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Why You Rarely Hear From Debra Winger Anymore

One would be hard-pressed to single out a more romantic and iconic movie moment than Debra Winger being carried out of her factory job by newly-minted naval officer Richard Gere in 1982's "An Officer and a Gentleman." It was certainly a high point of Winger's career as a Hollywood leading lady in the '80s. But behind the scenes and in her own off-screen life, she's never fallen into the trap of being typecast or pigeonholed. 

Winger has always been a maverick: enigmatic, unpredictable, and frequently noted for contentious relationships with co-stars and directors alike. Her antagonistic and bizarre behavior has even cost her a few plum roles in now-classic films and tarnished her professional reputation. To her credit, Winger has obviously never wanted to play the usual Hollywood game, an often cruel one that does not typically cultivate many good roles for women past the age of 40.

Over the years, she's often stepped out of the Hollywood limelight to live on her terms. Despite her many legendary performances, she still considers herself an outsider in the movie business and isn't shy about denouncing the perils and inequities of the notoriously fickle, shallow, and sexist industry. Although she famously turned her back on her mainstream film career, these days she's back at work in front of the camera. Winger just hasn't found many Hollywood roles to be especially interesting, and it's evident that's why she's shifted her life priorities and perhaps hasn't been as vocal as of late.

She left Los Angeles for New York

Debra Winger might have spent her formative years in Los Angeles, but she's found a lasting home in New York. Winger moved to Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley as a kid, but she confessed to the Los Angeles Times, "Ever since I was a kid and lived in Los Angeles, I was spooked by the [unchanging] weather. And there's just a consciousness on the East Coast that I prefer." In the '90s, Winger owned two penthouses in New York City's Upper West Side neighborhood and an apple and feed-corn farm in upstate New York, where she chose to spend most of her time (via The New York Times).

Winger's adventures in New York City real estate ventured beyond the '90s, with the New York Post reporting that she and her husband Arliss Howard purchased another Upper West Side co-op apartment in 2015 for $1.85 million. As of August 2022, this apartment was listed for sale with an asking price of $1.49 million. Even though Winger is releasing some prime city property, she still keeps herself busy on her farm, telling the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "I'm hands-on in my garden. I'm planting, watering, working in the dirt. I love it."

She has quit high-profile movie roles

Debra Winger takes her work seriously and has been recognized for her efforts. A three-time Academy Award nominee in the 1980s, she became one of Hollywood's shining stars. Winger's star turns in "Terms of Endearment" and "An Officer and a Gentleman" were not only box office smashes, with both "Terms" and "Officer" grossing over $100 million, but they also made her a critical darling. By the early '90s, Winger was wielding some serious Hollywood power and exercised it on the 1992 film "A League of Their Own," when she joined the ranks of actors who quit roles because of another actor.

According to Vanity Fair, Winger was already cast in the lead role of Dottie in the classic baseball film when Madonna was hired to play fellow Rockford Peaches team member Mae. Winger was months-deep in baseball training with the Chicago Cubs when she got word of Madonna's casting. Winger, who dissed the pop star's casting choice as downgrading the movie into "an Elvis film," left the project, but not without collecting her full paycheck. Geena Davis went on to play Dottie and Madonna stayed in the picture, with "A League of Their Own" becoming a box office hit and a celebrated cult classic. Although Winger lost out on starring in such a highly influential film, she left with her dignity intact and her wallet full.

She feels like a Hollywood outsider

It's hard to imagine Debra Winger feeling like a Hollywood outsider. Throughout her career, she's starred in such classic films as "Terms of Endearment" and "Urban Cowboy," and she continues to work in mainstream hits like Netflix's comedy series "The Ranch." But just because Winger has held her own in a decades-long entertainment career doesn't mean she feels like a permanent fixture in the Hollywood firmament.

In an interview with People, Winger confessed to her estrangement from Hollywood, admitting, "I don't know what Hollywood is." Clearly she understood that Hollywood was an actual neighborhood, quipping, "Los Angeles is a place, but the idea of Hollywood doesn't really exist for me." She added of the industry, "There must be some in-crowds that I just don't know about." Despite Winger's feelings of alienation in the industry, she is much-loved by Hollywood talent, including her "Mr. Corman" co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who praised her as a wonderful, authentic artist (via Collider).

The movie that alienated Winger from Hollywood

Debra Winger was an established Hollywood star in the 1990s. By mid-decade, she had appeared in a number of films alongside other Tinseltown heavyweights like Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, and Anthony Hopkins. Films like "Leap of Faith," "Forget Paris," and "Shadowlands" might not been zeitgeist-defining like Winger's '80s movies, but they still garnered critical accolades from the likes of Roger Ebert and earned her an Oscar nomination to boot. Winger's career trajectory was seemingly settling into one of understated excellence, but her experience on a never-finished movie set made her reconsider her work in film.

