How refreshing to see an actress over sixty find a great role, one in which she is permitted to be a real sexual being. We saw it take place in Sarah Polley’s elegiac and haunting Away from Her (2007) but it is not a common theme on film these days. What makes it even more extraordinary is that three-time Oscar nominee Debra Winger is back in the role that could bring the gifted actress an overdue Academy Award. Winger left acting, well, sort of in the mid-eighties amidst accusations of being difficult and hard to work with. Oddly her directors said nothing of the kind, instead thrilled with her drive to get the part right. It was her fellow actors that struggled with her namely Richard Gere who was witnessed treating Winger horribly during the shoot for An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). Winger later admitted to loathing Gere, which makes her scenes post coitus all the more impressive and powerful.
She was among a new generation of up and coming actresses which included Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, and Glenn Close who came out of the late seventies and would dominate the eighties. Winger, with her husky voice and deep blue eyes could be sultry and vulnerable, furious and heartbroken, funny and sad in an instant, she was a natural, and there was something powerfully erotic about her. She was real, authentic and worked hard to bring that realism to the screen. Her breakthrough role was opposite superstar John Travolta in Urban Cowboy (1980) in a role that should earned her a nomination for the Academy Award. Two years later she got her first nomination, working the boor Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), but also experienced her first flop, Cannery Row (1982) with Nick Nolte.
The following year she gave a stunning performance in the film she is perhaps best known for, as Emma in Terms of Endearment (1983), the finest film made about the mother-daughter dynamic. Portraying a doomed daughter to Shirley MacLaine’s overbearing but devoted mother Aurora, Winger was magnificent as a woman who appears to float through life, but is in fact deceptively strong, a life force, the glue holding her marriage together. Cancer will claim her, and we actually see the light go out n her eyes when she passes, staring with adoration at her mother; it is an astounding performance and again she was nominated for Best Actress, losing to her co-star.
The balance of the eighties was one of turbulence and frustration for the actress who gave good performances in unseen films, was often the best thing in the movie she was in, but gradually we saw less and less of her. She bounced back beautifully with a frankly sexual performance in The Sheltering Sky (1990) and two years later was nominated for another Oscar for her performance in Shadowlands (1992). Most recently she was back onscreen as the frosty mother of Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married (2008), leading to hopes for a comeback.
‘The Lovers’ is her comeback, and places her in the race for the Academy Award for Best Actress next February. Mary (Winger) is unhappily married to Michael (Tracey Letts). Both are having affairs with younger people. When the subject of splitting is broached, something crazy happens, they begin to fall in love…with each other! Perhaps they are reawakened to what they fell in love in the first place or perhaps they realize they simply are not interested in waking up without each other. It leads to obvious complications with the two they had been having affairs with, now having to invent reasons to be with their spouse! It also leads to a lovely, authentic love story beautifully acted by Winger and playwright Tracey Letts.
At sixty-one Winger gives one of the most sexually frank performances of her career, taking bold risks that pay off at every turn. She is luminous. Letts is fast becoming an interesting character actor and matches her all the way, but the film belongs to the ladies. In a hysterical supporting turn Melora Waters is superb as the freaked out, obsessive drama queen Michael had been sleeping with. She is terrifying as the kind of nutbar who lives for making a scene. Here is hoping Winger is remembered at awards time considering she gives one of the best performances of the year!