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TERMS OF ENDURANCE A STRONG MARRIAGE HELPED DEBRA WINGER AND ARLISS HOWARD PERSEVERE THROUGH THE PERILS OF MOVIEMAKING.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

Love makes you do funny things.

Trying to make a movie out of an unfilmable book that you adore, for example. Or dropping out of a thriving film career because you love the craft of acting so much that you can't abide the peripheral Hollywood nonsense that dilutes it anymore.

And, sometimes, if you're very lucky, love leads you to a seemingly incongruous but immensely complementary union with someone who, as years and experiences accumulate, you just learn to love more.

Say hello to Debra Winger and Arliss Howard. She's the Valley-raised star of such 1980s zeitgeist hits as ``Urban Cowboy,'' ``An Officer and a Gentleman'' and ``Terms of Endearment'' who hasn't made a movie since 1995. He's the journeyman actor from Missouri who's worked for Stanley Kubrick (``Full Metal Jacket''), Oliver Stone (``Natural Born Killers'') and Steven Spielberg (``The Lost World,'' ``Amistad''), among many others, and who just directed his first movie, a loose adaptation of Larry Brown's acclaimed short-story collection, ``Big Bad Love.''

Odd couple

She's effusive, mischievous, full of jokes. He's introspective, gravely serious, still. They're both thoughtful. They've been together almost 10 years, since acting together in the film ``Wilder Napalm,'' and were married in 1996. Each has a 14-year-old son from a previous marriage (hers was to actor Timothy Hutton), and their boy, Babe, is 4 1/2.

Now they have a movie to share that, in more ways than one, they can truly call their own. In the uncompromising, impressionistic piece, Howard plays a dissolute Mississippi writer, Leon Barlow. He fails to cope with the rejection of both his ex-wife, Marilyn, and, if the returned manuscripts that clog his rural postbox are any indication, every publisher in Manhattan. Winger plays Marilyn, a task one can only presume her husband roped her into after many happy years away from the camera's gaze.

``He actually roped me,'' Winger says, feigning seriousness. ``He actually hogtied me and took me down there.''

Not actually. Winger, who has done some stage work with Howard and took a literature fellowship at Harvard University during her screen sabbatical, was impressed with the role. Her husband and his writing-partner brother, James Howard, scripted Marilyn, portraying her still-vital relationship with her troublesome, trouble-prone ex.

Triumphant return

``It just became clear that it was the right thing to do, to act,'' notes Winger, 46. ``If you're starting a story with a couple who has been together a long time and are now separated, you've got to have something so unspoken. With the right amount of preparation time, of course, actors can do that. But isn't it a lot easier to have that dynamic at work from the start? I think we both innately knew that it was a time-saver.

``And I was attracted to the idea of playing an ex-wife who was fighting off that track of being embittered. You could see these shards of bitterness, but she kept reopening her heart. And, somewhere, she really believed in this man as a father and as a writer, even though it wasn't mushy and doormatty. I thought that was all very well-written, in an underwritten way.''

It's also one of the few clear dramatic lines running through a picture that's constantly intruded upon by visualizations of the writer's fantasies and alcoholic delusions. Much of this surreal imagery is not to be found in Brown's book; it sprang from Howard's mind when he started thinking about an adaptation. Brown apparently approved of Howard's changes to his work; he appears in the film as Barlow's father.

``Images kept arriving in my mind and I kept wondering, what is that?'' Howard, 47, explains. ``Then I started to realize that it was a way to articulate Barlow the writer in a cinematic way. The problem is getting the things that you love, which you respond to in stories, out. A lot of the time, you can't articulate them in the way that you apprehend them on the page; they have to find some other life. I had to get a notion of what goes on when a guy is making a story. Images came to me, and I started following them.''

Taking the lead chair

That led quite naturally to taking the project's directing helm.

``If you're thinking imagistically, the chances of you being happy with somebody else taking that are going to be slim,'' Howard says. ``No matter how simpatico you are with another, you can't not get in conflict from time to time. So the reason I directed was to manage the image all the way through. And having done it, I can really say that I loved it.''

And his wife loved watching him do it.

