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.
Posted on February 2, 2013, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actress and tagged Academy Award, an officer and a gentleman, Debra Winger, entertainment, movies, shadowlands, terms of endearment, Urban Cowboy. Bookmark the permalink. 67 Comments.