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Searching For Debra Winger (2002)

April 29th, 2007 · 2 Comments

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Documentary directed by actress Rosanna Arquette features brief, candid interviews with about thirty of her acting peers. Conversation includes how the women have balanced work with raising a family, and what affect turning 40 has had on their screen careers.

Arquette’s inspiration for the project – which debuted on Showtime cable TV – was Debra Winger, who was nominated for three Academy Awards in the 1980s, then “quit and didn’t want to be an actress anymore” according to Arquette’s information. Winger doesn’t prove as reclusive as her reputation, appearing about an hour into the film to discuss why she retired.

Diane Lane, Salma Hayek and Alfre Woodard are among those who acquit themselves, offering limited insight on their approach to their craft, but compared to many others in the film, are at least shown to demonstrate class and dignity.

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Highlights include Jane Fonda, who admits that Ted Turner made it clear on their second date that if their relationship was going to work, she’d have to give up her career. Fonda has no regrets about that, but admits she missed doing those pivotal film scenes, with everyone on set waiting to see if she would earn her salary and pull off the big emotional transition.

Holly Hunter remarks that – while actresses like Jessica Lange “are dangerous and sexual and take great risks” – it’s nothing like the 1940s, when screen actresses had tremendous power. Tracey Ullman echoes that, stating, “There’s no more Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore being made, no Diary Of A Mad Housewife, there’s no dignity in it anymore.”

Frances McDormand – who Arquette apparently caught in a ladies’ room in Paris and gives her interview there – comes across as the most down to earth, telling Arquette that in ten years, stories are going to need to be told about 54 year old women, and the only ones left to fill those parts will be the ones who didn’t opt for plastic surgery.

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The credits read “A Rosanna Arquette Experience.” This is the problem I had with the movie. It has no director. Arquette merely shows up for a chat, interrupts the actresses occasionally, and then permits many of them to descend into gripe sessions about their image, their career opportunities, or how the only industry many of them know – Hollywood – is losing interest in them.

Meg Ryan comes off as particularly vapid. Gwyneth Paltrow is such a black hole of insight it astonishes me she’s had so much work over the last decade. Teri Garr makes a decent point, but then harangues a waitress about whether her tuna is cooked. If the point here was to elicit any kind of empathy for veteran actresses and their struggles, this wasn’t the way to go about it.

Fonda and McDormand – and Roger Ebert, who Arquette catches at a theater in Cannes and distills why Hollywood offers few quality roles for women over 40 – come across as natural and insightful on their first take. Many of the others seen here are enabled to make fools of themselves. In terms of concept, execution, research and editing, Searching For Debra Winger is one of the worst debut films I can remember seeing.

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Tags: Documentary · Midlife crisis

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Heather Hofmeister // May 4, 2007 at 2:09 pm

    Yes, yes, and yes. BUT.
    I never promised you a rose garden with viewing Searching for Debra Winger, and I can say I was impressed with your juxtaposition of the actresses and the stuntwomen (this had been in the back of my mind but not in the front). What value is in “Searching” is to realize that making a film, documentary or other storytelling, is actually more craft than one realizes, because this one — done by a veteran of the industry whose family is in it — is so badly done, without need to be. I also appreciated how the interviewer showed how not to do an interview, but then learning how to be better, actually onscreen. The first interviews she is fishing for information and interrupting, putting words in her partner’s mouth. And the later interviews she lets the people talk. Hence Fonda does a great description of the magic moment of acting. I appreciated the fact that a lot of issues that women face in the workforce came out in the course of the interviews, including the sexualization of women, the fact that women have physical standards to maintain that mainly revolve around playing the Madonna (old frumpy asexual mother figure) or the whore (young sexy dangerous), and the lack of interesting, complex women characters in films. The angle about “feel sorry for us” I agree does not work at all, as they chat about clothes and enjoy exotic film locations, and have the freedom — financially — to decide to give it up and raise babies if they want to. The fact that the women at least in this circle show some cameraderie and common problems is also refreshing, compared to the typical set-up of catfights among the glamour set.
    Great cinematography it is not. Waste of time it is, sometimes. But a few moments are revealing for what they are saying and for what they are not saying, and the range of differences among people who share a common occupation is also, in my opinion, enlightening. I see the actresses differently now, because their articulation about their “work” — work that is for many of us play or recreation to witness — shares something with women in other industries and is also somehow profoundly different, due to the fact that their job is to reflect back to us who we are, what we think, and what stories we need to hear told.

  • 2 S Davis // Jun 18, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    I could not disagree more with this review. I found it to be very insightful. Many of the circumstances and indignities of what women face in Hollywood explain why so many decide t start their own production companies and raise their own financing, so that they can attempt to make films that they wish to. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to do that, and distribution entities are still not supporting it. This documentary was a real eye-opener; and should be included in any curriculum for women studying acting, writing, filmmaking, TV or media in general. This is information that is not taught in school; and some of the most valuable. Being armed is being empowered.

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