Debra Winger’s nomination for Best Actress for her performance as Richard Gere’s girlfriend in An Officer and a Gentleman is probably one of the prime examples on how the Oscar race has changed over the years. How likely would it be today that a stereotypical role as the supportive woman with a considerable lack of screen time would actually receive a Best Actress nomination? This shows that the influence of the media, the Internet and the almost countless pre-Oscar awards have noticeably changed the Oscar race – and the campaigns, of course, which today put almost everybody in the supporting category who isn’t onscreen for at least 95% of the running time. Today, Debra Winger’s nomination is one of those that seems to be either dismissed as lazy voting by Academy members or as an inspired choice which rewarded an actress for developing a memorable and touching character out of paper-thin writing.
I am somewhat torn between these two statements. Yes, Debra Winger’s combination of unique screen presence and natural acting style works wonders with every character she plays – she possesses the rare gift of always appearing completely ‘in the moment’, she has the ability to get lost in her characters and craft real living, breathing and feeling human beings while adding her own style and features, too. Few actresses have been able to mix the realities of life with a both light and dramatic acting style which never feels calculated or forced upon the audience like her. She constantly lives according to the script while taking her characters always much further. So yes, Debra Winger deserves credit for what she did in An Officer and a Gentleman – namely turning the character of Paula, who is only thrown into the proceedings for the obligatory love story, and filling her with her own personality and that way added dreams and hopes, pleasant and unpleasant truths and didn’t do anything less than doing more with this part than most other actresses might have dreamed of. In my review for Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner I called her performance easy to like but hard to admire. Debra Winger makes it easy to both like and admire her for all her hard efforts which look so effortless. But – yes, here comes the b-word – how far does all this really go? Yes, it’s commendable how she added so much spark and life to such a clichéd part but at the same time, even the most talented actress depends on the part she is given. Taking a role to a higher level than the script can happen in many ways. An actress can take a good part and make it great, she can take an invisible part and make it noticeable, she can take a bad part and make it good. What Debra Winger faces here is not only ‘invisible’, it’s basically ‘nothing’ – yes, the script makes sure that Paula gets her own back-story, an agenda of her own, a moral superiority and sharpness that separates her from the other characters but – oh, the b-word again – all this doesn’t change the fact that she always is and always will be a stock character which makes it easy for an actress to give a competent performance but always puts its claws into the performer and that way prevents her from escaping the limitations that arise. This means that a lot of actresses might have played Paula with satisfying results. Ah, Fritz, you little devil, didn’t you just write that Debra Winger did more with the part than most other actresses might have dreamed of? And, on top of that, isn’t it totally unimportant if another actress could have played a certain part? Yes and yes. First the second question: Yes, it doesn’t matter if actresses like Sigourney Weaver or Geena Davis, who also auditioned, could have given the same performance. This is not the way to judge an actress’s work. So, this aspect doesn’t influence me in my opinion about this performance but it is only meant to underline the low quality of the part. Now, the first question: Yes, I did write that Debra Winger did so much more with the part than other actresses might have done – and this means she turned her from invisible to visible. How many other actresses would have received their first Best Actress nomination for a role like this? How many other actresses would even have received any awards attention at all? Hardly any. So, Debra Winger’s achievement is that she took this underwritten, flat part and played it to a level of greatness that made it possible to connect it with an Oscar nomination. So, there is a grand achievement in the work of Debra Winger. But – I always come back to that little word – I can’t help but feel that, even though Debra Winger did a lot right in her part, an Oscar nomination is still a slight exaggeration of appreciation. Pleasant reviews with hopes for the future, maybe a Golden Globe nod, this all seems right – but Oscar and Paula Pokrifki just don’t seem right together. It’s a nomination I don’t want to complain about but I don’t want to praise it either. And that also sums up my feelings for her actual performance. All of Debra Winger’s qualities helped her to pull off an unforgettable performance one year later in Terms of Endearment. But in An Officer and a Gentleman, she suffers from the same problems that Sissy Spacek faced in Missing – the limitations of the character.
Debra Winger finds honesty and sympathy in a character that could lack both and she also invests a lot more emotions into this role than expected. Her breakdown in the hotel room, when her desperation becomes more visible than ever, and the simplicity she lets shine in every moment of her onscreen appearance are very impressive and beautiful to watch.When Lynette tells Paula that she is not different from all the other girls, Paula simply answers that she is – and it’s not hard to believe her.
Debra Winger suffers mostly from the fact that everything in the movie is working against her. She and Richard Gere unfortunately lack the necessary chemistry to make their love-story truly interesting. As it is, her character and her story are always overshadowed by the main storyline of the movie, she too often disappears behind Richard Gere and Louis Gossett, Jr. Her own touches, insights and interpretations of Paula work well but they don’t increase her influence or importance in the movie structure. It’s a very simple performance that captures a complex essence. Debra Winger doesn’t make it look like she is fishing for opportunities, trying to appear grander than she or Paula really are, instead she naturally seems to inhabit everything the script offers her and filling the empty spaces with her own sparkle. Paula Pokrifki could have been a Norma-Rae-like character if the movie had only focused on her – and Debra Winger would have been up to every task laid before her. In this thankless part, Debra Winger succeeded constantly but these successes are so easy to overrate – yes, they are successes but they are still on a very low level.
Debra Winger’s performance is very hard to judge because she puts a new aspect to the eternal question about what is an Oscar-worthy performance. Debra Winger doesn’t get a part that is challenging in any way but what she does is take a throwaway role and fill it with clarity and life. Just like a lot of actresses might have played this part, a lot of actresses also can play challenging roles and impress because of the obligatory showy scenes. Debra Winger impresses because of the lack of them. It’s a more than competent performance but it feels a bit like Audrey Hepburn – because of her unique screen presence and her ability to lift underwritten material it is very easy to give her more praise than needed. And also Debra Winger’s intelligent work makes it easy to praise her performance more than necessary. Yes, she did a lot – but coming from nothing, this ‘lot’ is still ‘little’.
It is an admirable effort that already hints at the greatness Debra Winger would achieve one year later. Most of all, this nominations is a testament to Debra Winger’s warm and astonishingly natural screen presence and intuitive acting style that always makes her work look so completely natural and spontaneous. Debra Winger maybe could have never won the fight against the weakness of her material, but she beautifully realized that it was worth a shot. And for her strong dedication she gets