Debra Winger in “A Dangerous Woman.” Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

The Maine International Film Festival’s Mid-Life Achievement Award is my kind of movie hardware. Apart from the cheeky name, it’s a true film lover’s award, a well-earned gesture of gratitude toward someone in the film industry who’s given us all a whole lot of great movie memories.

This year’s MIFF (taking place in July) just announced that its highest accolade is going to actress Debra Winger. And there’s nobody out there I think is more deserving, especially in this, MIFF’s historic 25th season.

Debra Winger will be the recipient of this year’s Mid-Life Achievement Award from the Maine International Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Debra Winger

Winger will join the ranks of such previous Mid-Life Achievement Award winners as Gabriel Byrne, Terrence Malick, Jonathan Demme, Sissy Spacek, Lili Taylor, Walter Hill and others when she picks up her prize at the July 15 ceremony (following a screening of her 1993 film “A Dangerous Woman”). And while the three-time Oscar nominee doesn’t exactly need another honor (even if she was robbed at least once on Oscar night), it’s especially fitting that Maine International, with its commitment to both quality cinema and artistic independence, should bring the acclaimed actor to Maine for a well-deserved bow.

If you haven’t thought about Debra Winger in a while, well, you’re not me. But I do understand, as the actor, after rising to stardom in such films as 1980’s “Urban Cowboy,” 1982’s “An Officer and a Gentleman” and 1983’s universally beloved “Terms of Endearment,” ultimately stepped away from big budget movies. After her turn in alongside Billy Crystal in the middling 1995 rom-com “Forget Paris” (Winger’s great in it), the actor went on a six-year movie hiatus. She didn’t stop acting – Winger did theater and eventually showed up in the indie dramas directed by and starring husband Arliss Howard – but she did withdraw from an industry she’d found especially troublesome from the start.

The all-but-disappearance of such a respected artist from the movies saw fellow actor (and fellow dissatisfied woman in show biz) Rosanna Arquette helm a 2001 documentary titled “Searching for Debra Winger,” where Arquette interviewed a dazzlingly impressive roster of actresses about the uniquely ugly treatment of women in entertainment. Ultimately sitting down with Winger herself, Arquette got Winger to explain her decision, even as Winger expressed some bemusement at being the ostensible subject of the film. Speaking about the role of passion in living your life, Winger tells Arquette, “It’s whatever it is that melts your heart, that keeps you soft, and keeps you open. That’s what you should be following. And show business just made me rough and hard.”

“Urban Cowboy” made Debra Winger a star at 21. Quickly establishing herself as an actor of startling intelligence (and passion), Winger is one of those performers whom viewers take into themselves. We internalize her characters as they, in Winger’s throaty but playful voice, make the sort of acting choices that strike sparks. Debra Winger commands our attention, even as her thoughtful and headstrong characters never seem to be trying for it.

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Along the way until her 1995 semi-retirement, there were many things that proved how rough and hard show business is. Being labeled as “difficult” might see male stars like Dustin Hoffman or Edward Norton praised for their exacting artistic standards, but women in the business don’t get the same courtesy. Even at the height of her stardom, Winger spoke out when, in one example she reveals in Arquette’s film, “An Officer and a Gentleman” super-producer Don Simpson handed the 24-year-old actor diet pills after watching the dailies.

She refused to promote films (like the wildly successful “Gentleman”) she felt weren’t up to her standards. She complained when studios buried fascinating, challenging indie films like 1984’s studio-tampered “Mike’s Murder” or the woozy 1990 mystery “Everybody Wins.” (Of Winger’s unstable sex worker character in the latter, legendary critic Pauline Kael marveled, “She’s always acting things out on a stage of her own creation. She’s out of control, and Winger makes her irrationality, passionately real … She’s all femininity and formlessness – she can become anything at any time.”) Winger even turned down a guaranteed hit when, after training with the Chicago Cubs for a month in preparation for the starring role in “A League of Their Own,” she dropped out when director Penny Marshall hired non-actress Madonna for a pivotal supporting role.

Winger didn’t take any crap, is what I’m saying.

Thankfully, Winger has returned to the movies, on her own terms. She was excellent in fellow Mid-Life Achievement Award winner Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” in 2008. And she and actor-writer Tracy Letts made a fine match as a pair of long-married adulterers in 2017’s “The Lovers.” More recently, Netflix viewers might recognize her as the estranged, bar-owner matriarch of series “The Ranch,” making an alluringly thorny match with Sam Elliott.

Meanwhile, Winger, seemingly like her most memorable characters, lives according to her own rules, and makes choices based on what she thinks is best for her, and for the projects she chooses. Her choice as recipient of the Maine International Film Festival’s Mid-Life Achievement Award does credit to both the festival and Winger herself.

The 25th annual Maine International Film Festival takes place July 8-17 in Waterville, with the Mid-Life Achievement Award going to Debra Winger on Friday, July 15, at the Waterville Opera House. For tickets to this indispensable Maine movie event, check out miff.org.

To catch up on Debra Winger’s varied and uniformly excellent filmography (I highly recommend starting with “Mike’s Murder,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Shadowlands,” “Black Widow” and “Everybody Wins”), the streaming availability site JustWatch will point you in the right directions.

Dennis Perkins lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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