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.


NPT said...

Wow, it's great to see this post. I, too, love Mike's Murder and have longed to see it as Bridges intended, although what we have, however watered down by Warner Brothers, remains masterwork enough.

Such a haunting film. Not only a fine performance by Winger, but a truly masterful one by Darrell Larsen, who never again had another film role of such piercing intensity. He takes a LA hipster archetype and does something quite devastating with it.

In smaller roles, Dan Shor and Brooke Alderson are beguiling, for totally dissimilar reasons. And, of course, Winfield is electrifying as the record industry exec. Part of what makes MM so unforgettable or satisfying or infuriating is that none of these characters seem to be inhabiting the same world at all. And when they're thrown together, it's the most beautiful (and lifelike) collision. This movie rather desperately requires the full-on Criterion treatment.

joe baltake said...

You are so right - and on two counts.

Yes, Darrell Larson is magnificent in this film; it really should have catapulted him into stardom. He's much more impressive thatnthe film's nominal male lead, Mark Keyloun.

And yes, Criterion should defintely try to do a restoration. I'm fairly sure that Jack Larson, Bridges' longtime companion, and Winger would love to do the commentary. (

Les Le Gear said...

With reference to your comments on the movie, Mike's Murder,I thought you'd like to know that the story is based on the actual murder of Mike (forgot his last name) by a drug dealer. The dealer was an ex UCLA football player. Both my wife and I knew Mike. Ironically, he was
a friend of Paul Winfield (who probably came up with the idea for
the movie) He was from Buffalo, NY and was a tennis bum. Nice,
good lucking guy, but not that bright. He was a small time dealer
in marajuana who got mixed up with the wrong people. If you'd like
more info, and verification of the facts, feel free to contact me.
I'm surprised that no mention of Mike being a real person, from
which the film is based, ever surfaced in the reviews.

Les Le Gear said...

I noticed your reviews of the '80's motion picture Mike's Murder.
I thought you'd like to know that the story is based on the actual
murder of Mike (forgot last name)by a drug dealer. The dealer was an ex UCLA football player. Both my wife and I knew Mike. Ironically, he was a friend of Paul Winfield (who probably came up with the idea for the movie) He was from Buffalo, NY and was a tennis bum. A nice,good lucking guy, but not that bright. He was a small time dealer in marajuana who got mixed up with the wrong people. If you'd like more info, and verification of the facts, feel free to contact me.
I'm surprised that no mention of Mike being a real person, from
which the film is based, ever surfaced in the reviews.

Molly said...

Debra Winger was certainly one of the most intriguing movie stars of the 1980s; her choices were often eccentric, but she remained true to herself.

joe baltake said...

Molly: Absolutely. -J

mike said...

I think you hit on something when you write about difficult performers having to ultimately deliver. Val Kilmer was supposedly difficult, as is Edward Norton today. Producers and directors will put up with only so much. There has to be a return.

joe baltake said...

Two of my favorite actors of the '80s - Winger and Alec Baldwin - were reportedly difficult to worth with and enjoyed brief runs as leading players. I've no idea how true that it; like everyone else, I know only what I read. Anyway, this disappointed me, because my "dream project" has always been a remake of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" starring Baldwin and Winger as George and Martha - and Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon as Nick and Honey.

Vadim said...

Winger! Wow!

Laurence Klavan said...

Rob Reiner didn't direct "Forget Paris." It was Billy Crystal, imitating Rob Reiner.

joe baltake said...

Laurence! Noted. Funny thing is that I always wondered why "Forget Paris" seemed so narcissistic, leading man-wise. That's because I've assumed for years that it is a Reiner film. Now aware that it is a Billy Crystal film, it makes sense.

michael stevens said...

"Mike's Murder" is intelligent and mature. One of the best movies about Los Angeles - someone should put together a really thoughtful retrospective of movies about L.A., come to think of it. I missed it the first time out. Pauline Kael's review brought it to my attention. I think American audiences may have been put off by the movie's distinctly European feel, in its pacing, moral ambiguity, and elliptical storytelling. All those aspects worked perfectly, but not if you were expecting a broad, dumb, and obvious film.

joe baltake said...

Michael: Actually, audiences didn't get a chance to judge "Mike's Murder" beause Warners buried it, barely releasing it. Anyway, the film never opened in most areas. To the best of my recollection, it played only L.A. and New York, maybe Boston. That's it. I agree with you, re films about L.A. - particularly L.A. noir. Someone should definitely do a festival.

Pippa said...

I went through a Winger phase a few years back, rewatching all her films, and this was an interesting one.

But was it true that it was originally supposed to be shown backwards? I read that in one place. That would be interesting to see.

Robert H. said...

Barry fans - the score was recently released in a limited edition cd

joe baltake said...

Rob! Great news. I am definitely a Barry fan and, being a completist, it will be nice to now have his music score along with Joe Jackson's.

Carrie said...

Joe: "Mike's Murder" did, indeed play Boston in 1984. I remember it as a mood piece with the melancholy of "Night Moves," but thought it a mess. Winger. as usual, was riveting. My favorite late Winger performance may be "Shadowlands," as Joy Gresham, the poet who married C.S. Lewis.

justjoan123 said...

Carrie, I, too, love "Shadowlands." In fact, every time I run across it, I tell myself I will just watch until (...until she comes for Christmas...until she puts John Woods in his place...until she tells Lewis he can follow his usual going-to-bed routine, and at the end, "I'll be there.") Inevitably I am there until the end, blubbering, along with the bereft husband and child. It is amazing, and she is the most amazing thing in it. I would never have believed I would see such passionate chemistry between these two leads, but they are incandescent together, without a single open-mouthed clinch.
My other favorite is the wildly uneven "Black Widow," where Winger and her hair just run rings around a wonderfully sensual Theresa Russell.