Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Searching for Debra Winger (2002) [R] ****

Written and directed by Rosanna Arquette, this revealing documentary is a series of interviews with various actresses about the sexism and ageism-related pressures women face working in the Hollywood film industry. The cast includes, among others, Patricia Arquette, Rosanna Arquette, Laura Dern, Jane Fonda, Teri Garr, Whoopi Goldberg, Melanie Griffith, Daryl Hannah, Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, Diane Lane, Kelly Lynch, Julianna Margulies, Samantha Mathis, Frances McDormand, Julia Ormond, Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlotte Rampling, Vanessa Redgrave, Theresa Russell, Meg Ryan, Ally Sheedy, Sharon Stone, Tracey Ullman, JoBeth Williams, Debra Winger, Alfre Woodard and Robin Wright.

Rosanna Arquette titled her documentary Searching for Debra Winger because at age forty Debra Winger took a six year hiatus from acting. Ostensibly this was because Winger had reached her expiration date and was no longer being offered challenging film roles, but, while this explanation makes Rosanna Arquette’s case, it may not have been the only reason. Debra Winger began receiving film role credits in 1976 at age 21. By 1984, just eight years later, she was well established as an A-list actress, having received Best Actress Oscar nominations for both An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Terms of Endearment (1983). A decade later, she had received a third Best Actress Oscar nomination for Shadowlands (1993). Despite her obvious talent, and her accomplishments, after filming Forget Paris in 1995, at age forty, six years would pass before she took another role, in Big Bad Love. While the expiration date explanation may be correct, it is also true that Winger had a reputation as a difficult actress, that she had publicly named Ivan Reitman and Taylor Hackford as the two worst directors she had ever worked with, and that at one point in her career she had walked out on her agency, CAA, for several years. Also, Winger had a second son at age 40, so her six-year hiatus from acting may have been the lack of substantive film roles, but it may also have been her biological alarm clock going off, and her desire to focus on motherhood.

In any case, one of the most enlightening aspects of the documentary is the in-depth interview with Jane Fonda, which begins at about the eighty-minute mark. Jane describes the peak experience of film-making as the thrill and terror of making the pivotal scene of a film. She characterizes this scene as one with an intense flow of emotions between the actors, a scene that the director tries to capture all in one take. She describes the enormous pressure this puts the actors under, since the success of the film often depends on the believability of the pivotal scene. She paints a vivid picture of sitting in her trailer waiting for those dreaded words We’re ready for you now, Miss Fonda, and then having to walk the gauntlet from trailer to film set, between rows of cast and crew, all of whom are thinking This had better be good. You’re the big star; you’re getting paid the big salary, so prove you’re worth it, because we’re all depending upon you. Jane reveals that, when the pivotal scene is successful, it is better than the most intense lovemaking. But, she also admits that she remembers having had the pivotal-scene, peak experience fewer than ten times in making over forty films since 1960, which means that she did NOT remember a pivotal-scene peak experience in over 75% of her films. Does this mean that three-quarters of films released are mediocre, or worse? It’s an interesting question.

Jane’s description of the pivotal scene was so vivid that I found myself reviewing some of my favorite films, as well as some of Jane Fonda's films, to find the pivotal scenes as she described them. On Golden Pond, for example, has always been considered a cathartic bonding of Jane and Henry Fonda, since the fictional daughter-father relationship between Chelsea and Norman Thayer seemed to closely mirror the cool, dispassionate real-life relationship between Jane and Henry. In that film there's a powerful pivotal scene in which Chelsea tells Norman that she'd like them to be friends, reaching out to touch his arm and causing his eyes to well up with tears. And in The Electric Horseman, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, there's a tender pivotal scene in which the two actors kiss, a scene director Sydney Pollack reportedly shot thirty times because he wanted to be sure he got it right.

For an enhanced understanding of the filmmaking process, the pressures that actresses endure in the film industry, and the difficulty of finding substantive roles, I highly recommend this documentary. Rosanna Arquette is to be commended.  

Label: documentary, filmmaking   
Internet Movie Database    
Tomatometer (critics=NA, viewers=47)

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