Winger" but added—some say pointedly—at the end: "I deserve this!"
Dating Bob Kerrey
While making "Terms of Endearment," Winger was told that the governor of Nebraska wanted to meet her. Bob Kerrey was handsome, single and a Democrat, but the actress hesitated—she thought he was too conservative and looked like a Martian. When they finally met for dinner, the two fell in love and began a relationship that lasted several years. In the end, Winger realized that she wasn't cut out to be a political spouse. As she put it, "I tried the pillbox hat for a while. But I couldn't."
Photo by Ted Thai
What Might Have Been
Even before she dropped out in the mid-'90s, Winger turned down a lot of big roles, including the female leads in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), "Fatal Attraction" (1987), "Pretty Woman" (1990) and "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991). She was set to star in 1992's "A League of Their Own," but quit when director Penny Marshall gave a supporting role to Madonna. "You're making an Elvis film!" Winger told Marshall.
On Being "Difficult"
"I had this reputation for being 'difficult,'" Winger once said. "But would a man have suffered the same accusation? He would probably have been admired for speaking his mind and be called a 'perfectionist.'" On another occasion, she noted, "I never fought about the size of my trailer or things like that; it was always about the work." That put her in good company. In a 1986 interview, Bette Davis said, "I see a great deal of myself in Debra Winger."
Let's Talk About Sex
Winger has a complex attitude toward on-screen sexuality. Despite her negative feeling about having to do nude scenes in "An Officer and a Gentleman," she insisted on adding a masturbation scene when she played the mentally challenged title character in 1993's "A Dangerous Woman," "As hard as it was to do a masturbation scene," Winger said, "I thought it was important, because that was how she'd be having sex for most of her life."
She stopped appearing in movies after "Forget Paris" in 1995. Winger moved back east, married actor/director Arliss Howard and raised three boys: Sam from Howard's first marriage, Noah from her marriage to actor Timothy Hutton, and the son they had together, called "Babe." She took on various projects and even taught a class ("The Literature of Social Reflection") at Harvard. "I used to cry on my way to work, I was so happy," she recalls. "I had this baby, I did a play, I rode my bike through Cambridge."
She Had Her Reasons
"My own life just felt more compelling than any of the stories I could be telling on screen," Winger explained. Still, her disappearance baffled many and inspired Rosanna Arquette to direct the 2002 documentary "Searching for Debra Winger," in which celebrities like Jane Fonda and Whoopi Goldberg discuss Hollywood's resistance to casting women over 40. Although Winger turned 40 the year "Forget Paris" came out, she insists that wasn't the reason she stepped back from stardom. She simply wanted to pursue other things.
A Little Help From Her Friends
Winger has a diverse circle of friends. She's close to Gloria Steinem (seen here) and narrated the feminist leader's 2016 bestseller, "My Life on the Road." Another pal, the famed high-wire artist Philippe Petit, contributed the drawings that illustrated Winger's own book, the 2008 memoir "Undiscovered." Other friends include novelist Tom Robbins, director Steven Spielberg and former beau Bob Kerrey.
Photo by Mike Pont via Getty Images
To persuade his wife to return to movie acting, Arliss Howard offered to get her an animal she had come to admire—a Highland cow from Scotland. The bribe worked. Winger co-starred with Howard in 2001's "Big Bad Love," a film he also co-wrote and directed.
Photo by Jeff Vespa via Getty Images
These Are the Good Old Days
"We're all freaked out," she told New York magazine in 2002, referring to women and their attitude toward aging. "You just have to be freaked out quietly." Back then Winger was 47. Here she is at 60, attending the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of "The Lovers" with her son Babe Howard and not looking freaked out in the least.
Photo by Donna Ward
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