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Wednesday, July 9, 2003

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Searching for Debra Winger

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Rosanna Arquette
Running time: 97 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing at Le Cinema, Bunkamura in Shibuya

Actress Debra Winger's career took off quickly enough; after getting noticed for her stunning looks playing "Wonder Girl" in the TV superhero series "Wonder Woman," she parlayed that fame into a Hollywood career. Winger quickly garnered acclaim for her performances in films like "Urban Cowboy"(1980), "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982), and "Terms of Endearment" (1983), the latter two earning her Oscar nominations.

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Meg Ryan

But Winger, who was quite serious about her work as an actress, had a hard time finding roles worth playing. She notoriously turned down the Glenn Close role in "Fatal Attraction" -- reputedly for the way in which it portrayed women -- and despite high points like "The Sheltering Sky" (1990) and "Shadowlands" (1993), she decided to pack it in circa the mid-'90s.

Enter Rosanna Arquette, another '80s actress with a meteoric start -- "Baby It's You" (1983), "Desperately Seeking Susan" (1985), "After Hours" (1985) -- whose career had faded into an extended sabbatical. After a long spell in England, where she sacrificed her career to be with Peter Gabriel, and then time spent living in semi-exile in Paris, Arquette returned to the States and found it harder than expected to get her career back on track.

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Sharon Stone

While pondering her own situation, Arquette's thoughts kept turning to Winger: What was it that prompted her to give up on the industry and turn her back on it? And what did it say about Hollywood that an actress of Winger's caliber couldn't keep working past a certain age? Arquette, armed with a sharp sense of indignation and a Rolodex full of phone numbers of actress girlfriends who were equally frustrated, decided to pick up the camera and direct her first film, a documentary titled simply "Searching for Debra Winger."

Hollywood doesn't look with favor on those who air its dirty laundry in public, but Arquette's film offered safety in numbers: 34 well-known actresses who were willing to discuss their careers candidly, and the challenges they face, from balancing work and motherhood, to dealing with sleazy producers and the lack of non-"babe" roles for women. Meg Ryan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlotte Rampling, Whoopi Goldberg, Holly Hunter, Selma Hayek, Frances McDormand, Emmanuelle Beart, Sharon Stone, Daryl Hannah and even Arquette's sister Patricia weigh in with their experiences and observations. The result is about as close to an "insider look" at the industry as you'll ever hope to see.

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Whoopi Goldberg

Adopting an eager approach as a sympathetic onscreen interviewer, Arquette gets her friends and acquaintances to open up with some wonderfully honest responses. Anyone who's ever interviewed an actor knows that sometimes the off-screen "real" persona is every bit as carefully acted, but perhaps because Arquette is one of their own, the actresses here don't hold back.

Whoopi Goldberg admits to largely abdicating her role as a mom, saying. "Yeah, I was selfish. Could I have done it differently? Yes. Would I have done it differently? No." Jane Fonda recalls how her youth was spent in the company of substitute parents; her parents, like most actors of the era, thought nothing of shunting their kids onto maids and guardians. Meg Ryan, on the other hand, tells how she's cut back to one film a year now that she has children, a strategy that has also been followed by Robin Wright Penn. Now that's progress.

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Gwyneth Paltrow

A common complaint centers around the lingering sexism that's rife in the industry, exemplified by casting meetings where -- as Juliana Margulies of "E.R." notes -- the final question regarding any actress is "Would you f**k her?" Kelly Lynch describes it as "Revenge of the Nerds" syndrome, studio players who "finally got the big car and a model on their arm," whose retarded emotional maturity limits the roles on offer to women, especially to those above a certain age. "Pacino, Connery, Hackman," snipes comedienne Tracy Ullman; "name three women that age who are working."

It's a point so obvious, and a situation so unfair, that it hardly takes a "feminist" perspective to realize something's wrong. Selma Hayek, who's suffered through plenty of "babe" parts in films by Rodriguez and Tarantino, stresses that "we need more female writers, female directors." The truth of this is clear when one realizes that Hayek's current project, "Frida" -- her first weighty role -- was one she had to push through herself.

Noted U.S. film critic Roger Ebert, in a hilariously unguarded interview, bemoans how even sex-kitten roles don't exist for women anymore (though Hayek, who had Tarantino suck her toes in "From Dusk to Dawn," may disagree). "The thing about American teenagers is they're not even into sex anymore," rants Ebert, whose own cinematic contribution was the script to "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." "Look at this," he says, pointing to a poster of Angelina Jolie in "Tomb Raider." "Substitute-men. They want women who kill people." Add the recent releases of "Terminator 3" and "The Matrix: Reloaded," and you can see his point.

The film brings it all home in a pair of interviews with the long lost Debra Winger and a rather wistful Jane Fonda. Winger, echoing comments by Holly Hunter and Charlotte Rampling, talks of how acting is a passion: "Passion is whatever melts your heart, keeps you soft and open. The business was making me hard." Passion for work, for art, is what keeps these women in the business, despite the frustrations and indignities, but in Winger's case, passion for life is what drove her to leave. Fonda echoes that feeling, admitting that she had to ditch her career to be with Ted Turner, saying, "I wasn't going to regret one more movie, but I would regret an intimate relationship." She then goes on to describe, in such perfect terms, the delicious rush of pressure and intensity and feeling that comes from delivering a performance for the camera, that she leaves you wondering if she made the right decision.

It's a brilliant moment, and one of many in this fascinating film. While it may have been nice to hear from actresses like Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Cameron Diaz or Demi Moore (people who seem to be playing the system effectively), Arquette's documentary offers a well-drawn portrait of the contemporary screen actress. As Hollywood mourns the loss of Katherine Hepburn -- who received as much acclaim for her work after the age of 60 as before -- one wonders if it will ever again allow actresses to age gracefully.

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