By John H. Foote
Debra Winger’s performance in Urban Cowboy was once described as “sex incarnate” and it is both correct and unfair. Winger was so much more than just a beautiful sexy woman, she was an actress of formidable power, and had the ability to reach into a character and find the character. The realism with which she brought the character to life was astounding, and though she exploded out of the gate in the early eighties, she was labelled as difficult and saw her career drop off by the late eighties, only to be revived for a very short time in the nineties.
Her first performance of note, the one that got her noticed was as Sissy in Urban Cowboy opposite no less a star than John Travolta. At the time there was no bigger movie star on the planet that Travolta, who was riding the crest of Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978) both mammoth box office hits.
Urban Cowboy saw Bud move to Texas to work on an oil field, and at the local bar, Gilley’s, he meets Sissy, and they quickly fall in love. They marry and move into a trailer and appear to be very happy. But one night Bud undermines her efforts to ride a mechanical bull and it begins a breakdown in their marriage that sees them split up. He finds happiness (he believes) with a young rich girl who showers him with gifts, while she hooks up with a dangerous ex-con, Wes (Scott Glenn) a one-time champion rodeo rider who teaches Sissy how to ride the bull. She flaunts her newfound talents in the bar in front of Bud and makes out with Wes to spite her husband.
Each longs for the other, and when Wes tries to rob the bar after brutally beating Sissy, Bud attacks him, and beats the hell out of him, no small feat because Wes is one dangerous man. Reunited after seeing what Wes did to his one true love, all troubles are put aside, and Bud and Sissy go him, together.
Winger was earthy, realistic and earthy in the film, sexy to be sure, but filled with soul. It marked the beginning of a brilliant career, however short and this should have been her first dance with the Academy Awards.
She would receive Academy Award nominations later for Best Actress for An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Terms of Endearment (1983) and later for Shadowlands (1993), but her career was erratic after 1983, sadly because of the obvious gifts.
She and Travolta struck sparks with their work in this film, and both were deserving of nominations.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.