What the Hell Happened to Debra Winger?
Debra Winger has received three Academy Award nominations. She’s been nominated four times by the Golden Globes. Not to mention numerous nominations for various critics’ awards and a couple of wins. But despite the acclaim, she had a toxic reputation for being “difficult” – a reputation which she reinforced by trash-talking co-stars and directors.
After over a decade as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after actresses, Winger walked away. Even among actresses where this sort of thing is common, Winger’s disappearance was perplexing. So much so that it was the inspiration for a documentary titled What the Hell Happened to Debra Winger?
No wait, that’s not right. It was actually called Searching for Debra Winger. but it might as well have been the original What the Hell Happened?
So, what the hell happened?
At a young age, Winger was in a serious car accident and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. This left her partially paralyzed and blind for ten months! Doctors told her she would never see again. During this time, she decided that if she recovered she would move to California and become an actress. When she did recover, Winger did exactly that.
Winger got her start in the sexploitation pic, Slumber Party ’57 which was actually released in 1976. She played a high school girl named Debbie who spends the night at a slumber party with her friends. The girls tell stories of their first sexual experiences. It’s every bit as cheap and cheesy as it sounds.
Winger’s next role was equally improbably. She appeared opposite Lynda Carter on three episodes of the TV show Wonder Woman. She played Carter’s little sister and sidekick, Wonder Girl.
In later years after Winger had established herself as an Oscar contender, she had fun with the role on talk shows. This clip from Letterman is a classic:
Winger had nothing good to say about Carter. She frequently told the story of how Carter would not allow her to have the same kind of support that she had in her costume. She also made an off-color reference to a scandal Carter was going through at the time which elicited stunned gasps from the audience. Years later, Carter responded to Winger’s accusations on Larry King:
In 1978, Winger got her first role in a mainstream Hollywood movie. It was the disco extravaganza, Thank God It’s Friday.
Winger played the new girl in town who is naturally seduced by the irresistable allure of disco and a club owner played by Jeff Goldblum. TGIF was less of a movie than a feature-length music video for the triple-album soundtrack featuring disco acts like The Commodores, Donna Summer and Thelma Huston.
Donna Summer’s hit, Last Dance, won Best Song at the Academy Awards leading film critic Leonard Maltin to call Thank God It’s Friday “the worst film ever to have won some kind of Academy Award.”
The following year, Winger appeared in French Postcards, a coming-of-age drama about American students discovering themselves in France. It was co-written and directed by Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz who co-wrote American Graffiti.
Winger got her big break in 1980 opposite John Travolta in Urban Cowboy.
Urban Cowboy was to country music what Saturday Night Fever was to disco. Only less so. Urban Cowboy got decent reviews and was a modest hit at the box office. It helped popularize country music (and mechanical bulls), but didn’t become the cultural touchstone that Fever did.
Speaking of mechanical bulls, wanna see Winger ride one? Of course you do. Here’s a clip:
That sexy bull riding helped Winger get noticed by critics and the Golden Globes. She was nominated for several awards including the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.
Originally, Sissy Spacek was cast in Winger’s role. But production was postponed when Travolta was bit by his dog. The delay caused Spacek to drop out. Michelle Pfeiffer was also up for the role, but Winger was ultimately cast.
Director James Bridges described a fight with Winger:
”She refused to play a scene, and I had to shut down the set for a whole day. I was furious with her, but then I looked at the scene and realized that there was something wrong with the dialogue. Her instinct had been right.”
In 1982, Winger starred opposite Nick Nolte in the romantic comedy, Cannery Row.
Cannery Row was adopted from two John Steinback novels, Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. The film is set in California’s skid row during World War II. Nolte plays a marine biologist who forms a relationship with a drifter played by Winger. Winger’s character works as a prostitute but her abrasive personality puts off her customers. This will turn out to be a case of art imitating life minus the literal prostitution.
Raquel Welch was originally cast in Winger’s role but was fired after five day’s of filming. Supposedly, Welch took to long to prepare each day. Welch later sued the studio and was awarded a settlement.
Cannery Row received mixed reviews and bombed at the box office. Fortunately for Winger, she had another movie coming out later that year.
Winger’s next film was An Officer and a Gentleman opposite Richard Gere.
