Debra Winger: Breaking Free

Sunday, July 20, 2008

She won your notice in "Terms of Endearment," "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Shadowlands" -- all of it years ago. But if Hollywood can be cruel to mature women, it hasn't fazed Debra Winger. She has pulled the ultimate fake: moved on, redefined. She has written a book. And it's anything but a Hollywood memoir.

Undiscovered is a collection of observations from the promontory of a half century. Her 53 years make for a remarkable life.

She was born Mary Debra Winger in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to an orthodox Jewish father she describes as "borderline illiterate." He was a meatpacker with a 5th grade education. Her mother was an office manager and a member of the Book of the Month Club. "I remember when each book came: Portnoy's Complaint. Peyton Place. My father was so proud, he built the shelves."

By the time Winger was 5, they had moved to California. By junior high, she was in classes 65 students strong. In high school she "ditched school altogether, going to the library to read."

Virtually self-taught, she admits she has trouble with pronunciation. Words are always more read than heard. She recalls saying to a date, "I've read the 'Myth of Sisyphus,' by Cay-muss!" and being met with derisive laughter. "Camus! I was so embarrassed, I momentarily lost my hearing."

She had lost her faculties before. Working at an amusement park when she was 17, she fell off a tractor. She lost consciousness, went into a coma. Emerging blind and suicidal, she was in rehab for a year. When she regained her sight, conviction came with it: Film would be her career. ("Few eat a mortality sandwich so early!" she says. )

She worked steadily from 1976 to 1995, putting in two solid decades, making no fewer than 20 movies, having very public romances with Nick Nolte and Bob Kerrey, then-Governor of Nebraska. But when she stopped reading scripts because they no longer interested her, Hollywood began to assume she had dropped out, walked away. "It's what I call 'logoweed,' " she says. "An idea blows along and gathers words as it goes." The myth had it that she had left acting for good. The truth was she was trying to live a normal life, raise a family: There was Noah (a son from her marriage to actor Timothy Hutton), now 21, and Babe (a son with her husband, actor Arliss Howard), now 11.

But the rumor that she had decamped only began to grow. Jack Nicholson advised, "Don't deny it!" She decided to take advantage. Read.

Inspired by courses at Sarah Lawrence College, ever ready to boost what she considers a shabby start, she'd like to write again. "I'm hoping that what comes next is fiction. I'm interested in women's lives. Some reach maturity exploding with creativity. Others tighten up, become old ladies. I want to explore that in a novel."

And you can only believe she will.

-- Marie Arana

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