By her own definition, Debra Winger is first a mother, second a human rights advocate and environmental activist, and thirdly, an actor. These three facets are all carried off with intensity, fierceness, grace, and good humor. As an actor, her credits include more than twenty films and three Academy Award nominations (An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment, and Shadowlands). While Winger has been acknowledged as one of the finest actors of stage and screen, her talents for the articulation of her craft are outmatched only by her elegance of character as mother and emissary. Winger appeared on television as a regular in the 2010 HBO series In Treatment. She played one of Doctor Paul Weston’s (Gabriel Byrne) patients for the show’s third season. In 2012 she made her Broadway debut in David Mamet’s Anarchist.
In 2008 she published her debut book, Undiscovered (Simon & Schuster), a collection of deeply personal vignettes reflecting on her life. Jim Harrison writes of this book: “Debra Winger’s Undiscovered is terse, lucid, raw, and occasionally explosive. As a memoir it resembles absolutely nothing an actress ever wrote. Undiscovered reminded me of that old Zen notion of ‘cooking down your life’ so you can see what you’re eating. This is a tough and rewarding book, beautifully written.”
HUMANITARIAN & ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST
In addition to speaking about her life in film, Winger is also involved with several non-profit humanitarian and social justice organizations, and speaks to the issues they present. Tahirih Justice Center works to protect immigrant women and girls from gender-based violence, such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation, domestic and intimate partner violence, trafficking, torture, and rape. Tahirih works primarily through providing legal services, advocacy, and public education programs. Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel was founded to build peace between Jews and Arabs in Israel through development of bilingual and multi-cultural schools. Students at the schools are taught in both Hebrew and Arabic, learning to treasure their own culture and language while understanding the difference of others around them. Through education for tolerance and socializing in groups with diverse attitudes, Hand in Hand will have a critical effect on the future of Israel. Winger is also an ambassador for Sightsavers International, a non-profit organization that works to combat blindness in developing countries, by providing specialist treatment and eye care. Sightsavers works to cure people who have reversible eye conditions and prevent people from becoming needlessly blind, and to provide people who are irreversibly blind with the skills to live a more independent life through education, counseling, and training.
Winger was the creative consultant for the film Gasland, which won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance, about the Natural Gas drilling boom in the United States and its terrifying influence on the environment and the health of humans and animals. An activist for other environmental causes, Winger has also attended the EPA hearings in DC.
Winger’s arrival to acting was the culmination of a route greatly different than those of her contemporaries. As a teenager she spent some time in Israel. Upon returning to the United States, she was involved in a serious accident that left her in a coma and temporarily blind. During her recovery, Winger thought long and hard about where her life was going, and decided that, upon recuperating, she would become an actress. With this deliberate action, Winger traveled from commercials to the television series Wonder Woman to an acclaimed career in film, (Urban Cowboys, The Sheltering Sky, Legal Eagles, Black Widow, and more). She has consequently become one of the beloved actors of our time.
Gradually though, Winger came to understand her values—that superficiality is corrosive, that self-worth doesn’t come with a number, and that freedom will always be an essential component of human happiness—and appreciate them as parallel to the principles of countless generations but directly opposite the priorities of the modern, western world. In 1995, at another deliberate crux in her life and career, Winger left acting and—holding to her commitment of walking her talk—did not look back. She later told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that “nothing quite compares with the sense of liberation I felt. It stays with me: I am happy and I am free.”
Such was the impact of Winger’s absence from Hollywood that when Rosanna Arquette directed her documentary about the pressures faced by aging actresses in an industry which seems to provide fewer and fewer roles for women beyond their twenties, she entitled it Searching for Debra Winger.
