Not too serious, Debra Winger still evokes tears

January 10, 1994|By Judy Gerstel | Judy Gerstel,Knight-Ridder News Service

"It's good for you, Bill," says Debra Winger with a snap of her fingers to a radio reporter departing the room, complaining about how "Shadowlands" made him cry.

"Clear those ducts out," she says, still snapping. "You men don't cry enough."

Ms. Winger, a single mother with a 7-year-old son, makes grown men cry.

In the movie, she plays New Yorker Joy Gresham, who brought love to the life of English author C. S. Lewis during the '50s and then promptly was stricken with cancer. For Anthony Hopkins, playing yet another repressed Englishman, the dam finally breaks. He cries; we're flooded.

L And we don't even like Ms. Winger's character all that much.

"Shadowlands" director Richard Attenborough had to fight for that. "I wanted Debra, but there were those who wanted more obvious casting, easy casting," he says, "easy in terms of everybody saying at the moment she arrived, "Oh, well, of course he'll fall in love with her.' "

"Easy" is not a word in Ms. Winger's world. "Genius," maybe. It's the word Jack Nicholson chose to describe her after they made (( "Terms of Endearment."

"Very, very sexy and sensuous, and funny and smart" were the words co-star John Travolta used after "Urban Cowboy."

"She makes you feel that there's something humming inside her," wrote Pauline Kael after "An Officer and A Gentleman."

"Bewildering" is the word Mr. Attenborough chooses. He says, "Betty [Lauren] Bacall saw 'Shadowlands' last night and said it was probably the best female performance in terms of real depth and real understanding that she could recall. And I think she's right."

But easy, no. That's why Ms. Winger felt a kinship with the truth-telling, socially awkward character she plays in "A Dangerous Woman."

"I want to give irreverent answers and call a spade a spade," she says. "It's more fun. It comes out naturally. And I have a lot of energy, so it comes out fast. And I'm loud, so it comes out loud."

All morning at group interviews in New York for "Shadowlands," it's been coming out that way.

It's the underwear

"What makes you decide to take a role?" she's asked.

"The money," she replies. "The wardrobe. The location."

"And how did you go back in time for 'Shadowlands' and adapt to being a woman of the '50s?"

"That bra can get you back there really fast," she says. "They have stitches in concentric circles. Put on one of those, it's like two B-52 bombers. It's pretty impressive, and I'll tell you, it helps."

Asked about her research for the role of Gresham, she says, "You mean like walking around in the '50s bra before I actually had to wear one?"

And the major differences between her and the character she plays in the movie?

"I don't wear that underwear," she replies. "I keep getting back to the underwear. That was very important to me."

'My survival tactic'

But later, in a private conversation, Ms. Winger explains: "I come out and do this how often? Not very often. I get very jumpy and that's how I get through it -- I'm on, that's my survival tactic. But I just don't see how else to be.

"Because otherwise you get bogged down in the seriousness of it, and I see a picture of a young woman at her mother's grave in Sarajevo, and it's pretty hard for me to get too serious about this stuff."

Ms. Winger, at 38, is generally regarded as quixotic, nettlesome, temperamental, brilliant and, yes, maybe even dangerous. It is, indeed, enough to make men weep, especially when they're directing her.

Though rumors of disruptions on any set that includes Ms.

Winger are predictable, Mr. Attenborough defends her stoutly.

"Debra is hugely professional," he insists. "What she cares about is the work. And if she doesn't think the work is right, if she thinks it's going wrong or if she thinks we're being superficial or meretricious or whatever, boy, will she let you know! And you are to stand still until that is resolved. I adore that!"

And according to both Ms. Winger and Mr. Hopkins, they got along amazingly well. "There were belly laughs," she says, "and the death bed stuff was not exempt."

Ms. Winger dismisses comments about suffering from cancer twice on screen. Perhaps it's remarkable only because her demise in "Terms of Endearment" a decade ago was so utterly memorable.

"Unfortunately, in our world today, this is not a ridiculous coincidence," she says. "I've lost two of my dearest friends to cancer in three years, and I don't want to count how many I've lost in 10 years."

One of those dear friends was James Bridges, who directed her in "Urban Cowboy," the movie that put Ms. Winger, a Jewish girl from Cleveland, on a mechanical bull and made her a star.

Within three years, she was nominated twice for Best Actress Oscars -- in 1982 for "An Officer and a Gentleman" and in 1983 for "Terms of Endearment."

Away from the glamour

But in the last decade, she has been noticed more for her off-screen activities than any award-winning performances: a high-profile romance with Bob Kerrey, then governor of Nebraska and now a U.S. senator, followed by a rebound marriage to Timothy Hutton, father of her son, Noah, followed by the breakup that marriage.

Most important to Ms. Winger is the successful life she has constructed for herself and her son at their home in upstate New York, about 2 1/2 hours from Manhattan.

It's a long way from the insidious and often destructive glamour and ease of Hollywood, she says.

"If you have money, and the weather is such as it is, the influences are deadly."

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