Debra Winger: Why Hollywood Won't Cast Her Anymore

Oh, Debra Winger. There probably wasn't a more reliable and familiar actress in the '80s. After making a splash as Sissy in the 1980 mega-hit Urban Cowboy with John Travolta, Winger romanced Richard Gere in 1982's An Officer and a Gentleman and tore filmgoers' hearts out in the Best Picture-winning 1983 flick Terms of Endearment. For all three of those early successes, Winger received Golden Globe nominations, and Academy Award nominations for the latter two. 

With a magnetic, witty, and often unpredictable screen presence, Winger dominated mid-range Hollywood hits of the '80s — appearing in the kinds of movies your parents saw on "date night," because your mom thought Winger seemed approachable, down-to-earth, and "real," and because your dad thought she was cute. (For the record, all of these things are true.) These movies included Legal Eagles, Leap of Faith, and Shadowlands. The last big movie Winger starred in was the 1995 Billy Crystal romantic comedy Forget Paris. And then ... she more or less disappeared from the film industry. Where did you go, Debra Winger?

Your silly movies displease Debra Winger

The main reason why Hollywood movies rarely ever feature Debra Winger anymore? Well, she proudly and voluntarily walked away from the movie machine in 1995. According to a New York profile of Winger, she stood on a road in Ireland and announced to her soon-to-be-husband, "That's it, I'm done." The truth is that she'd "wanted out" for quite some time. "I got sick of hearing myself say I wanted to quit," Winger said. 

But why walk away from that Tinseltown life? "The parts that were coming," Winger told People in 2017, "I wasn't interested in." Those roles were mostly rehashes of ones she's already portrayed, and, as far as she was concerned, why bother? "I'd already done that or I'd already felt that," she shared. "I needed to be challenged." 

With that spirit in mind, she paused her film acting career for about six years and focused on where the challenges really lay. "My life challenged me more than the parts, so I dove into it fully," she said. Whether it's movie roles or life itself Winger says she's "interested in what scares [her]." So if you come across the rare TV series or movie with Debra Winger in it, tread carefully — if it scares her, it might scare you.

The play's the thing

Debra Winger not only figuratively left Hollywood, in the sense that she didn't want to make mainstream movies anymore, but she also literally left Hollywood, too. She walked away in 1995, married her Wilder Napalm co-star Arliss Howard in 1996, had her second child (a son named Babe) in 1997, and moved to New York City along the way, you know, for good measure. But try as Winger did to stop playing make-believe for a living, she still felt the call of acting, and, since she was in the northeast, she took to the stage. 

In 1998, Winger starred in the American Repertory Theater production of Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive, and she followed it up with a role in Anton Chekhov's classic Ivanov. In 2012, Winger made her Broadway debut in The Anarchist, written and directed by David Mamet, opposite Great White Way legend Patti LuPone.

She's honest to a fault

There's a big difference between being an actor and being a movie star. An actor interprets the words of a screenwriter or playwright, using their body as a vessel by which they bring a character to life. A movie star does those things, but they also have to go out and promote their movie, convincing talk show audiences that their new project is the greatest film ever made. Studios don't have much patience for stars who don't want to play this game, and Debra Winger is that kind of star — she can be bluntly honest about her movies. 

"I'm glad that some people are enjoying it," Winger said of her 1986 movie Legal Eagles to The New York Times. "But I was horrified to see it edited with a chainsaw. As a writer friend of mine said, Legal Eagles is the kind of film that takes audiences and shakes them up until $6 falls out of their pockets. I felt like a slice of rye in a loaf of Wonder Bread." (Note: In 1986, movie tickets cost a lot less, and also, people ate carbs back then.)

Hollywood couldn't deal with her realness

Debra Winger evidently enjoyed a reputation as one of the most "difficult" actresses in 1980s Hollywood. A lot of filmmakers and actors just didn't want to work with someone who was going to challenge them.

Appearing on The View in 2018, Winger commented on the long-ago feud between herself and Shirley MacLaine during the filming of Terms of Endearment (via Gawker) . "Time heals all wounds?" Winger quipped. "Let's just say that it's not applicable in this case." (Unfortunately, Winger didn't discuss — nor has she ever confirmed — the Hollywood lore about how the fighting got so bad that she farted in MacLaine's face.) She has also compared John Malkovich, her co-star in the 1990 drama The Sheltering Sky, to "a catwalk model," and called her An Officer and a Gentleman partner Richard Gere "a brick wall," as noted by The Telegraph

Winger also fought that innate Hollywood sexism head-on. She told The Telegraph that she "did not have a great time" on the set of that previously mentioned movie in which she co-starred with a brick wall, because she "was being really jerked." Winger said producer Don Simpson would watch daily footage and personally give the actress water pills because he thought she looked bloated on-screen. "They treated girls very badly," Winger said. "I was trying to stand up to it. And it was hard. I was really young."

