The Truth Behind That Debra Winger, Richard Gere ‘Feud’
A blockbuster 80s romance, An Officer and a Gentleman united young Hollywood heartthrobs Richard Gere and Debra Winger and made the pair into two of the hottest new stars around. Despite their fiery on-screen chemistry, however, rumours always swirled that Winger and Gere failed to get along behind the scenes.
Winger would later compare Gere to “a brick wall”, while all involved in the film say that Winger and Gere avoided one another on the set. More recently, Winger and Gere have made amends and praised each other’s work, but according to Winger the environment on An Officer and a Gentleman was toxic – and Gere wasn’t the only one to blame.
Debra Winger is no stranger to behind-the-scenes feuds; through the years, she has had tangles with A-listers including Michael Douglas, Shirley MacLaine and Madonna. But even on her breakout movie, 1980’s Urban Cowboy, Winger tussled with her leading man.
“When I first met John Travolta, the first three questions he asked were, ‘Are you Jewish?’, ‘Did you graduate from college?’ and… [something] sexual”, Winger later recalled of her Urban Cowboy co-star. The shoot was intense; according to New York magazine, Winger thought the pair should have sex for real, while in one scene which required Travolta to get physical, Travolta slapped Winger so hard he knocked out one of her teeth.
After Urban Cowboy finished shooting, Winger and Travolta reportedly began an affair, which ended in Travolta proposing marriage to Winger. She turned the offer down, broke off the relationship and promptly moved on to her next film.
Richard Gere, who like Winger established himself as a Hollywood lead in 1980, with the hit neo-noir crime drama American Gigolo, also had a history of getting into scrapes with co-stars prior to making An Officer and a Gentleman.
Gere had been cast in 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush alongside Sylvester Stallone, but Gere soon fell out with Stallone, who described how Gere “would strut around in his oversized motorcycle jacket like he was the baddest knight at the round table.” Gere was eventually kicked off the production after he and Stallone got into a fight.
Fresh from Urban Cowboy and American Gigolo respectively, Winger and Gere saw a major opportunity in An Officer and a Gentleman. Both Gere and Winger beat strong competition for the roles of Zack Mayo and Paula, taking the lead parts over the likes of Christopher Reeve, Jeff Bridges, Meg Ryan and Geena Davis.
Filming took place in late 1981 around Port Townsend in Washington, with the romantic drama partly shot in the disused US Army base of Fort Worden.
Gere has since said that Winger was the ideal co-star: “I was delighted, she was perfect for the part.” However, the pair failed to become friends, with Winger later commenting that there developed a negative “tension” between her and Gere.
Louis Gossett Jr, who plays Sergeant Emil Foley in the movie, also noticed the animosity between Gere and Winger behind the scenes.
“The rest of the cast partied a lot, although Richard and the equally talented Debra Winger retreated to their own places,” Gossett wrote in his 2010 autobiography, An Actor and a Gentleman.
“The onscreen chemistry between the two of them was terrific, but it was a different story once the camera was turned off,” he added. “They couldn’t have stayed farther apart from each other.”
Decades later, Gere spoke warmly of Winger’s talent, and didn’t mention any bad blood between them. “She has a really interesting quality,” he commented in 2012. “It’s very hard to be as kind of open and unguarded and nice. You know, a nice person and kind of a genuine person and true heart on camera.”
Gere also hinted that he was not the easiest co-star to work with. “I could never be that way,” he said. “I was too complicated. There were too many things going on. Just the straightforward presence is an extremely difficult thing to do.”
Though Winger notoriously later referred to Gere as “a brick wall”, in reality her experience filming An Officer and a Gentleman was overshadowed by far worse problems than any spats with Gere.
After the Officer and a Gentleman shoot was over, Winger would refer to the film’s director, Taylor Hackford, as “an animal”, and describe humiliating objectification during production. After producer Don Simpson told Winger she was “not f***able enough” to play the part, at one point a member of the production team reviewed some scenes and handed Winger water retention tablets, telling her she looked “puffy.”
“I was so young I didn’t even know what it was, and I just handed it back and said, ‘I’m not taking that,'” Winger revealed in a recent interview in The Telegraph. “It just sounded ridiculous to me. But somebody else could have really succumbed.”
Winger has also blamed the tension between her and Gere on bad management. “When pigs are involved, when bad men are running the show, they tend to take the fun out of it,” she said in a 2018 interview. “It kind of dirties the water.”
Taylor Hackford was reticent when quizzed about the alleged mistreatment of Winger when he was interviewed about Officer in 1995. “I don’t bad-mouth people I work with,” he responded.
“Different people have different philosophies about how they talk to the press and what they say,” he added. “In this instance, all I can say is that I stand by the movie. I think it’s some of the best work [Winger’s] ever done, if not the best. That’s statement enough for me.”
Winger does not regret joining the cast of An Officer and a Gentleman – even though the experience was unpleasant. “I’m not sorry I did the film, because it brought a lot of joy to a lot of people,” she has said of the film, which was a box office hit. ”But the making of it was treacherous. I don’t need much when I’m making a movie, but I do need respect, and I didn’t get it.”
More recently, Winger has claimed that her ‘brick wall’ comments about Gere were not meant or taken too seriously. “The only remarks that ever made print were those that ruffled a few feathers,” she told The Guardian in 2002.
“I run in to Richard Gere quite a lot and he half jokes: ‘Are you still saying terrible things about me?’,” she noted. “We had a moment in our life which was not good, but everyone has to get it into perspective.”
Winger has also pointed out that her diva label was often sexist and unfair. “I had this reputation for being ‘difficult’. But would a man have suffered the same accusation? He would probably have been admired for speaking his mind and be called a ‘perfectionist’.”
Urban Cowboy director James Bridges backed up this sentiment of Winger’s, describing her as an actress with instincts. “When you lock horns with Debra, you never feel it’s anything personal,” he commented to the New York Times.
“We had a horrendous fight on Urban Cowboy. She refused to play a scene, and I had to shut down the set for a whole day,” he recalled. “I was furious with her, but then I looked at the scene and realised that there was something wrong with the dialogue. Her instinct had been right.”
Their initial dislike aside, Gere and Winger today have a lot of respect for each other as actors. In 2011, Winger praised Gere’s personality and generosity.
As she gave him a Lifetime Achievement at the International Rome Film Festival, Winger said to her old co-star: “Thank you. Thank you for all of your kindnesses over the years, and for being a great human, a citizen of the world.”