In the 1980s, Debra Winger was an upcoming Hollywood star. Then she faded into obscurity.

It was Debra Winger’s first day on set for the 1983 movie Terms Of Endearment. The up-and-coming actress was starring opposite screen legend Shirley MacLaine. As MacLaine tells it, Winger yelled at her to "get over here" and stand on her placement marks. But MacLaine, knowing this was a territorial battle, refused to be told what to do. The crew watched to see what Winger would do next.

"She turned around, walked away from me, lifted her skirt slightly, looked over her shoulder, bent over, and farted in my face," MacLaine claimed in her autobiography My Lucky Stars.

Both women were later nominated for the best actress Oscar for their roles in the movie. MacLaine won, giving a shout-out to Winger’s 'turbulent brilliance' in her acceptance speech.

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Winger was on her way to becoming one of the biggest female movie stars of the 1980s. But she had a reputation for wild partying and being difficult, and in 1995, she walked away from Hollywood.

Winger had always wanted to act, but saw it as only a hobby until she had a terrible, life-changing accident as an 18-year-old. While dressed as a troll for a job at an amusement park, she fell off a truck, suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and went blind. It took 10 months for her sight to come back, and in that time, she decided to make acting her career.


After a few years of roles in movies such as Slumber Party ’57, she scored the lead opposite John Travolta in Urban Cowboy. Even at that early stage of her career, she was standing up for herself. Director James Bridges told the New York Times he had a 'horrendous fight' with her.

Debra Winger in Slumber Party '57 (Left) and Urban Cowboy with John Travolta (Right). Image: IMDb.


"She refused to play a scene, and I had to shut down the set for a whole day," he said. "I was furious with her, but then I looked at the scene and realised that there was something wrong with the dialogue.'"

Winger followed up Urban Cowboy by playing the factory worker girlfriend of Richard Gere’s character in An Officer And A Gentleman. The epic romance was one of the biggest hits of 1982, with fans loving the chemistry, but Winger wasn’t feeling it on set. She described Gere as being like a 'brick wall' to work with.

Debra Winger with Richard Gere in An Officer and A Gentleman. Image: IMDb.


"I run in to Richard Gere quite a lot and he half-jokes: 'Are you still saying terrible things about me?'" Winger told The Guardian in 2002. "We had a moment in our life which was not good, but everyone has to get it into perspective."

"I had this reputation for being 'difficult'. But would a man have suffered the same accusation? He would probably have been admired for speaking his mind and be called a 'perfectionist'."

But sometimes Winger’s behaviour went beyond difficult. On the set of Terms Of Endearment, Winger is rumoured to have not only farted in MacLaine’s face but also licked her on the leg while she was shooting a bedroom scene with Jack Nicholson. When Winger was asked by Andy Cohen in 2018 if the rumours of farting and leg licking were true, she said there was "something true in there".

Debra Winger with Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment. Image: IMDb.


Winger’s unpredictable behaviour saw her miss out on the chance to star opposite Michael Douglas in 1984 adventure movie Romancing The Stone, according to Douglas. Last year, the actor told Rob Lowe’s Literally! podcast that Winger was the studio’s top pick for the role, but when he went out to dinner with her to discuss it, she allegedly bit him on the arm, causing him to scream in pain. He said when he had to meet with the studio, he 'broke down in tears', saying, "I can’t go to the jungle with her – she bit me in the arm!"

For many years, Winger was seen as a party girl, with the media gleefully running stories about her love of drugs, drink and men. 

"But I didn't do anything worse than Jack Nicholson or Roman Polanski," she told the Deseret News in 1994. "Just kidding. Really."


Winger claimed the reports of her partying were overblown. 

"I would have one bad night, and it rock-and-rolled for five years in the press,” she said. "I only took acid once – hi, Mom! Mushrooms, though, I did a lot of."

In the 1980s, Winger had some high-profile romances, dating the governor of Nebraska, Bob Kerrey, who lost the lower part of a leg during the Vietnam War ("What can I say – she swept me off my foot," he told journalists) and then marrying actor Timothy Hutton and having a son, Noah, with him. By then, she’d cut back on her drug use.

"I still enjoy a cocktail, and I never renounced drugs," she said in 1994. "I'm just not pulled toward them anymore. Right before I got pregnant with Noah, I realised I just could not do drugs and actively pursue what I wanted to pursue."

As for that reputation of hers, it sometimes worked in her favour. When director Richard Attenborough was casting the 1993 movie Shadowlands, he was looking for an actress who was 'feisty' and 'slightly abrasive' like the character of Joy Gresham.

"I knew of Debra's 'difficult' reputation – of being quite a girl, as we say at home," Attenborough told Time. "So I said, 'I don't mind if you slap me around the head, if at the end of the day what appears on the screen is what we all want.'"

Debra Winger with Anthony Hopkins in Shadowlands. Image: IMDb.


The role earned Winger another Oscar nomination. 

By the mid-1990s, Winger was ready to quit Hollywood. She’d fallen for actor Arliss Howard after meeting him on the set of the movie Wilder Napalm and wanted a more settled lifestyle.

Debra Winger and Arliss Howard in Wilder Napalm. Image: IMDb. 


"I had a new marriage, I wanted another child, and it seemed ridiculous to run off for three months to do another film," she told The Guardian in 2008. "I had also reached 40, a point in life when things can get really tough in Hollywood. I looked around and thought: It's time to go."

Winger and Howard, who also had a son from a previous relationship, moved to a farm in Sullivan County, New York, and had a son together, Babe. She took on a teaching job at Harvard University.

Arliss Howard and Debra Winger with their son, Babe Howard. Image: Getty.


"I used to cry on my way to work, I was so happy," she said.

After a break of six years, Winger’s husband convinced her to return to acting in a movie he wrote and directed, Big Bad Love. Over the years that followed, she took on occasional roles, including in the 2005 telemovie Dawn Anna, which saw her nominated for an Emmy. But she didn’t throw herself back into the game.

Debra Winger in Big Bad Love (Left) and Dawn Anna (Right). Image: IMDb.


"Although I have participated in the odd film project here and there over the last twelve years, I had no real desire to hop back on that merry-go-round," she wrote in her 2008 book Undiscovered. "I watched others as they grabbed for the golden ring and felt fine out in the country on my pony."

More recently, with her youngest son grown up, she’s taken on bigger roles, starring in the Netflix comedy series The Ranch for four seasons.


Debra Winger in The Ranch. Image: Netflix.

In 2017, she told People that she’d never quit Hollywood for good, just "pushed the pause button". But she still didn’t feel part of it.

"I don’t know what Hollywood is. I’m living under the freaking sign now, and I just stare at it and laugh."

Feature Image: Getty/IMDb/Mamamia.

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