Mark Harris wrote a long feature on Deborah Winger for the Times Magazine this past weekend.
When Debra Winger, the actor who is now as famous for walking away from her chosen profession as for excelling within it, first met with the producers of HBO’s psychotherapy drama “In Treatment,” it was because they were hoping to entice her to take on the role of Frances, a complicated, unhappy and sometimes evasive leading lady whom Winger wryly describes as “just another in a long line of women I hope never to become.” Early meetings between actresses and producers are an odd Hollywood ritual. They’re not quite mating dances; they’re more like strenuously casual preinterviews for a first date, full of mutual courtesies designed to prevent any hurt feelings. Accordingly, Winger arrived prepared — not only with a list of questions and ideas about the role, but also with the names of several other performers the producers might want to pursue instead of her if she wasn’t the right fit. “I had in my head the names of five other actresses,” she said, “all of whom I thought would, in a way, be better. It’s pretty amazing who’s out there, not working.
“So I told them those names. And when I said one of the names, this little look went across their faces.” She paused. “And I suddenly thought, Oh — I have a feeling that maybe they already asked that one.”
The first part of that story — the gesture of suggesting others for a role you want — could have been told by any actress of Winger’s stature; it’s a nice way of expressing both your own generosity and, by implication, the fact that yes, they truly wanted you and you alone. The punch line, however, in the way it identified a wordless, awkward millisecond of actual ego-deflating embarrassment, struck me as something only Winger would share. That kind of candor, predicated on an awareness that a single moment can house its share of paradoxes, is what makes Winger special. She’s a performer who has always possessed what Pauline Kael, writing about her breakthrough role in “Urban Cowboy” 30 years ago, called her “quality of flushed transparency.” That unsparing emotional honesty makes moviegoers believe that they are seeing through her skin, past any layer of self-protection or self-deception, and into her heart and mind. She had it in her 20s, when audiences first met her; at 55, she can still count it among her most remarkable assets, and her ability to deploy it has only become richer and more fully controlled.