She's back - on her own terms

"I look back over the last five years and think, 'What did I miss?' When there was a film I liked with an actor my age in it, they did a great job, so I didn't belong there," reflects three-time Oscar nominee Debra Winger. As she munches on a plateful of double-chocolate cookies, she smiles adoringly at her husband, Arliss Howard, sitting next to her at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Mass.

But after a six-year break from the silver screen, she's making a comeback, starring in the indie film "Big Bad Love" (See review, page 14), directed by and co-starring Mr. Howard ("Full Metal Jacket" and "Men Don't Leave.")

"I'm in tune with something now, doing this [movie] and exploring the possibility of playing women over 40 without facial surgery! I don't know if there's a market for it - but I'm interested in it," continues Winger, whose impressive film history includes "Terms of Endearment," "Officer and a Gentleman," and "Urban Cowboy."

In her newest role, she plays the ex-wife of Leon Barlow (Howard), an alcoholic Vietnam vet and struggling writer in Mississippi who brawls with her, wants to see more of his children, and deals with tragedies that affect his best friend and family. Based on a short-story collection by Mississippi writer Larry Brown, "Big Bad Love" was filmed on a tight budget in Mississippi in just 32 days.

Between "Big Bad Love" and her last film, "Forget Paris" in 1995, Winger has remarried, had a baby, and kept busy "running the household." (She and Howard live on New York's Hudson River with their 4-year-old son and two sons from previous marriages.)

She's reluctant to discuss why she left acting in 1995, but says,"I actually did not look back, and I didn't keep looking for parts."

The roles she enjoyed most were "ones that were a little bit past where I was," she says. " 'Urban Cowboy' was a baptism by fire. And I have a soft spot for 'Dangerous Woman.' The character [Martha] - there was something in her inability to tell a lie that I still hold dear."

Looking ahead, Winger hopes Hollywood as a whole will strive to tell more stories about older women. "I don't know what the aversion is - I'm so proud of the fact that I've lived through most of what I've lived through!" Winger exclaims. She mentions that Rosanna Arquette, who has a supporting role in "Big Bad Love," just finished a documentary of interviews with actresses over 40 who've struggled to find roles, including Daryl Hannah and Melanie Griffith.

Howard points out that movie roles for women generally center too much on "playing the girlfriend, or the sex toy." To change that, he says, "it's going to take more female directors, screenwriters, and studio heads. It also will take more vigilance in terms of what's tolerated on an individual basis rather than assuming the collective is going to take care of it. You have many opportunities in your life every day to say, 'Hey, hang on a second here!' " he says.

Both agree that Fox news anchor Greta Van Susteren's highly publicized decision to have cosmetic surgery could have a negative impact. "Young [people] may begin to accept this as part of how a person should be," Howard says.

Winger admits she sometimes struggles with unrealistically perfect images that Hollywood tries to impose on women, and she wears "war paint" (make-up). But she adds: "I am lucky enough to be married to a guy who tells me I look beautiful every day. It's such an amazing thing to be loved for who you are. I don't know what the last 10 years would be like without that."

The couple plans to make more films together, but for now, Winger says, after working on "Big Bad Love," "I just want to sleep, and eat, and learn about what's going on in the world. Arliss is writing something - isn't that you I hear typing?" she says, laughing.

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