What Might Have Been: Debra Winger

Debra Winger

foster - taxi driver

Taxi Driver (1976)

Winger auditioned for the role of 12-year-old prostitute Iris in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

Fall Out: Scorsese’s first choice to play Iris was Melanie Griffith. But Griffith’s mother, legendary actress Tippi Hedren, objected to her daughter playing a prostitute. After Griffith passed, approximately 250 actresses were considered. Linda Blair, Bo Derek, and Carrie Fisher, Mariel Hemingway, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Heather Locklear and Kristy McNichol were all considered for the role before Foster was cast.

Critics loved Taxi Driver and it was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Supporting Actress for Foster. Meanwhile, Winger was appearing in a sex farce called Slumber Party ’57. 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.

Verdict: Missed Opportunity

Next: American Gigolo


Posted on March 1, 2014, in Movies, What Might Have Been and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark. It just happens to be my favorite movie of all time, it’s a tremendously entertaining film (did I mention even the Oscars could not ignore Raiders’ greatness and gave it a Best Picture nod? That is extremely rare for an action film). I’ve always thought the film was perfectly cast, from the top all the way down to the smallest role, and Karen Allen just seemed perfectly cast as Marion Ravenwood. Tough, fierce, independent, but enough vulnerability shines through. Marion’s superpower is drinking. How could you not love that? I know countless actresses auditioned for the role (even by 1979 Spielberg and Lucas were a big deal). Some would’ve been terrible choices (Amy Irving would’ve ruined the whole film if she had been Marion), others would’ve been pretty good, however if someone else had to play Marion besides Karen Allen, I think Debra Winger would’ve been a strong second choice. She plays her Urban Cowboy role in a vaguely similiar fashion of displaying a mix of toughness and vulnerability. I think she would’ve done quite well in the film, but then again you change variables and you wind up with a different movie, and I don’t want to change a thing about my favorite movie.


    • Raiders is a near-perfect piece of entertainment. The bit on the submarine is weird. How does Indy survive that? It’s kind of a precursor to the fridge in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Also, when you think about it, Indy doesn’t accomplish a damn thing in the entire movie. If he had just stayed home, the Nazis would have opened the Ark and died just the same. All Indy did was delay the inevitable. I suppose he saved Marion. That’s about it.

      We’ll never know, of course, but if there is one actress who might have been a better Marion than Allen, I think it would have been Winger. This puts me in the same camp as Lucas which I hate. I agree, Irving was too much of a china doll to play Marion. But Winger, I could see it.


      • “Indy doesn’t accomplish a damn thing in the entire movie. If he had just stayed home, the Nazis would have opened the Ark and died just the same. All Indy did was delay the inevitable. I suppose he saved Marion. That’s about it.”

        This is exactly what Amy Farrah Fowler astutely pointed out which devastated Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory.

        And without Indy, then Marion would never have been involved either


      • The bit on the submarine is weird. How does Indy survive that?

        I’ve always figured that the submarine never actually submerged–submarines of that era traveled on the surface whenever possible–so it’s not like Indy had to breathe underwater or anything. Sure, he’d be incredibly cold, but what is mere hypothermia to someone as indestructible as Indiana Jones.

        Also, when you think about it, Indy doesn’t accomplish a damn thing in the entire movie. If he had just stayed home, the Nazis would have opened the Ark and died just the same. All Indy did was delay the inevitable. I suppose he saved Marion. That’s about it.

        I think it’s just about a certainty that he saved Marion; Major Toht (sadistic Nazi with the glasses) would most likely have killed her if INdy hadn’t been there.


        • Yeah, I can credit Indy with saving Marion. But how many more people died because Indy got involved and delayed the inevitable? Of course, most of them were Nazis so arguably it’s no loss.