In 1995, Winger was set to co-star alongside Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando in the movie "The Divine Rapture." She recounted to the Los Angeles Times that weeks into shooting the film in small-town Ireland, financing for the project fell through and the production was abandoned immediately. Winger was the only person on the film who stayed behind, ensuring that local workers got compensated for their services. She said of her diligence, "I didn't know about anyone else, but I wanted to be able to come home and sleep at night." The film was never completed and the Times reported that her brief time making "The Divine Rapture" sealed her disenchantment with Hollywood.

Winger's notorious clashes with co-stars gave her a bad reputation

Debra Winger's clashes with her co-stars have become the stuff of Hollywood legend. Perhaps her most well-known celebrity beef was with her "Terms of Endearment" co-star Shirley MacLaine. A 1984 profile in People included rumors about the actors slugging each other and fighting over top billing. Winger admitted to People, "We knew what we were doing a lot of the time, sparring back and forth, playing games," while MacLaine added, "It was all in the line of work." 

Decades after co-starring in the Oscar-winning film together, Winger and MacLaine's alleged dramatics are still fascinating. When Winger appeared on "Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen" and was asked by Andy Cohen to clarify the rumors that she passed gas at MacLaine and licked MacLaine's leg, she acknowledged that some of the rumors were true, but failed to offer up details (via People).

Winger's bad behavior toward colleagues didn't begin or end with MacLaine. Debra Winger didn't like working with Richard Gere, her love interest in "An Officer and a Gentleman," comparing working with Gere to acting with a "brick wall." She got into such a nasty argument with "Urban Cowboy" director James Bridges that it stopped filming for an entire day (via The New York Times). On the Literally! With Rob Lowe podcast, Michael Douglas admitted that Winger was passed over for the starring role in "Romancing the Stone" after she bit him in the arm during a pre-shoot dinner.

Her brutal honesty means she's avoided interviews

Debra Wingers' brutal honesty and candor about her career means she's deliberately avoided the press. In 2002, her then-agent Rick Nicita told the Los Angeles Times, "Debra doesn't always go down easy." Her outspokenness, even about her own films, has garnered Winger an unpredictable reputation in Hollywood. She's completely self-aware of her blunt opinions, telling The New York Times, "Speaking the truth has gotten me into more trouble than any other phase of my personality."

Winger has generally avoided interviews at many points in her career. She acknowledged that her reputation in Hollywood for being an unapologetic loudmouth is well-earned, admitting to The New York Times, "I've shot off my mouth in ways that are just not necessary and so I'm sorry about that. But mostly, I'm really not." Sometimes her most cutting statements came through in her silence, as when she refused to do press for "An Officer and a Gentleman," with The New York Times reporting that she objected to script changes and her treatment on the set. 

She's worked in theater and on Broadway

Debra Winger has found fame in front of Hollywood cameras and she's also found notoriety on the stage. The New York Times reports that Winger might have a dislike for "show business," but she still likes acting. In the '90s, Winger acted alongside husband Arliss Howard in the American Repertory Theater productions of "How I Learned To Drive" and "Ivanov." In 2007, Winger starred in "The Pod Project," an interactive play that put performers in a one-on-one experience with audience members (via Variety).

Winger made her Broadway debut in 2012 alongside theater legend Patti LuPone in David Mamet's "The Anarchist," a role she couldn't pass up. Speaking to Broadway.com about the opportunity she said, "When you get an offer from Dave Mamet, and it's Broadway, and it's this play and you're gonna work with someone like Patti LuPone, if you say 'no,' you pretty much have to face the fact that you don't want to do this anymore." Winger told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that whether it's acting in film or on the stage, "I'm still looking to get my hands on something that feels like I'm flying."

How she's prioritized her family life

A high-profile Hollywood career can strain even the most well-adjusted family dynamic. Throughout the years, Debra Winger has chosen to live much of her personal and family life away from the spotlight, but she surprised the industry when she married actor Timothy Hutton in 1986. The couple welcomed son Noah in 1987, and after Winger and Hutton divorced in 1990, she spent much of her time at her upstate New York farm raising him. In a 1994 interview with The New York Times, Winger revealed that Noah was not attending school, and that she was instead splitting his time between home-schooling by her and a local arts program geared toward kids, where the identity of his famous mother had no bearing on his enrollment.

