A Star Falling, by Choice, to Earth
Friday, July 4, 2008
By Debra Winger
Simon & Schuster. 188 pp. $23
Amonth or so ago, Debra Winger appeared on "The View" to promote this book, "Undiscovered." The questioning went something like: "So tell us, why did you decide to stop acting?" Winger, I think it's fair to say, growled more than she talked. She said something like "I didn't decide to stop acting, I just didn't like the business." Someone referred to "Undiscovered" as an autobiography. "It's not an autobiography!" Winger snapped. But as I recall, she passed on saying exactly what it was. The conversation slipped back, uneasily, to why she had quit acting. "Look," she said crossly, "I'm acting NOW!" But what role was she playing? That of a fine actress (in her short film career she had three Oscar nominations for Best Actress) or a petulant adolescent who won't come out of her room? Since one of the major themes in "Undiscovered" is her lifelong search for "authenticity," it might have been interesting to know.
"Undiscovered" is certainly not an autobiography. It's a series of short essays about the past dozen years of her life, the years since she quit acting in big-time motion pictures and elected to live, for the most part, on a farm in the Catskills with her sons, a stepson and her husband. It's about gardening, spiritual exploration, her work on the land, her life as a mother.
But to provide context, it begins with her back story: the accident she had when she was 17, trying to save from harm a troll costume she was supposed to wear in a Southern California amusement park (as best I can tell, it was about to fall out of a truck, she tried to save it, and the truck hit her). She ended up in a coma, blind and partially paralyzed for some months. As she recovered (we are to infer), she decided to become an actress. After a sexploitation movie or two, she crashed the gates of the Paramount lot and blustered her way to a starring part in "Urban Cowboy." She became immediately famous, and it threw her.
She hid out at the Chateau Marmont, furious and scared. She was 24. She confesses to having been "rude" and "raunchy" back then, but she still writes with a lively sense of grievance. John Travolta had his own bus on the set of "Urban Cowboy," while she had a nondescript cubicle. Robert De Niro had a nice place at the Marmont; she says she lived "in his closet." Threads of resentment run all through this little book.
Winger doesn't specifically say why she quit Hollywood, but she did. Evidently, in her search for authenticity, she thought that tending some land would be more genuine than tarting herself up in the frills of show business. She longed to live life fully awake: Several times she uses the analogy of existence as a high-wire act, and she mentions as one of her heroes Philippe Petit, the aerialist who walked from one tower of the World Trade Center to the other. (It may be a sour part of my own mind that says it's not quite as perilous as that to turn from being an actress into a wife and mother -- females in America do it all the time without quite so much drama -- but it is certainly true that we're all one step from oblivion from the minute we get up in the morning, so I won't argue.)
Winger takes care of her beloved mother, who dies at home. She cooks and cleans for her family. She loses one of her kids at an airport in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, and again loses one in New York's Penn Station. She searches for higher spiritual truths. She throws a huge bar mitzvah party for her older son. She travels to help blind people in India, gets lost on the Ganges near a tiger sanctuary and is scared out of her wits into a higher appreciation of life. She never stops looking for meaning. But she is meticulously unforthcoming about her colleagues at work, her husbands, children and friends. One can understand her respect for their privacy, but it hurts the book.
That aerialist, Philippe Petit, has illustrated these pages (with serene drawings of various passageways), although Winger says she hasn't met him. It's just another anomaly in a little book that can be satisfying but unpleasant, or pleasant but unsatisfying, depending on how you look at it.