Fortunately, Winger is not entirely finished with film as medium. Married now to director Arliss Howard, and in the midst of raising three sons, she manages to find the time for the screen again; and she approaches it with more radiance, zeal, and “plucky intelligence” than ever before. While filming Big Bad Love, her first movie in ten years (produced by Winger and directed by Howard who also co-stars), Winger said, “I’m in tune with something now, doing this [movie] and exploring the possibility of playing women over 40 without facial surgery! I don’t know if there’s a market for it—but I’m interested in it.” In 2008, she returned to the screen, to great acclaim, in Johnathon Demme’s film, Rachel Getting Married. Looking ahead, Winger hopes Hollywood as a whole will strive to tell more stories about older women. “I don’t know what the aversion is—I’m so proud of the fact that I’ve lived through most of what I’ve lived through!” Winger appeared on television as a regular in the 2010 HBO series In Treatment. She played one of Doctor Paul Weston’s (Gabriel Byrne) patients for the show’s third season.
Debra Winger is the author of Undiscovered, a collection of deeply personal vignettes reflecting on her life. As an actor, her credits include more than twenty films and three Academy Award nominations (An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment, and Shadowlands). Winger traveled from commercials to the television series Wonder Woman to an acclaimed career in film, (Urban Cowboys, The Sheltering Sky, Legal Eagles, Black Widow, and more). In 2002, a documentary about the pressures faced by aging actresses in the industry was entitled Searching for Debra Winger. In 2008, after a long absence, Winger returned to the screen to great acclaim in Johnathon Demme’s film Rachel Getting Married and appeared on television as a regular in the 2010 HBO series In Treatment. In 2012 she made her Broadway debut in David Mamet’s Anarchist. Winger is also involved with several non-profit humanitarian and social justice organizations, including Tahirih Justice Center, Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education, and Sightsavers International, as well as having been the creative consultant for the film Gasland by Josh Fox.
UNDISCOVERED (Memoir, 2008)
In this lyrical, deeply personal book, the beloved, three-time Oscar-nominated actress Debra Winger reveals how she has drawn on her creative talents to transform a successful career into a fulfilling life. Known for her indelible, Oscar-caliber performances in such films as Terms of Endearment, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Urban Cowboy, Winger demonstrates that her creative range extends from screen to page, giving us an intimate glimpse of an artist wide-ranging in her gifts. Undiscovered is a book about transformations—personal, artistic, spiritual. Here, Winger passionately makes her case for forging a life beyond acting, lived among the people who inspire her—and shows how she has done just that.
It is the last day of Passover and I am sitting in a Yiskor service on the Upper West Side. It is the service held for the dead, and I am trying so hard to invoke my mother’s young face, but I cannot. I am still only able to remember the last few months as her body turned into an old woman’s with the speed of time-lapse photography. I try to put myself in the home of my infancy, attempting to see her there. But all I can recall is the sadness I felt when we left for California in 1960.
I shake myself out of the drifting memories and pray for her return-to God and to my full memory.
I leave temple encouraged at least at my ability to feel compassion for my mother and for my grandmother (this part is just as important, I say). I walk down two blocks and look up to find myself stopped in front of a dress in the window of a small shop. It looks like how I imagine my mother looked when she was young. It is timeless and cheerful and full-cut.
I walk in, take the dress down, and present it to the saleswoman with my credit card; I do not care what size it is; I want it. She takes the card from me, and as she’s ringing it up she casually says,
“I thought I recognized that voice.”
I hope for expediency. “I know your mother.”
I say, “My mother? You must be mistaken. I’m not from around here.”
“No,” she answers, “I used to go to a dentist in Los Angeles; your mother ran the office. We would talk and talk. She is so proud of you and loves you so, and I feel the same way about my daughter, so we’d talk all the time.”
“She passed away.” The words just come out, I realize later, rather tactlessly. Tears shoot from her eyes. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. She was so young. I loved that woman.”
I stumble out into the first bright sun of spring.
This, too, is what prayer can be—an opening to the world.
Once, my friend and mentor James Bridges found me hiding under the covers, as I often did when I finished a job. I always felt that the roles I accepted must be inextricably linked to my life if I were to keep finding the passion to fuel each job. I had been to the desert making a film, and now everything in my life looked different. He quoted, “She took to her bed to lose her looks.”
Charles Dickens, I think. It always made me smile. I could never quite decide if it was about the way the world looked at me or about the way I looked at the world.
I am always searching for the next door, the next role, the next change.
—from the Preface