  2. As I read these articles I begin to wonder, “How does an actor select their roles?” There seems to be plenty of opportunities to become involved in A list movies, but roles are routinely turned down. What part do their agents play, and how much is dumb luck? It appears as though the actors are not really equipped to deal with the business aspect of the process, only the emotional part. “If you want to be successful, then surround yourself with successful people…” seems to be overlooked in favor of, “It’s all about me…” Or is it a “people business” that’s all full of nut jobs? I can’t tell…but it sure is fun to follow.

    Brad Deal


    • As an actor in theatre, I can tell you that just a few factors come into the equation when I accept a role:
      1) Am I ready to work?
      Is there another project in the way in my schedule? If I’m just out of a production, I may be tired and in need of a little time off (after all, I carry a full-time day job:-).)
      2) Do I like the people and company doing the show?
      If I’ve worked with them before, this is usually a pretty easy yes/no answer. But it doesn’t just concern the director and the other performers. The technical and business staff can almost as easily make a working situation either pleasant or unbearable. If I haven’t worked with the folks in question before, then it requires a leap of faith based on initial impressions.
      3) Do I like the script/role?
      I’ve taken parts based solely on #1 & 2 and found myself enjoying the experience about 1/2 as much as I should be. Because of the nature of theatre work, this is actually a lot easier for me than it would be for a film actor. In other words: The Script is Actually Available to look at. In fact, I’ve probably read it before, seen another production, or even a film version. A quick read can often reveal very easily whether I “connect” with the story’s theme, language and tone and if I can bring something true to the character in question. This is not true for film actors most of the time because the script is often not complete until shooting has already begun, so a wonderful idea can easily sound completely ridiculous and vice versa at the stage when casting is occurring.
      I have probably made mistakes in my choices at times, but of course nobody is really keeping track of them except me and I see no point in dwelling on them.


    • These articles are in a way more challenging than the WTHH series. If I included every role Winger was associated with, it would include just about every movie made in the 80s. I have to pick and choose. As I do so, I try to verify how involved the subject was in the project. Frequently, you’ll just find a line somewhere that says the actor “was considered” for a role. But often, every actress in Hollywood was considered for certain roles. I don’t want to include these movies in every article for everyone who was mentioned at some point in the casting process. Also, you have different sources who say different things or remember events differently. So I try to find multiple sources for all the entries which can be much more time consuming than I bargained for.

      One thing I think you have to do is to think about what the movie looked like on paper. When he wrote the script for The Terminator, Cameron was a nobody. He was making Piranha 2 for Roger Corman. No one associated with the movie had any kind of track record. It was going to be a low budget sci fi movie. There was no reason to expect anything more from it than something like Cyborg. It would not have been seen as the kind of movie that would make or break a career. When you think about it that way, you can see why Winger and Fonda passed on it.


    • It does seem like Debra Winger turned down an incredible number of great roles.
      I, also, have wondered what their criteria is for selecting roles.

      Sometimes circumstances can dictate, but it seems that many actors do not have any inherent ability to judge scripts off written pages.


  3. What about a “what the hell will happen to” series? Take an actual star or potential star and discuss about what career choices are best suited to them to stay or become A-list. For example: Emma Watson, poised to stardom but with the heavy load of Hermine on her shoulders, what should she do after Noah? (You can discuss about the future projects listed on IMDB, of course). In ten years we will see if we were right or wrong.


    • Predictions are a lot harder to make than Monday morning quarterbacking someone’s career. It’s a fun idea, but I’m less interested in speculation about what might happen than what actually has happened. But it’s something to think about. Such articles would take a lot less time to write!


  4. Lebeau is right about making predictions, it’s incredibly hard to figure out in advance what the best project is to advance an actor’s career to move them to the A list, or keep them on the A list (let alone get them back on that coveted A list, which is even tougher). There’s many factors involved in an actor “making it”, and that’s just one of a myriad of them. A list actors have managers, agents, sometimes a whole slew of people giving them advice on how to either get to the A list or stay there once they make it, and we see how often they get it wrong, even with the best advice in Hollywood behind them.

