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  • Mike Groll / The Associated Press

    Debra Winger speaks during a rally against hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or fracking, in late October in Albany, N.Y. The actress will be in Nevada City on Friday to discuss and promote “Gasland Part II,” for which she is credited as creative consultant.

  • HBO

    Steve Lipsky, left, holds a hose whose water has caught fire in “Gasland Part II,” which screens twice Friday evening at Nevada City’s 12th annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival.

  • HBO

    Col Davis appears in a scene in “Gasland Part II,” which will screen twice Friday evening at Nevada City’s Wild & Scenic Film Festival.

  • HBO

    Josh Fox, below, gets ’cuffed in a scene from “Gasland Part II.”

More Information


    What: A four-day environmental and adventure film festival offering 126 films averaging 40 minutes in length. Highlights: two screenings Friday of “Gasland Part II” (6:30 at Miners’ Foundry and 7 at the Nevada Theatre), with appearances by the film’s creative consultant, actress Debra Winger; two short films by Grass Valley’s Jeff Litton, “Environmental Lawyers and the Protection of Sharks,” and “Environmental Whaling vs. Cultural Whaling,” shown as part of a 1:30 p.m. Saturday program at Oddfellows Hall in Nevada City. The festival is presented by and is the primary fundraiser for the South Yuba River Citizens League watershed nonprofit.

    When: Today-Sunday

    Where: Miners’ Foundry, 325 Spring St.; Nevada Theatre, 401 Broad St.; and Oddfellows Hall, 212 Spring St., Nevada City, and other venues in Nevada City and Grass Valley.

    Cost: Tickets buy time sessions rather than individual films or programs. The purchase of a designated session guarantees a seat, but not necessarily at the venue of choice. Sessions start at $20 for adults and $15 for ages 17 and younger. Friday’s Nevada City session (with the Winger appearances) is $29.

    Information: www.wildandscenic

Debra Winger presents anti-fracking doc at Nevada City’s Wild & Scenic Film Festival

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 - 8:07 pm
Last Modified: Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 - 8:45 am

Words matter to Debra Winger. Like “frack,” the gas-industry diminutive for hydraulic fracturing that does not sound attractive in any context.

“That word is a gift that can never be repaid,” Winger, calling from New York City, said with a laugh. Her voice carries the same raspy playfulness of her 1980s Hollywood heyday, deepened with time. “We could not have come up with anything better.”

“We” are people like Winger who want fracking to end. Winger, 58, was involved closely with “Gasland,” the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary – that one where people memorably used lighters to set the water coming from their kitchen faucets on fire – and its 2013 sequel, “Gasland Part II.”

Winger will appear Friday and help present “Gasland Part II” at Nevada City’s 12th Wild & Scenic Film Festival. The festival will offer two shows a half-hour apart (6:30 p.m. at Miners Foundry and 7 p.m. at the Nevada Theatre) to accommodate Winger’s time in town and the crowds the event likely will draw.

“Her passionate work a gainst fracking aligns so perfectly with the theme of this year’s festival – ‘emPOWERment,’ ” said Melinda Booth, the festival’s director.

Many of the 126 movies in the four-day festival, which starts today, touch on “climate change and different solutions to the energy crisis,” Booth added.

Winger has been working with director Josh Fox, who lives across the Delaware River from her family’s primary residence in New York’s Catskills Mountains, from the beginning on “Gasland.” She’s flying across the country with Catskill Mountainkeeper environmental group’s executive director, Ramsay Adams, on the sequel’s behalf. But she resists terms such as “producer” and “activist” that one might attach to her involvement with the film.

“People clamor for a producing credit” on films, Winger said. “But if you are brought up the way I was – my mentor (‘Urban Cowboy’ director) James Bridges had me in the cutting room on my first film – you understand that filmmaking is an incredibly collaborative art form.”

She offered Fox feedback and did other “things producers do,” Winger said, but she didn’t care about her credit, which ended up being “creative consultant.”

The “Gasland” project started after Fox’s family was offered $100,000 by gas interests to lease their land. Fox decided to investigate the effects on people already living with gas wells on their property.

He contacted his famous neighbor Winger, whom he did not yet know, to get her thoughts on some footage he had shot.

“It was clear he had a film,” Winger said. At the time, other neighbors whose land sat atop the gas-rich Marcellus Shale also had been approached, though she had not been.

“We were starting to have meetings and were getting hip to what was going on, though we had no idea of the extent of it,” she said.

Fox found towns in Pennsylvania (he lives on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware) and Colorado where, residents said, groundwater had been polluted by chemicals associated with fracking, a practice largely exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act by the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

The “Gasland” footage of these residents igniting faucet water sparked greater awareness about fracking’s potential dangers. In the years since the film’s release, federal rules have not changed, but public awareness has increased, and there has been significant movement, both pro and con, on state and municipality levels.

