Wednesday, November 10, 2010

façade: Debra Winger

With perhaps the faintest of fanfare, the singular and much-missed Debra Winger has returned, yet again, from self-imposed exile.

She's currently, and rather comfortably, ensconced in the role of Frances, a difficult, messed-up actress in HBO's endlessly fascintating omnibus series on the highs and lows of psychoanalysis, "In Treatment," where she sits across from, and spars with, Gabriel Byrne, her co-star from Stephen Gyllenhaal's "A Dangerous Woman" (1993). Winger is riveting as a character she understands and plays perhaps a bit too well.

The "In Treatment" gig is, by my count, Winger's fourth attempted comeback, following a lead role in her husband Arliss Howard's unfortunate "Big Bad Love" (2001), supporting roles in a couple fairly bad throwaway titles ("Radio" and "Eulogy") and a thankless, surprisingly unmemorable turn in Jonathan Demme's overrated "Rachel Getting Married" (2008). Her last film, prior to this tentative output, was Billy Crystal's joyless (and slightly narcissistic) romcom "Forget Paris" in 1995. That's when she seemed to officially call it quits and walked away.

Actually, it's never been clear if Winger walked away from her career or if her career walked away from her - a career that started auspiciously in 1980 with James Bridges' "Urban Cowboy," followed by Taylor Hackford's "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982) and James L. Brooks' "Terms of Endearment" (1983), all for Paramount Pictures.

A huge talent known equally for her precision and also, fairly or unfairly, for her "tempestuousness" (Shirley MacLaine's word), Winger seemed to select films not on the basis or quality of the material, but rather on the filmmakers involved. In her prime, she worked with an eclectic and impressive group of filmmakers - and, well, not always on their best projects: Alan Rudolph ("Made in Heaven"), Bernardo Bertolucci ("The Sheltering Sky"), Richard Pearce ("Leap of Faith"), Costa-Gavras ("Betrayed"), Bob Rafelson ("Black Widow"), Karel Reisz ("Everybody Wins"), Richard Attenborough ("Shadowland") and, to a lesser degree, David S. Ward ("Cannery Row"), Ivan Reitman ("Legal Eagles"), Glenn Gordon Caron ("Wilder Napalm") and the aforementioned Gyllenhaal.

Most of these films tanked, boxoffice-wise, a problem exacerbated when the Oscar nominations also stopped mounting. (Winger's been nominated three times.) A performer can be temperamental and difficult for only so long - as long as the performer delivers, either at the boxoffice or during the awards season. Otherwise, career problems start mounting.

"Forget Paris" was Winger's nadir.

The Crystal film was a long way from her best, most adventuous work - which wasn't for legends, as one might assume, such as Bertolucci or Rafelson or Reisz, but for Bridges and Caron.

Caron's "Wilder Napalm" (1993) which co-stars Dennis Quaid and where she met Howard, may be the least-seen of Winger's work - an oddball/screwball comedy about uneasy brothers, the circus, pyrokinesis, pryomania, wacky names and Winger's vibrant screen presence.

Quaid and Howard play Wallace and Wilder Foudroyant, siblings who in childhood were able to start fires with their minds.

Following an unfortunate accident, Wilder manges quit the habit, cold turkey, settling down and marrying the enticing Vida (Winger). Not Wallace, however. As Biff the Clown, he continues on as a one-man circus act. When Wallace shows up in town with his traveling circus, he discovers that he and Vida have something in common. She's something of a pyromaniac, too, see?

The shameless Wallace intones at one point, "Once you've had a clown, you never go back.""Wilder Naplam" (which was half-heartedly released by TriStar) is a bit too quirky to wholeheartedly recommend but, for me, it's a guilty pleasure. Plus it has Winger in a role very much made for her.

The film brilliantly showcases that great honking voice of hers, those deep, black eyes that seem to stare and pierce and, of course, that mane of dark, unruly hair - hair that aches to be touched.

Still, Winger did her best screen work for the late James Bridges - and vice versa.
Bridges, of course, put Winger on the map in 1980 when he tapped her to replace Sissy Spacek in "Urban Cowboy." (Spacek, who was to be reunited with her "Carrie" co-star, John Travolta, in the film, had to drop out, and in tribute to her, the character was named Sissy.)

Winger was quite a presence in that film - again, with that head of wild hair - and an acting style to match her look.

She was revelatory.

Two years later, the director and star reteamed in 1982 for what turned out to be a troubled film, the mistreated and underrated "Mike's Murder," in which Winger turned in one of her very best performances. Too bad so few people have seen it.

The film has quite a history, a bumpy one. Bridges wrote the story - of a lonely young woman whose life changes after a man with whom she shared a one-night-stand dies violently - with Winger in mind.

It was shot during the summer of 1982 but not released (in altered form) until spring of 1984.

And it's probably safe to assume that the huge popularity of Winger's subsequent film, the Oscar-winning "Terms of Endearment," prompted its distributor to finally get it into the marketplace. (BTW, Winger also replaced Spacek in "Terms of Endearment.")

Even in its much-altered release form, it plays like a love letter to Winger. Pauline Kael caught up with the film belatedly but wrote about it with much admiration, singling out Winger "in a superb, full-scale starring performance." Kael also commented on (1) Winger's "thick, long, loose hair and deep, sensual beauty" in the film, (2) Bridges' "original and daring" touches on the film and (3) Warner Bros, the studio that "buried it."

Reportedly, the murder in the film was tied to the film industry in its original form, but by the time it was released, after several months on the shelf and after many revisions, "Mike's Murder" now indicted the recording industry. Also rumor has it that Bridges originally conceived - and edited - the film so that his story played backward. This was a risky approach, way ahead of its time. Claude Lelouch had told his story of "The Crook" chronologically scrambled in 1971, but this was different. It would take another couple decades before the conceit would be accepted, as evidenced by the success of both Christopher Nolan's "Memento" and, to a lesser degree, Gaspar Noé's "Irréversible" (both from 2002).

In 1982, however, the studio got nervous and promptly shelved the film. Apparently, a preview of the first version was booed by audiences in San Jose, and Warner Bros. and the indie that produced it, The Ladd Company, refused to distribute the movie unless changes and cuts were made.

In 1983, Warners/Ladd decided to re-edit "Mike's Murder" in chronological order and release it, just barely - like "Wilder Napalm."

One other thing: The film was also re-scored. "Mike's Murder" originally had a terrific song score by Joe Jackson - which was recorded and released while the film was still shelved - but it was junked in favor of a John Barry original. (Jackson's songs were reduced to bits of music heard in the background, always on a radio.) Jackson's soundtrack went on to become a best-seller, while Berry's score, also good, was belatedly recorded and released in a limited edition CD in 2010.

Anyway, I've become obsessed with the idea of seeing "Mike's Murder" in its original incarnation, but with Bridges now gone, that's not very likely. (Also lost is the expanded version of "Urban Cowboy" that Bridges prepared the film's debut on network television. It was shown only once in that form - with about 15 minutes of extra footage added - but has seemingly disappeared. Paramount never bothered to put the extended version into syndication or include it any videos or DVDs of the film.)

"Mike's Murder" had been released on Beta only, never VHS.  It was one of those forgotten titles until Warner Archives did the right thing and released it on DVD in 2009.

Note in Passing: Read Variety's review of "Mike's Murder", published December 31st, 1983.