You see a dozen Debra Wingers every day: city girls in their late twenties, hip and preoccupied, dark hair and quick eyes; probably smarter than the guys they go out with; with pets they worry about and cars that don't work; with neat apartments and disorganized lives; interesting girls who don't know how good looking they are because it's all in their energy, their aura of possibility . . . You see these girls and they remind you of Debra Winger. Or she reminds you of them.
This may be why Debra Winger's face can appear 20 feet high on movie screens all over America--lately as Emma Horton in "Terms of Endearment"--and still she can walk through airports and hotel lobbies and never be recognized.
"Never," she says in the gloom of a Manhattan hotel suite. "Which is great. I don't want to be stopped in the street, although I appreciate it--I get highly embarrassed. I saw 'Urban Cowboy' 36 times with different audiences all over the United States. I traveled cross-country. Nobody recognized me. Once in a while when I talk they recognize me, they hear my voice and . . ."
Just now, she is a gamine in gray smock dress and red-and-green argyle socks, raking her fingers through her hair until it's standing out near horizontal. Her face changes from moment to moment, protean and anonymous. But it got her out of the San Fernando Valley and into Hollywood when she was 17, doing commercials:
"You name it, honey: American Dairy Milk, Metropolitan Life Insurance--I was the all-American face. McDonald's, Burger King, it was just, ah, The Face That Didn't Matter, that's what I used to call my face."
She talks like that, fulminating with half-sentences that are all attitude and no point of view, a 5-foot-4 Valley Girl who sits with her toes pointing at each other and her hands jammed between her knees.
Then she leans back and blows her nose in a napkin from the room service cart.
"Bronchitis," she says. "Not that it makes any difference to the voice."
There hasn't been a voice like this in the movies since the young Lauren Bacall: a sweet husk with a descant squeak she could call dogs with. It's reedy, like there's a little dust on the needle--plaintive and cozy, droppin' the G's, clangin' through the flat Southern California vowels, she's all gotta and gonna, with a fabulous uhhunhhaha laugh rising out of it.
The voice is a constant, but you look at still photographs of Debra Winger over the last four years and no two are the same. The face elongates into the harried innocence of suburban Emma in "Terms," and then it contracts into the heart-shape of the feisty low-rent cherub of "Urban Cowboy." Then there's the kohl-rimmed, sequin-gowned Debra Winger smoldering in a bubble bath in Life, which later printed the infamous picture of half-naked Winger with her tongue flashing inside the mouth of her German shepherd, Petey.
"I didn't approve that picture. Annie Leibovitz, the photographer said she wanted a picture of my naked back and while we were shooting I was fooling around and glitsch, she took it, and then it appeared in a book without my ever approving it," she says.
Fame and obscurity: if she fears that people will see her for what she isn't in that photograph, she fears they'll see her for what she is in her fictional movie performances.
"There were moments in each film when I was absolutely, utterly and totally raw and I always felt like oh-my-God when I saw the film for the first time, how'm I gonna walk out on the street, and then I started to see my films with audiences, and I realized they don't know, they think I'm acting . . ." she says.
"In 'Urban Cowboy,' the moment in that film for me was when after I do the slow ride on the bull which for me was not sexual at all, by the way--it was so gymnastic, every muscle in my body hurt doing that, so I was like stunned when the reviews came out--my husband played by John Travolta was coming in, I was doing something he couldn't do, and I was showing off, I was trying to hurt him, so at the very end I stand up and he's leaving and I look off and I realize I've succeeded in doing exactly what I wanted to do, and it feels like ----, and it's the most naked moment I have on the film. I couldn't watch that moment for a long time."
At 28, after an Oscar nomination for "An Officer and a Gentleman," and starring roles in "Urban Cowboy," "Cannery Row" and now "Terms of Endearment," Debra Winger is the hottest young movie actress in America.
She was born in Cleveland. She moved to Southern California when she was 6. Her father worked for her uncle's burglar alarm company and is now a distributor of kosher frozen food. Her mother was an office manager while Winger was growing up. She has an older brother who's a school principal and an older sister who's a secretary. It's a big, close Jewish family that gave her so little encouragement to act that she still suspects that when her father got her an interview with the late director George Cukor when she was 14, he also put Cukor up to telling her: "That voice, and you got no walk--you got no class!"
She graduated from high school two years early. She tried studying criminology and sociology at Cal State-Northridge, and went to Israel to spend time on a kibbutz, but by 17, she'd moved away from home and she was making it in commercials.
After that it was small parts in movies, and playing Wonder Woman's kid sister on TV. She never wanted to be famous, she says; never cherished a fantasy of a triumphant guest shot on Carson; hates premieres because she has no character to play at them: "I have no one to be at those things."
So what pushed her?
"My parents think this might have had something to do with it: there's hardly any pictures or movies of me because by the time they got to me she is the third child they were so sick of, y'know . . . I had to, like, search through closets to find one film of me and she laughs . . . I just got scared, I really thought I didn't exist. You don't have a baby picture and therefore you aren't," she says. And laughs again.
