Lionsgate // 2002 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Diane Wild (Retired) // September 3rd, 2004
"Can you have both, work and family?" -Rosanna Arquette
Searching for Debra Winger is a documentary by Rosanna Arquette (Silverado) that gives the audience a peek into the complaints of the rich and famous. Though Arquette begins the film by musing about the difficulties of balancing career and family, the fatal flaw of the film is that there is no actual thesis. It rambles on with no shape until it just stops and the credits roll.
Arquette has no argument; her interview subjects talk about aging in Hollywood, sexual harassment, feeling guilty about leaving their children, being comfortable with their sexuality, the dearth of good roles for women, and the art of acting. The fact that her interviewees include some of the most interesting actresses working today doesn't make the resulting collage of comments as interesting as you might think.
The list of participants is too long to include in full, but memorable interviews include Jane Fonda, Meg Ryan, Whoopi Goldberg, Sharon Stone, Robin Wright Penn, Salma Hayek, and, yes, Debra Winger. The interviews are more casual than anything you'll see on Barbara Walters, and Arquette conducts them either one-on-one or as group therapy sessions, with tables full of fabulous famous people supporting each other's complaints. There are some insightful individual comments, but as a whole, it doesn't mean anything.
Some of the issues raised affect women everywhere. Alfre Woodard quotes her father, who told her to let go of her child-care guilt because "it's nothing about being an actress -- working women have to work." But any common ground with the common folk is quickly swept aside, as Meg Ryan talks about the sacrifice of only working three months a year in order to spend time with her son. Name another profession that has that option.
I love these actresses and I'm not faulting them. Arquette has put an amazing array of stars on film here, though some are conspicuously missing -- notably, the Meryl Streeps and Susan Sarandons and Jessica Langes who are brought up again and again as women whose careers have thrived well past their 40s.
And there is a good story here, somewhere. When Michael Douglas is romantically linked onscreen with the likes of Famke Janssen and Gwyneth Paltrow, it becomes obvious that there is something "off" about the Hollywood age equation. The other issues brought up are genuine as well, and it's unfair to dismiss them because the complainers are rich. But they are presented without a framework to make them relevant to the viewer.
When Roger Ebert, the lone male to be interviewed, appears onscreen, I almost thought Arquette had decided to venture into some analysis. He comments that movies are skewed to teenage males, and says the solution lies somewhere in film distribution. Julianna Margulies (ER) talks about the relief of having a meaty, well-rounded part on television. No one specifically mentions independent films, but many of these actresses have found the roles they crave there. Salma Hayek, who brought Frida to the screen soon after Searching for Debra Winger was released, mentions the need for more female writers, directors, and producers in order to cultivate a female perspective in Hollywood. But all of these are throw-away comments. Arquette makes us work hard to distill any analysis out of this mess.
Ironically, it is Debra Winger herself who points out the true purpose of the film -- it's a make-work project for Arquette. "You're using me," she tells Arquette, but gives her blessing by not only providing one of the best interviews in the film, but by saying: "It's the healthiest way I've been used in this business." The title turns out to be a misnomer anyway. Winger did not exactly retire (in fact, she's made a couple of movies since this film). She makes a convincing argument for finding a life beyond acting and not letting the business of show business be all-consuming. She gives the impression of someone who was off enjoying her life and is surprised to realize that she has been missing.
Searching for Debra Winger is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and has the look and feel of an amateur movie at times, with unfocused shots, bad lighting, and washed out colors. The issue isn't with the DVD transfer, but with the intentionally intimate and thrown-together look Arquette wanted for this personal project. The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround sound adequately captures the distracting background noises, such as when a train passes during the Debra Winger interview. Needless to say, the video and sound quality aren't reasons to recommend this release.
Speaking of searching...under the heading "features," the back cover promised a commentary by Arquette that doesn't exist on the disc. Since the movie is a commentary by Arquette, I didn't feel the loss, but I have to cite Lions Gate for fraud nonetheless.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R