Gere played a candidate in the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School who is subjected to trials by a drill instructor played by Louis Gossett, Jr. (who won an Oscar for the role). Winger played a local factory worker who wins Gere’s heart. The ending, in which Gere arrives at Winger’s factory and carries her off into the sunset to the tune of the Academy Award-winning song, Up Where We Belong is a classic.
So, are they just going to leave her hat on the factory floor or what?
Gere had reservations that the final scene was too cheesy. And he’s right. that ending never should have worked. But it did because of the incredible chemistry between Winger and Gere.
Given that chemistry, you might assume that Gere and Winger got along. You might assume that, but you would be wrong. Winger fought with Gere and director Taylor Hackford throughout the production. She called Gere “a brick wall” and Hackford “an animal” to the press.
Winger later described making An Officer and a Gentleman as the worst experience of her career. She spoke poorly of the movie and refused to promote it when it was released.
Winger objected to changes in the script and also to the way she was treated on the set. ”I’m not sorry I did the film, because it brought a lot of joy to a lot of people. ‘But the making of it was treacherous. I don’t need much when I’m making a movie, but I do need respect, and I didn’t get it.”
Originally, Sigourney Weaver was offered Winger’s role. When Weaver dropped out, the role passed to Angelica Huston and later Jennifer Jason Leigh. Leigh eventually dropped out to make Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Winger was cast.
An Officer and a Gentleman received positive reviews and was a hit at the box office. It was nominated for 4 Academy Awards including Winger’s first nomination. She was also nominated for her second Golden Globe.
In 1983, Winger starred opposite Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson in James L. Brooks’ drama, Terms of Endearment.
The movie centers on the rocky mother-daughter relationship between MacLaine and Wingers’ characters. It follows the relationship through their lives up to an emotional, tear-jerker ending.
The difficult relationship carried over into real life. Winger and MacLaine fought throughout filming. Winger’s on-set behavior has been described as “erratic”. There were rumors of cocaine use.
Hollywood legend has it that at one point during filming, Winger lifted her skirt and passed gas at MacLaine. Winger reportedly fought and cussed like a sailor on the set. Eventually, this lead to a physical altercation with MacLaine.
Both actresses were nominated for Best Actress against each other. MacLaine won. When MacLaine got up to accept the award, she reportedly whispered “Half of this belongs to you” to Winger. Winger responded, “I’ll take half.”
In her acceptance speech, MacLaine offered a back-handed compliment saying she “wanted to work with the turbulent brilliance of Debra Winger.” She ended her speech declaring “I derserve this.” which some have interpreted as a slam on her co-star.
Following the Awards, Winger checked herself into rehab.
In 1984, Winger reunited with her Urban Cowboy director, James Bridges for the thriller, Mike’s Murder.
Winger played a woman with who has a one-night stand with a tennis instructor who is later murdered. As Winger’s character investigates the murder, she discovers disturbing secrets about him. The film was originally intended to unfold in reverse order. But the studio go nervous and insisted that the story play out in chronological order.
Mike’s Murder got mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
Winger auditioned for James Cameron and was cast in the lead role in The Terminator. But she later changed her mind and dropped out of the project.
In 1986, Winger starred opposite Robert Redford and Daryl Hannah in Ivan Reitman’s Legal Eagles.
Hannah played an accused art thief. Winger played her lawyer and Redford played the District Attorney. The plot becomes very convoluted. Several different endings were filmed in which Hannah’s character is found both innocent and guilty. There are even multiple endings in which she is found guilty of different crimes.
Winger clashed with Redford and Reitman and trashed the movie to the press. ”I’m glad that some people are enjoying it,” Winger said. ”But I was horrified to see it edited with a chainsaw. Legal Eagles is the kind of film that takes audiences and shakes them up until $6 falls out of their pockets.”
She went on to describe how the movie changed from a comedy into a thriller during filming, “I had a lot of disagreements with Ivan as the film changed character. But he’s a very strong personality, and he made the movie he wanted to make.”
Reitman, for his part, labelled Winger as “difficult”: ”She’s historically been a difficult actress to work with. Talk to her other directors. Debra works out of a nervous tension, and she thrives on that tension.”
Reviews were mixed to negative. Although Legal Eagles turned a profit, it was a disappointment relative to expectations at the time.
