Debra Winger hasn’t appeared in the leading role of a major film since the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency. But she’s back in theaters this Friday with her performance as a woman entangled in an adulterous dilemma in the idiosyncratic romantic comedy The Lovers.
But from the late 1970s through the early ’90s, Winger was everywhere. She burst onscreen riding a mechanical bull in 1980’s Urban Cowboy and earned Oscar nominations for beautifully complex performances in An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment, and Shadowlands.
It’s the middle one of those films, Terms of Endearment, that still marks a glorious keystone in Winger’s career, 34 years later. Directed by James L. Brooks from the Texas novel by Larry McMurtry, the movie stars Winger and Shirley Maclaine as a tumultuous mother-daughter pair, with supporting turns by Jack Nicholson and Jeff Daniels. The film won five Oscars including Best Picture, and holds up miraculously today as perhaps the very best huge-hearted Hollywood weepie of its era. Though Terms is often hilariously funny — in large degree thanks to the comic spontaneity of Winger’s performance — it’s the soulfulness and poetry of the movie’s final act which gives it unmistakable classic status.
In anticipation of The Lovers release, Winger talked to EW about the film’s effect on the culture and her career — and the reported Lee Daniels remake starring Oprah Winfrey in the Maclaine role.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So I was talking to some younger cousins last night and I mentioned your name and they all knew who you were.
DEBRA WINGER: What, really? How much younger, first of all?
In their late 20s and 30s.
That’s bizarre. I wish they would wait on me when I’ve forgotten my wallet at the market. That’s when they never know me. But, yeah, go ahead. How did they know me?
It was from Terms of Endearment. They all kind of touched their heart when they said the name of that movie.
Oh. Interesting. How did they come across it? I didn’t even think people that age watched cable anymore, you know? I thought they only watched what they wanted to watch.
I’m sure they can stream it.
Right. We’re in an age when you only go after what you want to watch on demand. But yeah, there was a period when it was on cable TV like a screensaver. You could always find it on one station or another.
It was right after that point when movies became available outside of movie theaters and TV airings.
Yeah it just made me sick, you know?
Well, I mean, there was no cable and no VCR in 1979 when they made Urban Cowboy or even Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment. Everybody went to the movies to see those. I said that once around the dinner table and I looked up and all my kids’ jaws had dropped. I just casually mentioned that when I started making movies nobody had VCRs so everybody went to the movies. I looked at my kids and it was like they were at the La Brea Tar Pits, like they were looking at a dinosaur. I said, “Guys, it wasn’t that long ago!” It’s just so much has happened since VCRs came into the house.
I look back at how old you were when you made Terms. You were younger than Emma Stone is now, younger than Brie Larson is now, but there was this maturity and strength in that performance. Maybe it’s your deep voice, but it’s just incredible to watch someone so young with such an understanding of life.
I think it was an amazing collaboration. But thank you. I feel like I did my job, you know, and brought what I could to it, but it was just something like — do you remember that first ad for THX Sound when you’d sit in the theater and the sound would come from all over and then it would pinpoint and it would say, “The audience is listening”? I feel like that’s Terms of Endearment.
Like all the elements coming together?
Exactly. All these unbelievable crafts. It’s one of those films where all the elements, the set design, the costumes, the cinematography, the music, and the acting all come together for this perfect tone. I was just along for the ride.
So you just feel like a part of the mosaic?
Yeah, you know, I always felt as an equal to the dolly grip being able to move the camera at a perfect pace for the shot. Maybe that’s why I had such appreciation of working with people like Bernardo Bertolucci [on The Sheltering Sky] or Richard Attenborough [on Shadowlands], people that just treated the crew and the cast like it was one family. Terms was definitely in that school.
Like a feeling of being in sync?
Yeah, so I think when you talk about my power on screen or my voice or whatever, I believe it’s more being in sync with everything around you that is also being made, you know? The set that you’re on, the words that you’re speaking. And I see it now, I feel it with The Lovers. I feel it between Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart.
They have a kind of chemistry. I feel it between Charlotte Rampling and Andrew Haigh [the director of 45 Years]. I guess I haven’t been lucky enough, my mentor died way too young, [Urban Cowboy director] James Bridges. But I really felt it with him and I’ve felt it with other directors. I just wait for that feeling. I’m a director’s actor in that way.
It’s interesting to do research and hear all the stories about you and Shirley Maclaine fighting on the set of Terms of Endearment. People like Bertolucci and Anthony Hopkins and The Lovers director Azazel Jacobs have loved working with you but you have a reputation for being difficult.
Oh, I don’t really care about that. I always thought that was great. It saved me so much time. It made for great ink. I didn’t have to do interviews. I did one and it lasted for ten years. I found out so early on that you would say something to one person for one interview and it followed you for the rest of your life. Before the internet, it followed you in other interviews. They would open the interview with a quote I gave from another interview. It’s like, “Really, dude?”
But I’m talking about outside people because generally what I get from people I work with is, “I don’t get it. How come they say those things about you?” And I tell them, “Shh. That’s the secret. You don’t really want them to say nice things about you.” You’ll have to deal with a lot more.
You’ll deal with more scrutiny if you try to explain?
Of course. And whatever stories are on the internet, they’ll never go away, even the ones that are not true. As Jack Nicholson so richly told me years and years ago, “Bucky, don’t deny anything because if you deny one thing the first thing you don’t deny is automatically true.”
Right. He’s very smart.
Yes he is very smart. You’ll just be walking around denying everything. So I deny nothing and you pick out what you want.
Lastly, have you heard about reports that Lee Daniels and Oprah plan to remake Terms of Endearment?
Absolutely! I’m all for it and think it’s a fascinating idea. I mean, it’s a story that clearly, look, you just told me about these cousins of yours. It’s a timeless story. I applaud that idea and I’d be really interested to see what comes of it.