    There’s certain actors that are beyond help. Lindsay Lohan, for example, a popular WTTH write-up, I can’t imagine any scenario that would bring her back to being a box office draw again, even if she got her life back in order and turned over a new leaf. Her career may be too long gone. I don’t think even Lebeau could save her career at this point.

    Other actors who are close to the brink of losing their A list status, let’s say Johnny Depp for example, are much harder to figure out how to save. I think Depp painted himself into a corner this past decade constantly playing eccentric, almost cartoonish characters to the point where people have gotten tired of that schtick and he can’t be perceived as playing an actual person anymore. A shame he couldn’t have put a serious, dramatic, well-received film like Donnie Brasco in his more recent filmography in-between the eccentric, larger-than-life characters he’s made a fortune playing, it would’ve helped his career in the long run. If there were one actor I’d like to hear Lebeau do a “What The Hell Will Happen To” profile on, it would be Johnny Depp (Hint, hint, Lebeau! Hint Hint!).

    I gotta give credit to Paolov69 though, it is an interesting concept idea, and a fun one. I’m actually intrigued by the concept enough to think Lebeau should attempt it at least once, in the future, just for fun. Whatyasay, Lebeau? Any chance you might at least consider it down the road?


    • It’s something I might try some time for fun. I could doing something like that on the podcast sometime. That way I have Daffy to bounce ideas off of.

      With regards to Lohan, there’s no doubt her time on the A-list is over. But her career is like a cockroach. She could still work for a while in spite of all her problems.

      I think people are greatly overestimating the damage to Depp’s career. All he needs is one hit to be back on top. The question is, will he find it?


  5. Future of Movie Stars: Who Will Shine? Who Will Fade Away?

    Per Debra Winger, she was difficult AND she took a 5-year break at a pretty critical time- the first half of her 40’s. It seems the women who fight to stay in the game at that stage of their career seem to have a better chance of staying there. (See: Meryl Streep’s 1990’s bobble she weathered through, leading eventually to her comeback in Bridges of Madison County.) She seems to have managed a steady amount of work but the last thing I remember seeing her in was Dawn Anna, where she plays the real-life woman who suffered through disease and then the murder of her daughter in the Columbine High School shooting.

    I don’t think there’s a lot of room for diva behavior unless you’re a proven box office draw, which seems to be almost non-existent these days.

    She was supposed to play Peggy Sue in When Peggy Sue Got Married, which managed to get Kathleen Turner an Oscar nomination. That had to be kind of bitter. Although Kathleen did a wonderful job in the part. I did think Debra Winger at that time in her life could’ve managed looking more believable as a teenager, but eh.

    SATURDAY 10:46 AM

    That’s just one of several movies she was suppose to be in. She dropped out of A League of Their Own to protest “the stunt casting” of Madonna. Holly Hunter’s master work in Broadcast News was specifically written for her, which I could sorta see. I think James L Brooks tried again with As Good As It Gets. And the list goes on. But she really was that good. Especially in Urban Cowboy and An Officer and a Gentleman, she showed this very raw sex appeal that I think many actresses today would struggle to project about half as well.


  6. Debra Winger’s career-making reject pile

    Taxi Driver, The Accused, The Silence of the Lambs, The Blue Lagoon, Arthur, Splash, The Terminator, Crimes of the Heart, Peggy Sue Got Married, Nuts, Bull Durham, The Music Box, Pretty Woman, Ghost, Thelma & Louise, A League of Their Own, Basic Instinct, This Boy’s Life, Sleepless in Seattle, When a Man Loves a Woman, Speed, To Die For

    —Anonymous (301 views)

    58 replies 57 12/10/2016

    She would have been good in “Thelma and Louise” and “A League of Their Own”


    reply 2 12/10/2016

    I definitely would have preferred her in League of Their Own. I like Geena Davis but I never bought her as a gritty, down in the dirt ballplayer. Thelma and Louise and Terminator are the only other two I would have preferred her over the actress who actually played the part. Some of them would have been totally wrong for her. Bull Durham? Nah.