``If curling can be in the Olympics, he can definitely make directing an Olympic sport,'' Winger proudly gushes. `` 'With a 9.3 degree of difficulty, we will go to the South with the Jewish wife and make a story of a divorced couple, while married, with children, in a film that I will write and direct and star in and you will produce and co-star.' That is crazed, right? But there were many times along the way that I knew that he could do it. It's sort of like when you get married you're in love with somebody, but when you have a child together, you fall in love with him again because, 'Oh, and he's a dad, too!'

``So, seeing him down there directing, and seeing all of his 'I got it' moments, how massively prepared he was to get all of that shot in 32 days. ... But the thing that really amazed me was that he was physically everywhere. I never saw him sitting in a chair, waiting for the lighting, because there was always the next thing to check out. I remember other directors I've worked with that you could always find in their chair looking shell-shocked because they were either exhausted or being beaten up by some executive.''

Wingering it

Winger had her own unexpected marathon to run. Twelve days into the movie's Mississippi shoot, the original producers pulled out, leaving some 80 cast and crew people high and dry. The Howards were faced with the decision to either pull the plug or finance the rest of the production with their own money. One option was obviously sensible, but they loved what they were creating and the people they were doing it with.

And love can make you do crazy things ...

``We don't recommend doing this with your own money; for all you children out there, do not try this at home,'' Winger cracks. ``Arliss really summed it up the night when we really had to pull the trigger. He said, 'What story do we want to tell our kids? We had this film one summer and Daddy was gonna do this and Momma was gonna do this, then this happened and we all went home?' It didn't sound like a very good story.''

But as shooting continued, someone had to manage the budget. After a number of pleading phone calls to producer acquaintances, all of whom were otherwise engaged, Winger took on the responsibility herself.

``Just like Arliss had watched directors direct, I've witnessed many producers producing,'' she says. ``Sometimes I learned from their mistakes and sometimes I drew from how well they did it. ... And I made a lot of phone calls: 'How do you do this' ''

Why she left

Talk about images: all-about-the-art Winger having to work the phones like the crassest of Hollywood players (once ``Big Bad'' is launched in theaters, she swears she's throwing away the cellular - the only one she's ever owned - that was bought for the production). Long a vocal critic of the commerce-and-hype obsessed studio system, Winger explains why she finally walked away from it all in 1995.

``The acting was never the problem,'' she says. ``It was just, sort of, negotiating my way through the business - and, dare I say, the press - that was sometimes horrifying to me. I always felt like, 'Why can't it be about the work? Why does it have to be about me, and why do I have to feel like a thing?' I never asked for that; I really just wanted to do parts and do them well. But you get on the wheel and you play the game, and I think I needed a rest from it.''

Considering the general quality of the last half-decade's worth of movies, the critically astute Winger doesn't feel a tinge of regret.

``I didn't look back; I didn't look down,'' she says. ``You tell me: In the past five years, did I miss anything? I think it was a particularly sweet time for me to step out.

``I don't mean anything disparaging about people who made films in that time. There were some interesting films, but there just wasn't anything for me.''

``Big Bad Love'' has left Winger willing to do more movie work; but not just for a paycheck, she says, and only on her terms.

As for Howard, he's pleased that his movie came out according to the terms he'd set at the beginning.

``What it was an investigation of, for me, is up there on the screen,'' he says. ``And that was what is it to try to navigate the track of an idea, and what that costs you and the people around you, to navigate that idea through your own foibles and shortcomings, through the problems and barriers that you yourself create, and what causes you to move out of those things.''

Without Howard's livelier half, it's doubtful that that journey would have been completed.

``It was always a conversation,'' he says of the creative process with Winger. `` 'What is this about? What is this about?' And that's a conversation we have in our lives most of the time, whether or not it has anything to do with making good work. It can be about something we're interested in or just the trip of raising a family. You just have to keep having these conversations.''

CAPTION(S):

4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Out of the spotlight since 1995, DEBRA WINGER returns to the screen with her

BIG BAD LOVE

(2) no caption (Debra Winger and Arliss Howard)

(3) ``I didn't look back; I didn't look down. ... I think it was a particularly sweet time for me to step out,'' says Debra Winger, with husband Arliss Howard, of her break from films.

Gus Ruelas/Staff Photographer

(4) Debra Winger, shown above with husband and co-star Arliss Howard in a scene from ``Big Bad Love''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 3, 2002
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