There are documentaries that trade on their timeliness, promising the inside scoop on stories that are still hitting the headlines that very day (just look at the veritable cottage industry of Britney Spears films released in 2021). Then there are the documentaries that have a current relevance, but become more valuable as the years progress, providing both a time capsule and a yardstick for future viewers. Searching for Debra Winger is of the latter camp.
Released in 2002, Rosanna Arquette’s film features a series of conversations with her fellow actresses, focused on sexism and ageism in Hollywood; Diane Lane, Jane Fonda, Whoopi Goldberg, Salma Hayek, Robin Wright, Gwyneth Paltrow, Meg Ryan and Laura Dern are amongst the many interviewed. The documentary’s title springs from Debra Winger’s much-discussed disappearance from the movie business at age 40, while her career still seemed to be flourishing (Arquette does indeed find Winger, who proves one of the film’s most incisive commentators).
Because it’s comprised of peers talking about issues they know so well, there’s an appealing, convivial warmth to Searching for Debra Winger, which is heightened by the informal nature of some of the interviews (Catherine O’Hara is questioned as she’s getting her hair done; Frances McDormand in a bathroom in Cannes). The early ‘00s vibe is also endearing: There’s Wright in pigtails and Ryan excited to have just gotten her belly button pierced.
The women questioned are full of admiration for each other, and—especially during the roundtable sections, where the interviews become discussions—there’s the cathartic sense of a great unburdening. Communal frustration surrounds the feeling that to be a woman turning 40 in Hollywood is akin to falling off a career cliff. The skills they’ve worked so hard to accrue over so many years and the simple fact that they’re doing the best work of their lives, all deemed unimportant because they are no longer in their first flush of youth. Martha Plimpton and Ally Sheedy put it more vividly:
Plimpton: Humor. Intelligence. Talent. Imagination. Bravery. Skill. When you eliminate all those things, what have you got?
Just by presenting us with such a wealth of talented women in their 40s and older, all so witty and charismatic and eloquent, Searching for Debra Winger viscerally underlines how horrifying it is that they should be reduced to their “fuckability,” deemed obsolete by faceless male movie moguls. Beyond that inherent misogyny, some of the actresses comment on how Hollywood being scared of women over 40 creates a void of stories for middle-aged women, leaving a vast potential audience underrepresented and disengaged.
While tremendously expressive on the problems, Searching for Debra Winger is hesitant to offer up potential solutions. Despite the doc’s genial atmosphere, the lack of palpable hope that things might improve is rather bleak. Only Hayek suggests that getting more women behind the camera is necessary to improve prospects for the women in front of it.
And she was right. The cinematic landscape is far less bleak for actresses in 2022 than it was in 2002, with the last few years seeing a notable uptick in successful films about women by women: Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Little Women, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter being just a handful. Of course, women don’t only make films about women—recently, Regina King’s One Night in Miami and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog have been focused on male protagonists—but even when they’re telling stories about men, female directors are far likelier to hire female crew members than their male counterparts.
The rise in female filmmakers has also been encouraged by the movie industry’s most prestigious body, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences enforcing long overdue structural changes in order to diversify their overwhelmingly white male membership, and in 2020, implementing rules to ensure that films in contention for Best Picture Oscars have significant numbers of women and people of color among their cast and crew. Those changes have made a considerable difference already: Three of the eight women to ever be nominated for Best Director have received their nominations since 2020, with Chloé Zhao and Jane Campion being back-to-back winners in 2021 and 2022.
Watching Searching for Debra Winger 20 years after its Cannes premiere, several other factors stand out. Though no one mentions him by name, some of Harvey Weinstein’s most famous accusers are featured: Hayek, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julianna Margulies, Daryl Hannah—and director Rosanna Arquette. His shadow looms large over the documentary, leading one to wonder if any (or how many) of the horror stories about unnamed male executives reference him.
Back on the positive side, and although there are prominent exceptions, the number of the interviewees still going strong today is striking; even the two who had famously self-exiled from moviemaking, Winger and Fonda, later returned to the business. Admittedly, many have found a more welcoming home in television (especially since the birth of streaming, with all the further opportunities it offers), but that’s an infinitely more respectable prospect today than it was in the early ‘00s, when TV’s golden age was in its nascence. Now it’s commonplace for the careers of topflight acting stars to straddle film and television; many women over 40—Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis and Julianne Moore among them—have excelled in both mediums.
Certainly, in an industry still dominated by men, there remains an awful long way to go before the various gender gaps (age, pay, etc.) are anywhere close to fixed. Yet in a world where so many things are getting worse, it’s nice to see some measure of improvement, however slow, in Hollywood. Here’s hoping in another 20 years, the issues raised by Searching for Debra Winger will seem positively prehistoric.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.