Choosing material clearly close to home, Rosanna Arquette steps behind the camera for the first time in “Searching for Debra Winger” to examine the struggles, challenges, choices and sacrifices of screen actresses, particularly as they hit 40 and are pushed aside by an industry that stamps an early expiration date on women. Many of the actresses on tap here provide illuminating insights, intelligence and humor. But while the subject is rich in potential and such high-caliber celebrity access commands an automatic audience, there’s no escaping the sensation this could have been a far more revealing experience in the hands of a more savvy, probing interviewer. Femme-oriented webs such as Lifetime represent the film’s main commercial path.
Arquette’s starting point is “The Red Shoes,” the first film she ever saw, at age 4. It’s story of a woman unable to choose between her art and love imprinted the same conundrum on the actress’ life and becomes the central question of the documentary, which primarily looks at the difficulty of balancing a career with relationships and family and of watching professional choices narrow with each birthday. Debra Winger is set up as something of a pioneer in this struggle, through her courageous decision to bow out of the industry while still in her prime.
Humbly billing the film as “a Rosanna Arquette experience” and making her presence felt as often as possible, the director approaches her subjects in one-on-one interviews as well as putting together salon-type dinner or drinks groups. Arquette spends most of her time tossing out adjectives like “amazing” or banal statements about “the journey” she’s on, making her a rather weak link with her frequently more interesting subjects.
When the film sparks to life, it’s largely due to the sharp observations of some of the women being questioned. Stimulating moments come via Whoopi Goldberg’s raunchy, self-deprecating humor, Tracey Ullman’s biting wit, Holly Hunter’s keen intelligence, Sharon Stone’s sexy self-possession or the earthy wisdom of Diane Lane and Alfre Woodard.
Industry veterans like Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave broaden the perspective considerably, the former confessing that a fulfilling intimate relationship was possible for her only after leaving the industry and the latter reflecting on the balancing act of having children while juggling her acting career and political activism.
Interviewee Laura Dern touches on knowledge and experience inherited from her mother, fellow actress Diane Ladd, in forging her own path as an actress and woman. But while this would seem a fascinating road to pursue, neither Ladd, nor Redgrave’s actress daughters are interviewed. Similar opportunities are missed by talking with Gwyneth Paltrow and Chiara Mastroianni but not their mothers Blythe Danner or Catherine Deneuve. The latter might also have allowed for expansion on the fleetingly expressed thought that woman are able to age with more grace and dignity in European cinema than in Hollywood. The sister link also remains unexplored despite some cozying up between Arquette and sibling Patricia.
While Lynda Obst gets a thank you credit, studio executives and producers are conspicuously absent, and perhaps by including the view from the other side — particularly from women in industry power positions — Arquette might have shed more light on age concerns in casting and women’s roles in general. These are addressed to some extent by the sole male interviewee, critic Roger Ebert, amusingly shot in front of a giant blowup of Angelina Jolie’s rubber-clad crotch.
Samantha Mathis puts forward the “revenge-of-the-nerds” theory, by which male studio execs erase their own insecurities by projecting wish-fulfillment fantasies onto go-getter screen heroes with hot but clueless trophy babes on their arms. This is echoed by Ally Sheedy and Martha Plimpton, bemoaning that “fuckability” is the sole quality valued in screen women. Generally, the women’s view is that female characters too frequently are called upon to be merely supportive or reactive, rather than having their own three-dimensional life.
Use of film clips as backup to some of these views might have made the docu livelier. But generally, it’s competently assembled along freeform lines that skip between various ideas and impressions rather than expounding in any great detail on a given topic.
The one structural flaw is perhaps that, considering the importance placed on her as a key subject, Winger is introduced rather early and too casually to provide any real sense of summation. The actress’ choice to retire appears to have been based as much on universal as on personal concerns. Given that her critical take on the industry clearly echoes that of many of the women still active in it, this could have been harnessed to provide a more cohesive conclusion.