June 26, 2008
It’s the stuff of Hollywood legend: promising young ingenue Debra Winger makes Tinseltown A-list with a couple of star-making roles, then, Garbo-like, mysteriously disappears from the silver screen.
Trouble is, the legend isn’t true.
The 53-year-old three-time Academy Award nominee never disappeared. She never stopped working. She’s still big. It’s the pictures that got small.
Or maybe the Jewish star of Terms of Endearment and Shadowlands juggled so many interests, keeping her face in People magazine didn’t matter to her anymore.
Winger tells her story, albeit in a roundabout poetic fashion, in her new book, Undiscovered (Simon & Schuster). An autobiography peppered with poems and prescriptions for living, the book should reassure Winger’s fans that the actress is doing just fine.
Though Undiscovered is her first book, Winger has been writing all her life. “I’ve always written my way out of a scrape,” she said by phone from her home in upstate New York. “I presented the concept [for the book] as chapterless. It came from a place of not writing long pieces. They were more like essays and poetry. I saw them as portals and thresholds, beginnings and transformations I had to go through.”
Anyone hoping for a Hollywood tell-all will be disappointed. Though she does recount her early days in the movie business, as well as a few choice stories about colleagues like Jack Nicholson, Winger devotes most of the book to motherhood, daughterhood, cooking, and gardening.
“I talk about living in metaphor,” Winger says. “These are stories I told because I thought they held some parallel significance. I see no point in telling a story for the point of entertainment value in a book.”
Born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, in 1955 and raised in southern California’s San Fernando Valley, Winger grew up steeped in Judaism and Jewish culture (her maternal grandparents were Orthodox). However, the story that she served in the Israel Defense Forces is a “webbemeysa.”
“This was just an Internet snowball,” she said. “I was just on a typical Israel program for young people. Actually I’m a peacenik. My biggest action is between the sheets.”
After recovering from an auto accident as a teenager that left her temporarily blind and paralyzed, she decided to become an actress. Winger’s first big screen hit came opposite John Travolta in 1980’s Urban Cowboy, followed in quick succession by An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment, the latter two leading to Oscar nominations. She earned a third Academy Award bid with 1993’s Shadowlands, playing the terminally ill Jewish wife of author C.S. Lewis.
Soon enough, she became almost as well known for turning down parts, and her screen appearances grew farther apart. Actress-turned-director Rosanna Arquette even made a 2001 documentary, Searching for Debra Winger, on the subject of the actress’s vanishing act.
But Winger had stayed busy. She had two sons (Emmanuel Noah Hutton from her first marriage to actor Timothy Hutton, and Babe Ruth Howard from her current marriage to director Arliss Howard).
She also devoted time and energy to causes she believes in, such as Hand in Hand, a network of joint Arab-Jewish schools in Israel. Every classroom has Arab and Jewish teachers, and by the fourth grade, all students are bilingual. Notes Winger, “You say to yourself, ‘Oh, this is how you make peace.’”
Winger continues to live a Jewish life, and is a regular at her local synagogue. She considers prayer and worship “the best this world delivers. It gives yourself back to you. Having a conversation or an argument with the God I am sure doesn’t exist keeps me a Jew.”
Winger will return to the screen later this year in Rachel Getting Married, directed by Jonathan Demme. But before then she’ll be on the road, doing a book tour and meeting with fans.
That should go well, considering her easy laugh and down-to-earth manner. But it still wasn’t easy for this very private person to share publicly so many secrets.
“The ego is a flimsy thing to hold onto,” she said, “a little twig on a rock cliff. That’s what it felt like.”
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