    reply 3 12/10/2016

    In 1987 alone she turned down two Best actress nominated roles (Broadcast News, Fatal Attraction) and one also ran (Nuts).


    reply 4 12/10/2016

    Shirley MacLaine’s quote about her “turbulent brilliance” was a very good way to put it.


    reply 5 12/10/2016

    Did anyone see Searching for Debra Winger? I loved her interview at the end. I wish she had a more active career throughout the years. I loved her in Eulogy…although I’m probably the only one!


    reply 6 12/10/2016

    I saw it [R6]. It was interesting but I felt the premise was misleading. They wanted to make her disappearance about the plight of aging actresses in Hollywood BUT age was the least of Debra Winger’s problems. She alienated everyone long before she got older.


    reply 7 12/10/2016

    Why was she offered so many role She? She wasn’t that great an actress


    reply 16 12/10/2016

    I like Debra’s scrappiness, and have enjoyed some of her film appearances, but she’s created a mythology about herself that exceeds any performance she’s ever given. The sentimental narrative that she was a major artiste held back by the patriarchy or the system or what-have-you… well, it’s won out over the reality that she was a major diva and pain in the ass who was frequently disliked by her colleagues. FWIW.

    I don’t believe for a minute that she was offered all of these roles and turned them down. More likely, her name was thrown into the mix, discussed, and TPTB decided to “go in a different direction.”

    BASIC INSTINCT? It’s dreadful soft-core porn; nonetheless, Verhoeven and Esterhaz wouldn’t have given her a second look. BLUE LAGOON? It’s to laugh. She may have tested for it, or merely looked at the script, but she never would have been seriously considered for that role. PRETTY WOMAN? Again, getting a look at the script does not equal “turning down the role.”

    There are too many actors dining out on this myth of turning work down, when the reality is that it is now, and has always been a buyer’s, not a seller’s, market for onscreen talent.

    —Sue Mengers’ Stretch Pants

    reply 17 12/11/2016

    Debra Winger could portray a more believable prostitute than Julia Roberts


    reply 18 12/11/2016

    I remember an interview where she was asked about roles she had turned down, but she wouldn’t comment on any movie in particular, saying it was a pointless question. Some roles are declined by an actor’s agent, without the actor every knowing about the offer, for lots of reasons, including availability.


    reply 19 12/11/2016

    Speed sucked but Debra might have been funny in it.


    reply 22 12/11/2016

    Thank god she didn’t get Broadcast News. Holly Hunter was perfect as the driven, brittle, perfectionist TV news producer.


    reply 25 12/11/2016

    She wasn’t offered Broadcast News. Could have sworn it was one of the 80s movies she was offered.


    reply 26 12/11/2016

    She didn’t turn down Broadcast News – the role was hers, but she bailed a few weeks before filming began because she was pregnant. Holly Hunter was a last-minute fill-in, which is probably the only reason why such an unknown got a shot at the part.

    And I agree, [R25] – even though the part was specifically written for Winger, Holly Hunter was perfection.


    reply 27 12/11/2016

    I can see her in Silence of the Lambs. Foster seemed in over her head. And her southern accent grates.


    reply 28 12/11/2016

    Holy S***, that’s a ton of hits she turned down. I’m surprised she didn’t kill herself circa 1990.


    reply 29 12/11/2016

    Wonder Woman was a huge hit during its original run when there were three nationally broadcast channels.