A lot of footage later, she still scarcely exists outside of her characters in the mind of the public unless you count the minor susurrus of a legend created by national magazines calling her "an outrageous free spirit" with a reputation for "risk and raunch," and the capacity, she says, to "drink sailors under the table," and romances from actors to the governor of Nebraska, Bob Kerrey.
But she protects all this, says only that she lives at "the beach" until you press her to find out that it's Malibu, and seems reluctant even to say that it's the southeastern quadrant of New Mexico where she has her getaway cabin.
It's on the screen where she becomes real, wildly vital, breaking the rules for female stars by appearing not only extravagantly nude, as in "Officer and a Gentleman," but extravagantly tacky, as in the bathrobe and wet hair she wears in "Terms of Endearment." She may be the most everyday-authentic presence a leading lady has ever been in American film.
"I do American characters," she says.
"Norman Rockwell was the inspiration for most of 'Terms of Endearment.' And Emma, whenever I ran into trouble with Emma, I mean the walk is all Norman Rockwell, I mean, the whole look was Norman Rockwell, some of the dresses I had made for the film are exact replicas from the pictures of Norman Rockwell.
"The mothers of young children, the middle-class mother, that's who the film was for inside of me. I've always had this deep resentment of how the middle class is treated. I mean, lower class, it's obvious what they catch, you know, life is rough. But the true crime, some of the worst psychic abuse, is on the middle class. So here was this perfectly middle class girl who turned into a housewife with children, and I really felt the responsibility, it was very important to me to make a hero of this class of women."
Some say that the only way to explain how alive she is on the screen is to say that she's a natural, no more and no less, and she doesn't know what she's doing at all, it just happens whenever the camera runs.
Ah. This hurts. The eyebrows and the shoulders rise, they converge, all of her seems to shrug sad except for the corners of her mouth, which flip down tough.
"I don't understand how to do it any other way. . . . I don't think about it. If I have to remind myself of something I should do when I go into a scene then I don't do it. And when I get in there I don't know how, I can't do my face, so I don't have that kind of technique thing on either end."
Neither her artistry nor her intensity is in question. Director James Brooks has compared working with her to "studying for a college exam with the best student in the class." And "Term" costar Jeff Daniels says: "The thing about Debra is, she gives."
She and Daniels wrote letters to each other, in character, during the filming of "Terms." And to get just the right edge as a harried mother of two boys, she says, "I wore this pregnancy pad, to make me look, y'know, pregnant, like, all the time, and it had weights in it and it would be killing me, and I wanted to take it off, but I said no, I won't. By the time those kids came on the set, I was their, I'd say 'LISTEN TO ME!' she shakes her finger here and they'd better listen."
She props her hand on her hipbone, thumb forward. She winces. It's the classic pregnancy backache pose. Does she realize she keeps doing this, this going into character when she talks about a character?
"No, sir. I trust what happens to my face. I don't know and I don't think about it."
But how to make it happen on the screen?
"I have a . . . thing . . . with the camera," she says, and her eyes fix on middle distance as she imagines a movie camera. She is serious now. Her tone turns confessional, and it's a like-it-or-not confessional, as if she's talking to a new boyfriend who was stupid enough to ask about the old one he'll never measure up to.
"When it runs, something happens. I found out about it in my first screen test. I used to beg for screen tests, man, I was the only actress in Hollywood that used to say please test me, don't make me read in a room, just send me out there, you know, in front of the camera.
"They did a thing when we were shooting one time, we started and it didn't feel right, it wasn't happening and I said, 'There's something wrong with the camera,' I thought maybe there was a hair in the track, something, and they said to me, 'We never turned it on.' "
She thinks about this.
"The lens is unconditional," she says. "It doesn't judge you."
A still camera has started flashing in the room, lighting up the twilight. Sure enough, something happens in her face--shot after shot it gathers and shapes into faces that look nothing like her goofy, features-akimbo American middle-class Everywomanhood; it changes, in fact, like the faces in a movie audience changing with the emotions of the actors on the screen--except that she does it from the other side of the camera.
Sometimes she covers her face with her left hand--her cheek, her chin, never all of it.
"Y'know what my favorite pictures are, if you're interested--when I have hands over some part of my face. I just think that some part of the face should be covered at all times."
She runs into the bedroom to find a hat. She loves hats, she says. She comes back with a soft-brimmed Garbo slouch hat and pulls it on.
"This is my Laura Ashley look, you know how Laura Ashley girls are never allowed to smile . . ."
She is caught somewhere between the audience and the screen, caught in that unconditional and unjudging lens, which is where the real Debra Winger seems to live.
"Y'know what the sad thing about hats are? That when they're great you don't get to see them."
"Y'know," she says, pointing to her own hat, an actress who finds profundity in this simplest of paradoxes: "You can't see them. Because you're wearing them."