Thursday, March 25, 2004
Movie Unreview: Searching for Debra Winger 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Rosanna Arquette (Desperately Seeking Susan) proves herself a worthy filmmaker and documentarian in Searching for Debra Winger, an eye-opening, intimate collage of individual interviews and kaffeeklatch conversations with dozens of Hollywood's great female actors. What these women have in common: they are all over 30. As Roger Ebert points out in a vignette with Rosanna, if you're a woman-over-21 in Hollywood, you're automatically categorized as an "older woman," and will soon find yourself increasingly disqualified from the meatiest, most visible roles.

In the opening sequence, Arquette describes a film she saw as a child that had a major impact on her - The Red Shoes, the tale of a ballet dancer forced to choose between the man she loves and her art who finds she cannot bear to lose either, and commits suicide by dancing herself under an oncoming train.

Arquette has gathered a formidable slate of Hollywood Older Women for this project, none of whom - fortunately - danced themselves under a train, but all of whom made sacrifices for their artistic passion: Jane Fonda, Whoopi Goldberg, Sharon Stone, Frances McDormand, Gwyneth Paltrow, Diane Lane, Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, Laura Dern, Chiara Mastroianni, Daryl Hannah, Alfre Woodard, Teri Garr, Emmanuelle Beart, JoBeth Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, and many others (ranging from "legend," to "sort-of-famous", to "what movie was she in?") candidly sharing poignant views of life in the entertainment industry and how their career decisions affected their personal growth, relationships, parenting, self-esteem and identity.

Whoopi frequently steals the show with her salty, no-holds-barred looks at aging, body image, race and working motherhood, but it's Jane Fonda's appearance that may shock the viewer at first. Unlike the animated, Aerobicized™ Jane we remember from the 80's, the older Jane is formal, conservative and cautious as she discusses her retirement from Hollywood and her recollections of her finest moments in acting, which she describes as reaching "only eight, maybe ten times" in her 49 film-career. Many of the interviewees share both joyful and repellent anecdotes from their careers, including some distasteful, depersonalizing ones involving studio executives whose primary concern is not how well an actor can act, but how "f__k-able" she is, on and off-screen.

All these women are "Hollywood Survivors," some with active careers, others whose stars have all but fallen below the horizon. However, the film's namesake is the one that got away: Debra Winger went into a youthful, self-imposed retirement after a string of box-office hits including Urban Cowboy and An Officer and a Gentleman, and here she makes a rare onscreen appearance to talk to Arquette about "quitting while she was ahead" and the reasons behind her decision.

The fact that Rosanna Arquette is herself a 'Hollywood insider' gives this empowering and unsensationalized portrait familiar depth and relevance, and her examination of the Hollywood icon mystique will make you reconsider what it means to be beautiful and famous, as well as disposable and commodified, by the powerful entertainment industry.