At one point, Winger was attached to star in Peggy Sue Got Married. Penny Marshall was the original director. But when Marshall got fired, Winger left the project. Kathleen Turner eventually starred and Francis Ford Coppola directed.
In 1987, Winger starred opposite Theresa Russell in Bob Rafelson’s thriller, Black Widow.
Russell played a woman who married and murdered rich men. Winger played a Justice Department agent who befriends Russell in order to catch her in the act. The two play a cat and mouse game as Winger tries to save Russell’s latest victim.
Winger was offered her choice of roles. But ultimately, she decided on the agent role because she could not understand the motivation of the femme fatale.
Black Widow opened to mixed reviews and so-so box office.
Later that year, she had a cameo role in the reincarnation-themed romantic comedy, Made in Heaven. Made in Heaven co-starred Winger’s then-husband, Timothy Hutton and Kelly McGillis.
I remember watching this movie in a high school creative writing class. Our teacher was really into reincarnation and talked about it all the time. At the end of the year, she showed this movie provided that the entire class signed a waiver allowing her to show it. The alternative was to do more school work, so every class agreed to watch it.
Winger married Hutton in 1986. They divorced in 1990. During that time, they had a son, Noah. Winger dropped out of James’ L. Brooks’ Broadcast News when she became pregnant. She also had to pass on Elizabeth Perkins’ role in Big due to pregnancy.
In 1988, Winger starred opposite Tom Berenger in the thriller, The Betrayed.
Winger played an undercover FBI agent investigating Berenger’s character for a racially motivated murder. The film got mixed reviews and did so-so at the box office. Although Berenger calls it one of his favorite films.
In 1990, Winger reunited with her Cannery Row co-star, Nick Nolte for Everybody Wins. Ironically, everybody lost. The movie got bad reviews and flopped at the box office.
Later that year, she starred opposite John Malkovich in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky.
The movie was based on a novel by author Paul Bowles who narrates the film and appears in a cameo role. In 1998, Bowles wrote a new preface to the novel in which he stated “the less said about the film now, the better.”
Once again, Winger clashed with her co-star. She described Malkovich as “nothing more than a catwalk model.”
The Sheltering Sky got mixed reviews and bombed at the box office.
In 1992, Winger starred opposite Steve Martin and Liam Neeson in the comedy-drama, Leap of Faith.
Originally, Micheal Keaton was cast as the fraudulent faith healer. Martin stepped in when Keaton quit the film. Leap of Faith received mixed reviews and performed poorly at the box office.
The next year, Winger starred opposite Dennis Quaid in the comedy, Wilder Napalm.
Wilder Napalm was written and directed by Moonlighting creator, Glenn Gordon Caron. Quaid and Arliss Howard played brothers with telekinetic powers. Winger played Howard’s wife. Eventually, the couple married in real life as well.
Wilder Napalm got bad reviews and was a box office bomb.
During this time, Winger was cast in Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own. A few years earlier, Winger quit Peggy Sue Got Married after Marshall was fired. She quit A League of Their Own when Marshall cast singer Madonna in a supporting role. Geena Davis eventually got the lead role.
Winger’s career was not going well. But in late 1993, she received critical acclaim for two films. The first was A Dangerous Woman co-starring Barbara Hershey and Gabriel Byrne.
The film was directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal who cast his children, Jake and Maggie, in small roles. Yes, they are those Gyllenhaals.
For her role as a mentally challenged woman, Winger was nominated for several awards including the Golden Globe.
A few weeks later, Winger starred opposite Anthony Hopkins in Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands.
Hopkins played famed Christian writer, C. S. Lewis. Winger played American poet, Joy Davidman, whom Lewis married. Her death challenged Lewis’ faith in religion.
Hopkins preferred to learn his lines by himself whereas Winger preferred to rehearse on the set. As a compromise, director Attenborough ran lines with Winger while Hopkins practiced on his own.
Winger actually got along with Attenborough and Hopkins. But a reporter tells a story of interviewing Winger on the set. The reporter later recalled, “She insisted on doing her interview standing up and in the open air. This meant, I was told, that she could walk away at any time should she be offended by any of the questions. It did not make for the easiest of conversations.”
Shadowlands received positive reviews. While it was not a hit at the box officer, Winger was nominated for more awards including her third Best Actress Oscar nomination.
