Fifteen years ago, Rosanna Arquette's documentary went Searching for Debra Winger, or more accurately why a bankable Oscar nominee in her prime (or any woman) found less opportunity than men.
Debra Winger was Hollywood's face of the 1980s, starring in such touchstones as Terms of Endearment, Urban Cowboy and An Officer and a Gentleman. Then she wasn't.
It was part choice, part circumstance. Celebrity became a drag. Winger's independence — "being difficult" in studio-speak — preceded her.
After career fits and starts, Winger is back in Azazel Jacobs' brittle dramedy The Lovers (R) opposite actor-playwright Tracy Letts. They skillfully portray Mary and Michael, two halves of a dead marriage, each straying beyond it. Then they begin cheating on the people with whom they're cheating — rekindling romance with each other.
Winger's performance is a gem, funny and heartbreaking at once, one to keep in mind for year-end honors. Winger calls the response "encouraging."
"As you may know, if you ever read anything about me, the celebrity part is not exactly attractive to me," Winger, 62, said by phone from New York, voice husky as ever. "The encouragement I feel is because the work is being responded to. People are responding to something that resonates with them, something that hasn't been said about their lives. I want to keep doing that. … That's my bag. That's my jam."
She's not eager to be the poster woman for Hollywood gender bias as Arquette's documentary positioned her. She never even saw the film.
"You can only grow exponentially as big as everybody around you is willing to grow," she said. "This is why I always resisted being any kind of spokesman or symbol. I can say anything I want, yell, hit my head against the wall, burn things, march. It's not going to change anything. You have to … create a new environment. … Why would I ever ask somebody who has kept me down to let me climb up?"
That's the Winger we've missed, unbowed and unapologetic.
But how's she handling the celebrity thing now?
"I am … tolerating it well," she said with a laugh. "… My least favorite thing is feeling like a bug under a light, when somebody wants to put you on the cover of a magazine or follow you around for three days. Oh my god, please. I just want to point them out to other people in our neighborhood that I think are much more interesting."
The Lovers opens Friday at Tampa Theatre.