    The casting process must have been extensive, and any unknown actress would have been thrilled to be cast as Wonder Girl.


    reply 31 12/11/2016

    [R28] Clarice was supposed to still be just a green, uncertain, twenty-something FBI trainee. (She finally graduates at the end.) Jodie had just turned 27 that month when LAMBS began shooting in November 1989; Winger was already 34 by then and turned 35 two months after filming ended in March 1990.


    reply 32 6 hours ago

    I also don’t believe she was offered taxi driver. She took a league of their own but bailed right before production was to start because Penny Marshall cast Madonna. Penny said Debra was a pain in the a** and a c***.


    reply 37 5 hours ago

    Debra and Lori Petty would have been great as rivaling sisters.

    —Marla Hooch

    reply 38 4 hours ago

    [R37] I wonder if Winger regretted her decision? The film ended up being a big hit. It was one of the top ten movies, domestically, and #19 worldwide.


    reply 39 4 hours ago

    And she sent and said yes to that Black Widow movie?

    Who was advising her during this period? Her coke dealer?


    reply 40 4 hours ago

    What a lot of people don’t realize is that when an actress or actor has a list of all the roles they rejected, it doesn’t necessarily mean they would have ended up with any of those parts. All it means is that when the project was in pre-production, they were considered. What considered means is that someone associated with the project, (producer, casting director, etc.) might have called the agent, or even sent a script – (an early draft) – to see if the client had any interest. Often this is done without the director’s knowledge. It could be rejected for a variety of reasons, most often it’s rejected because of un-availability.. So years later when the movie has come out and the actress cast has won an Oscar, it’s easy for said actress to say, “Oh, I was offered and rejected that”, or “my agent rejected that”.

    Of all those movies listed, there were only three I know of that she was in serious contention for: Thelma, League, and Peggy Sue. Meaning, she might have gotten those if she really wanted them at the time. As for Basic Instinct, it was offered to just about everybody. No one would touch it. The closest was Geena Davis who came this close to signing before finally rejecting. Sharon Stone fought for it knowing nobody else wanted to do it. She was relatively unknown to the general public at that time.


    reply 41 4 hours ago

    [R40] don’t forget A DANGEROUS WOMAN, where she went full retard. That was to be an Oscar contender, but alas nothing came of it. The movie was a huge flop, too, only earning $1.5 million in total.

    —Jake Gyllenhaal

    reply 42 4 hours ago

    What’s amusingly ironic is despite all the “turbulent brilliance”, the prestige projects, the on set artistic conflicts, the awards, the accolades, the commitment to “the work” and the struggle of being a SERIOUS actress interested in doing only the most MEANINGFUL and IMPORTANT films in a male dominated, sexist, profit driven industry….50 years from now Debra Winger will be most most remembered for THIS:


    reply 434 hours ago

    I don’t have much respect for Winger. Of course, “the system” is imperfect. But instead of using her considerable talent and influence to help make working conditions better for herself and her fellow actors, she bitches and moans. What princess.


    reply 46 3 hours ago

    Interesting actress, very talented and I’ve always liked her work. She kept them all dancing on a string for quite a few years and they eventually tired of it. They’ll only chase someone who says “No” to them for so long and then they move on.


    reply 47 3 hours ago

    Yeah the list of roles actors “turned down” is never quite what you think it is. Maybe their name was brought up, but they were busy or had other commitments at the time.


    reply 48 3 hours ago

    Martin Scorsese said that Debra did audition for the prostitute role when Melanie Griffith declined because of Tippi Hedren’s objection.


    reply 50 an hour ago

    Another thread correctly said that she had great physical similarities to other actresses of the era, i.e. Kidder, Karen Allen, Brooke Adams, Jessica Harper, Kathleen Quinlan etc. They didn’t just look alike, they also sounded alike. If she’d done more than Saturday Night Fever, Karen Lynn Gorney would have been in there as well. I’m sure Winger turned down that role as well, right?


    reply 55 an hour ago

    Winger turned down everything. She was ‘The Girl Who Always Says No’ for quite a while.


    reply 56 44 minutes ago

    [R18] I think she would have made a more convincing prostitute in NUTS than Barbara Streisand did.


    reply 58 39 minutes ago


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