In 1995, Winger co-starred opposite Billy Crystal in the romantic comedy, Forget Paris.
Forget Paris was written and directed by Crystal. Crystal played an NBA ref. Winger played his wife. The idea was that the movie would start with the “happily ever after” and deal with the difficulties of making the relationship work.
Unfortunately, romantic comedies are equally difficult to work out. Forget Paris got mixed to negative reviews and fared poorly at the box office.
A couple of years prior, Winger had turned down the Meg Ryan role in Sleepless in Seattle. You have to wonder if making a romantic comedy with Ryan’s old When Harry Met Sally co-star was an attempt to rectify that career misstep.
When Forget Paris failed, Winger made a decision to walk away. According to Winger:
“My mother was passing, and I wanted to be there for that. And that segued into a big reflective period. I’d never liked show business, and I just wasn’t finding the kinds of stories I wanted to tell, especially weighed against the drama happening in my life.”
Winger didn’t make another movie for six years. When she returned, it was in Big Bad Love which was written and directed by her husband. Even then, she was reluctant to return to acting.
Big Bad Love co-starred Rosanna Arquette who got the idea to make a documentary about the challenges actresses face in Hollywood.
Arquette interviewed several actresses for her documentary. It’s a veritable who’s who in What the Hell Happened? In addition to Winger, Arquette sat down with Patricia Arquette, Jane Fonda, Whoopi Goldberg, Melanie Griffith, Daryl Hannah, Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, Julia Ormond, Gwyneth Paltrow, Meg Ryan, Ally Sheedy, Sharon Stone and numerous others.
The title of the documentary was Searching for Debra Winger based on the actresses long absence from the big screen. But all these years later, Winger is more active than many of the subjects interviewed in the film including Arquette.
In 2003, Winger returned to mainstream movies with a supporting role in the drama, Radio, which starred Cuba Gooding Jr.
Unfortunately, Radio got poor reviews and was not a hit at the box office.
Winger continued getting supporting roles in movies like Eulogy in 2004 and the HBO film, Sometimes in April in 2005. She was nominated for an Emmy for her lead role in the Lifetime Movie, Dawn Anna.
In 2008, Winger appeared opposite Anne Hathaway in Jonathan Demme’s drama, Rachel Getting Married.
In a reversal of Terms of Endearment, Winger played the mother role and Hathaway played the troubled daughter. While the film was not a big success, Winger and Hathaway both got great reviews from critics and were nominated for several awards.
Since then, Winger has appeared on TV shows like Law and Order and In Treatment. In 2012, she also appeared in the romantic comedy, Lola Versus.
So, what the hell happened?
I mean, come on, you’re kidding right? Winger had a bad reputation. Some of it well-deserved. In addition to her disruptive on-set behavior, she trash talked her films and co-workers.
Additionally, Winger passed up on some big roles like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Accused. She missed a few big parts while she was raising her family. And ultimately, she took herself out of the game.
What’s amazing is that in spite of her absence, Winger has managed to come back years later and still win critical acclaim if not box office success. If she wants it, the fiery actress could still have a long career ahead of her.
Kim Basinger Thora Birch Matthew Broderick Nicolas Cage Chevy Chase Kevin Costner Geena Davis Bridget Fonda Brendan Fraser Mel Gibson Cuba Gooding Jr. Heather Graham Melanie Griffith Steve Guttenberg Daryl Hannah Helen Hunt Michael Keaton Nicole Kidman Val Kilmer Jude Law Jennifer Jason Leigh Penelope Ann Miller Demi Moore Rick Moranis Eddie Murphy Mike Myers Michelle Pfeiffer Molly Ringwald Meg Ryan Winona Ryder Arnold Schwarzenegger Steven Seagal Elisabeth Shue Alicia Silverstone Christian Slater Mira Sorvino Wesley Snipes Sharon Stone Mena Suvari Uma Thurman John Travolta Kathleen Turner Robin Williams Debra Winger Sean Young Renee Zellweger
Posted on February 2, 2013, in Movies, What the Hell Happened? and tagged Academy Award, an officer and a gentleman, Debra Winger, entertainment, movies, shadowlands, terms of endearment, Urban Cowboy. Bookmark the permalink. 49 Comments.