She's the boss now

While Winger got out of Hollywood, she didn't completely abandon acting in film and television shows, but she has often refocused her artistic efforts on the other side of the movie-making process. Since the turn of the century, she's produced two (very different) feature-length films. And Winger chooses the topics for these projects the same way she carefully handpicks her acting roles, going for interesting and unique subject matter that seems fresh or exciting to her. 

In 2001, Winger served as a producer on (and also acted in) Big Bad Love, a tender romantic drama about a divorced, alcoholic Vietnam War veteran, directed by (and co-starring) her husband, Arliss Howard. More than a decade later, Winger was instrumental in getting a documentary called Bel Borba Aqui made. Winger produced the mixed-media film (animation, time-lapse photography) about Bel Borba, a legendary street artist in Salvador, Brazil, who creates huge public murals.

She's (gasp) over 40

There's an oft-repeated maxim that there are no roles in Hollywood for women over 40 because Hollywood just apparently isn't interested in depicting the stories of mature women ... or putting women who aren't 22 anymore up on the screen. Instead, the entertainment industry caters to what it thinks a target audience of young men want to see. While some actresses seem to have up and disappeared from movies once they hit a certain age — Meg Ryan, for example — in the past few years, there's been more representation for ladies over age 40, what with Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock, and Julia Roberts still dominating the box office well into middle age. 

Still, this was true for a long time, and, not only did Debra Winger bear the brunt of it, she was also the poster child for it. Inspired by what she saw — and Winger's self-imposed exile — actress Rosanna Arquette released a well-received 2002 documentary about this problem called Searching for Debra Winger. Being so tied to this Hollywood criticism may have cast a pall over Winger's career.

She's been in lots of movies … that not many people saw

Winger semi-retired in 1995, or she at least placed some lofty restrictions on herself and filmmakers that wanted to work with her. But that just meant she didn't make as many movies as other major actresses might have. The movies she often makes tend toward the interesting, provocative, small, and well-reviewed; in other words, low-budget independent films that don't get seen much beyond film festivals and the deepest recesses of Netflix ... and which don't make a lot of money. 

In 2003, she had her first role in a big Hollywood movie in almost a decade, a supporting part in Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s widely maligned Radio. After that, she starred with Ray Romano in the dark comedy Eulogy, which was about a dysfunctional family reuniting for a funeral. She also had a role opposite Oscar-nominated Anne Hathaway in the harrowing Rachel Getting Married. More recently, Winger has popped up in small films, such as Lola Versus and Boychoir. They weren't blockbusters, but Debra Winger doesn't care about that.

Meanwhile, back at The Ranch

For someone who has taken such a stance against the poor quality of projects that she was a part of, and, later, refused to be a part of whole cloth with her Hollywood sabbatical, it's surprising where Debra Winger chose to make her low-key comeback. In 2016, she joined the cast of The Ranch. Why does that sound familiar? It's that one Netflix original series you always flip past, the one that stars Sam Elliott, Ashton Kutcher, and Danny Masterson ... before he was fired for a series of horrific rape allegations. 

While it looks like a pleasant enough, laugh-track laden comedy — precisely the kind of thing that one would think Winger would've avoided since her voluntarily hiatus — she told Entertainment Tonight that it fit in with her approach to life. "I hadn't done it before," Winger said, meaning a traditional sitcom.

"This is all about the vibrant quality of making something every week," Winger told The Telegraph"Coming in on a Friday, getting your script, and by the following Friday you are in front of a live audience. It's really exciting."

Debra Winger, still wingin' it

While some fans might find themselves looking for Debra Winger, the former toast of Hollywood is still out there making movies — they're just the kind of movies that interest or "scare" her. And which are made on her own terms and by people she admires. 

That means there's something of a Debra Winger renaissance in the making. In 2013, Winger appeared in The Being Experience, "a collection of films that explores the unfamiliar and urges you to dig deep within yourself." Along with Winger, the project, led by Jennifer Elster, also starred such disparate individuals as Terrence Howard, Rosie Perez, Marlo Thomas, Alan Cumming, Temple Grandin, and Yoko Ono. In 2017, she earned rave reviews for The Lovers, playing half of an aging, unfaithful couple who rekindle their romantic spark. Along with Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, and Richard Jenkins, Winger will be one of the leads in a currently untitled 2019 drama about a criminal family, written and directed by thoughtful indie filmmaker Miranda July. And hey, if it's good enough to get Debra Winger's attention, it's got to be pretty good.