Winger married again in 1996, this time to actor Arliss Howard. Their blended family — consisting of Winger's son Noah, Howard's son Sam from a previous marriage, and their own son Babe — settled into a quiet family life. When she seemingly retired from Hollywood in the late '90s, it was partially due to prioritizing her family over life on a film set. She told The Guardian, "I had a new marriage, I wanted another child and it seemed ridiculous to run off for three months to do another film." These days, when Winger is not working, she's at her upstate New York farm with her family, simply stating to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "I love to spend time with my husband and sons."

Winger put Hollywood on hold because the roles weren't interesting

Debra Winger's decision to walk away from her storied Hollywood career baffled many, but for Winger, the choice was easy. Her last credit before stepping away from Tinsel Town was the 1995 romantic comedy, "Forget Paris," after which she quickly approached a professional crossroads. The year prior, she confessed to The New York Times that she felt she was "in the twilight of my career." She told The Guardian of this time in her life, "I had also reached 40, a point in life when things can get really tough in Hollywood. I looked around and thought: It's time to go."

From Winger's perspective, she never left Hollywood outright, but rather she "simply pushed the pause button" on increasingly unfulfilling acting opportunities (via People). Winger told People, "The parts that were coming, I wasn't interested in ... My life challenged me more than the parts, so I dove into it fully." In her time away from mainstream Hollywood, Winger's life was plenty busy, as she informed the Los Angeles Times, "I had a baby, my mom passed, I taught, I did two plays. I lived my life."

She doesn't like TV, but still does prominent shows

Like many legendary movie stars in recent years, Debra Winger has taken on roles in television. In the 2000s, Winger acted in the TV movies "Dawn Anna" and "Sometimes In April," but it wasn't until 2010 that she scored her first major TV role, playing Frances Greer in the HBO series "In Treatment." Since then, Winger has appeared in a number of small-screen projects, including "Patriot," "Mr. Corman," and "The Ranch." While most of her acting these days is on TV, she's not a fan of the medium itself.

Winger candidly confessed to Broadway.com that she didn't watch TV herself except for specific programs, adding, "We've lost television as a place that delivers true argument or dialogue." That being said, she is still curious about working on television projects, including mainstream sitcoms like "The Ranch." In the series, she played no-nonsense Maggie Bennett, mother to immature brothers Colt (Ashton Kutcher) and Rooster Bennett (Danny Masterson). For Winger to take a sitcom role in the later stages of her career might be surprising, but her response is, like the actor herself, very blunt and to-the-point: She hadn't done it before (via ET).

She's outspoken about sexism in Hollywood

For decades, Debra Winger has been outspoken about sexism in Hollywood. Labeled "difficult" by some for her on-set behavior, Winger was quick to note the misogynistic industry double-standards that she experienced early in her career. She told the Los Angeles Times, "I spoke my mind and it wasn't gender correct." Regarding the lack of interesting roles for women in film, Winger lamented to The Guardian, "Roles for women. There aren't any. They've been saying that since the 1920s, and it's true."

Winger took an extended hiatus from mainstream Hollywood movies in the late '90s. Actor and documentarian Roseanna Arquette understood the stakes of being female and over 40 in Hollywood, so she made the 2002 film "Searching for Debra Winger" to not only discover Winger's whereabouts, but to talk about the blatant sexism in the entertainment industry. In the film's finale, Arquette not only finds Winger, but they have an honest conversation about being creative, vital women. Even though Winger admitted to The Guardian that the film "made me the poster child for something I was not talking about," the boldness with which she addresses the topic has inadvertently made her a role model for female performers who dare to ask for more.

Winger's scholarly pursuits kept her away from Hollywood

Debra Winger took a sabbatical from Hollywood filmmaking during the late '90s, but that doesn't mean she wasn't working. She traded in the soundstage for the theater, appearing in several American Repertory Theater productions, including "How I Learn To Drive" and "Ivanov." Since she was already working in the area, Winger decided to take on academia by serving as a teaching fellow in Harvard University's celebrated General Education 105 course, "The Literature of Social Reflection." The course's instructor, Robert Coles, praised Winger in The Harvard Crimson for her literary expertise and called her a "first-rate teaching fellow." Winger shared with the Los Angeles Times about her time at Harvard, "I never felt so alive. I'd never read in such a vibrant way. I can't compare it to anything except when I hear the film going through the camera."

Winger's way with words followed her from the university lecture hall to a major publishing deal. In 2008, she penned "Undiscovered," touted by Simon and Schuster as a book of "reminiscence, poetry, storytelling, and insightful observation" about her life. With Winger not bowing to the celebrity industrial complex to sell "Undiscovered," The Guardian reports that the book's word-of-mouth success was immensely satisfying to her. In addition to being a teacher and author, Winger voiced the audiobook version of Gloria Steinem's 2016 book, "My Life on the Road," and Tom Robbins' essay collection, "Wild Ducks Flying Backwards" (via Penguin Random House Audio).