“I don’t think it was the classic definition of a documentary, but it was a wonderful cannon to be able to fire,” Winger said of “Gasland.”

Winger calls the anti-fracking movement “the biggest grass-roots movement of the past decade.” She has seen anecdotal progress in the Catskills, she said, where gas interests have let leases expire and stopped knocking on doors. (New York state has had a moratorium on fracking — official and then de facto — since 2008).

If “Gasland” was a film of outrage, “Gasland Part II” is more measured.

“ ‘Gasland II’ gives more of a back story and the politics, which was never going to be as sexy, but was the correct and responsible thing to do,” Winger said. “Now it’s really in the people’s hands.”

In addition to her anti-fracking efforts, Winger sits on the board of Washington, D.C.’s Tahirih Justice Center, which works with immigrant women and girls fleeing gender-based violence.

But Winger would not call her efforts activism.

“I get a bit of hives with the word ‘activist,’ ” she said. “I consider myself a citizen. I think as I got older, I realized what a responsibility citizenship is. If you have kids, you go, ‘What does it mean to live here?’

“And the more you travel, the more you see how people in other countries know so much about their country, and Americans do not.

“And since the Internet, we really select the news we want to hear. People from the left listen to people from the left, and people from the right listen to people from the right. … We are just not exposed to anything that makes us uncomfortable unless we want to be.”

Winger pauses during this speech to poke fun at her earnestness: “I know you should play drums and fife music under this.”

Winger’s irreverence has been a key to her appeal since she broke out in 1980’s “Urban Cowboy.” The freshness and fearlessness of her performance as blue-collar Texas newlywed Sissy were a revelation, and her streak of real-woman performances in “Cowboy,” 1982’s “An Officer and a Gentleman” and 1983’s “Terms of Endearment” remain unmatched.

Her famously prickly experiences on the “Endearment” and “Officer” sets – Shirley MacLaine, who beat out co-star Winger for the best-actress Academy Award that year, backhand-complimented Winger’s “turbulent brilliance” during her acceptance speech – enhanced her mystique.

But what truly made her a figure of fascination were those six years she went missing from the screen, before returning in 2001’s “Big Bad Love,” directed by and starring her husband, veteran character actor Arliss Howard. Winger has been selective about roles ever since.

Her absence was so noteworthy that actress and director Rosanna Arquette titled her 2007 documentary about vanishing Hollywood roles for middle-aged actresses “Searching for Debra Winger.”

“I never made that argument,” Winger said of the idea she left Hollywood because of ageism. “I think Rosanna Arquette made it in my name.” Winger was interviewed in the film but never saw it.

She wasn’t visible because she was focused on raising Noah Hutton, her now-27-year-old son with her first husband, actor Timothy Hutton, and Babe, her 16-year-old son with Howard, and other family matters.

“I didn’t leave anything,” she said. “I just went toward something. I just chose my life.”

But ageism inevitably comes into play now when she looks at roles in her age range. According to Hollywood, that range is vast.

“When you were younger, the casting call said ‘18-20’ or ‘21-24,’ ” she said. “When you get older, it’s ‘45-70.’ 

“Every time I tell myself I am going to do some more just to get out there, I suffer greatly,” she said with a rueful laugh. “I am kind of waiting for the world to change or me to get old enough to play – I don’t know – corpses.”

It’s hard to get back on the radar when you were gone for a while, she said. And she no longer has an agent. Yet she seems to do fine when she chooses to work.

Her roles in recent years have been in prestigious projects.

She was the distant mother in Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed “Rachel Getting Married,” and a stage actress and therapy patient confronting aging on HBO’s “‘In Treatment.’ ” In 2012, she made her Broadway debut, alongside Patti LuPone, in David Mamet’s “The Anarchist.” (The play received negative reviews, primarily focused on Mamet’s writing and direction, and closed quickly).

In the 1990s, when Winger absented herself from the screen, “it just so happened that I (thought) movies sucked,” she said. But now, she said, “movies are starting to get interesting again.”

Longtime Winger fans always are searching for young actresses who show a similar ease and spark. But her screen presence remains unique.

When you tell this to Winger, she appreciates the compliment but also gives the sense she’s heard it before, a lot.

A three-time best actress nominee (for “Officer,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Shadowlands”) and voting Academy member, she watches all the big films during awards season. She said Jennifer Lawrence’s approach sometimes reminds her of her own.

“She is the only one I see dropping herself into a role,” Winger said. “Every time I see her, I feel like working again.”

David O. Russell, Lawrence’s director on “Hustle” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” makes films that evoke Winger’s early 1980s movies in their mix of independent-film inventiveness and mainstream appeal.

If movies are swinging back to the artistic values of that time, Winger might reconsider her choosiness.

“That is what I miss the most,” she said. “So if they want someone without a face-lift …”

Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

Read more articles by Carla Meyer

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