Debra Winger is fascinated by doors.
She has a collection of them at her upstate New York farm, some of them imported from foreign countries she has visited, and her first book, “Undiscovered,” is full of them, starting with the cover photo and continuing with illustrations by Phillippe Petit of noteworthy portals randomly punctuating each chapter.
“I am always searching for the next door, the next role, the next change,” writes the actress who appeared in some 20 major feature films in the ’80s and early ’90s, then lowered her public profile. Her self-imposed semi-exile was the inspiration for a 2004 documentary by Rosanna Arquette, “Searching for Debra Winger,” about actresses who juggle career ambitions and personal fulfillment. A strong theme of the film was that actresses over 40 have a hard time in Hollywood. Professing that she didn’t want making films to consume or define her, Winger, who earned Oscar nominations for “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Shadowlands,” hasn’t closed the door on show business. She has accepted smaller roles in lesser-noticed films and is working on projects with her husband, actor/director Arliss Howard. But she’s also concentrating on motherhood and contemplating the mysteries of life, including her own.
“My desire, as I walk on down the street, chasing the elusive idea written in invisible ink is to find a piece of blank paper, light up the shadowy places, translate the unspoken, and allow it all to live together on the same page,” she writes.
The book’s title comes from a T-shirt she wore while auditioning for roles early in her career. But also “undiscovered” in the book will be the type of Hollywood gossip some readers might look for in a celebrity tell-all memoir.
This is a tell-little book, comprised equally of ruminations about the seasons, flora and the mysteries of the universe and reflections about Winger’s journey from an Orthodox-raised Cleveland girl to an A-list starlet in Hollywood, where she shared the marquis with Richard Gere, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford and others.
There are a few Page Six-worthy nuggets, such as her account of Nicholson’s invitation to visit a brothel with him, her salty retort to a director’s equally salty exclamation during the filming of “Cannery Row,” and the heartbreak from an unnamed boyfriend’s infidelity.
But she admits this is not a memoir.
“It’s a collection of essays, some of which are personal,” says Winger, 52, in her trademark smoky voice during a phone interview.
Never having read an autobiography, Winger says she had no intention of writing one. “I am not interested in the details of people’s lives. But I am interested in people’s spiritual and intellectual development and what they use and what they learn.”
Both her current husband and her ex, actor Timothy Hutton, are referred to in the book only by initials, as are her two sons, Noah, 20, and Babe, 9, who figure more prominently in the discussion.
She does not get into her reputedly bad chemistry with co-stars and directors, her acknowledged history of drug use or her relationship with former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey.
Where little detail is spared, however, is in discussion of Winger’s background and affiliation as a Jew.
Though they are the product of mixed marriages, Winger is raising both her sons Jewish, and a chapter discusses her anxiety before Noah’s bar mitzvah. She reflects on the difficulty of visiting Germany for the first time, to promote “Terms of Endearment” in 1983, and she ponders contemporary collective guilt; she recalls the long walk to temple with her strictly observant grandmother, and a painful Yizkor for her mother at a West Side synagogue on the last day of Passover.
Winger was raised in an Orthodox home, but her parents later assumed less-stringent practices after moving from Cleveland to southern California. Pride and identity come across in her writing.
“When you’re brought up with a very strong family-oriented religion … it goes in deep,” says Winger in the interview. “You’re mixing your deep family relations with some belief they are trying to transmit to you. For myself, the way they believed is not the way I ended up believing. But there it is — I’m still connected.” Laughing, she adds: “The operation was a success.”
But her faith and commitment has been tested. Unmentioned in the book, but told in a 2002 interview with the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, is that Winger’s maternal grandmother cut off all ties to her after her marriage to Hutton, and remained estranged from her until she died in 1987.
“It can put a damper on your understanding of religion when someone you love uses it against you,” she told The Jewish Week. “I have since met very observant Jews that find room in their heart for people that make different choices. So I know that for me, that [exclusion] is no longer a definition of Judaism. When I was younger that defined it for me, and that’s part of the reason I ran from it. I didn’t have any part of it for many years.”
Her faith was also tested by a serious accident as a young adult, when she fell out of a truck while working at Magic Mountain amusement park in California. Blind and partially paralyzed for months, she was drawn to Eastern philosophy.
“I began to visualize things much freer than just what my body can offer. I didn’t understand then that Judaism offers these things as well. I was schooled in an almost fundamentalist Orthodox tradition that didn’t leave a lot of room for experimentation.”
After attending a Hebrew after-school program as a teenager, Winger spent several months in Israel on a synagogue youth program, and at one time considered aliyah. She recently sent Noah there on the youth program Birthright Israel, and has made recent visits in support of Hand In Hand, a program that creates schools with equal populations of Arabs and Jews.
After 9/11, Winger said publicly that she had come to view religion as the root of all misdeeds. But she says she’s since found a comfort level with Judaism.
“Fundamentalism in any religion is just a cause for great chasms and grief and pain,” she says. “I talk in the book about the important things my grandparents gave me, but also about the importance of getting free from that and finding one’s own way. The beauty of a bar mitzvah [for children] is that you are giving their life to them.”
The pervasive contemplation, often bordering on sadness, that comes across in “Undiscovered” is a result of the deaths of her parents, Robert and Ruth, several years apart, during the time she was writing it.
“I was trying to find a tone that is real and sort of human,” she says. “We all lose somebody and we go through passages and grief. I was at the age where loss begins. Why hide that?”
Another intention was to humanize herself after years of Hollywood publicity.
“I responded to years of people treating celebrities as if their lives were golden,” says Winger. “It’s an American tradition to build someone up so you can tear them down.”
While acknowledging that stars like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan are responsible for their own decisions, she labels their treatment by the entertainment press “a shanda.
“You do not help a young girl by following her around and writing nasty things about her when she makes mistakes.”
Looking ahead, Winger wants to continue writing and try her hand at fiction. And she is slowly getting back into major films, including Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” with Anne Hathaway, which opens in October, and a project with her husband based on T.C. Boyle’s novel “Drop City.”
“I’m not putting all my energy into [finding film roles],” she says. “I’m trying to find that balance. You see these actors just go from job to job and their performances are empty air, redundant.”
If her future plans seem unclear, that’s because they are to her, too. As she put it, “It’s a swinging door.”