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Winger's performance gives 'A Dangerous Woman' its only edge


For some performances, a large paycheck or even an Academy Award nomination simply isn't adequate recompense; a Medal of Valor would be far more appropriate.That's true of Debra Winger in "A Dangerous Woman." As Martha, a mildly retarded adult trying to cope with the frustrations of a world that talks faster and knows more, she's absolutely heroic. She

doesn't act, she becomes. She doesn't pretend, she is.

Think of all the vaunted "turns" you've seen -- Meryl Streep's Sophie, for example, Jane Fonda in "Klute," current flavor-of-the-month Emma Thompson in "Howards End" -- and recollect how even at their most flamboyant these actresses seemed to preserve a little bit of themselves, a little sliver of ironic distance. Not Winger. She just hands it all over, without a morsel of self-consciousness or a picosecond's thought to dignity.

Winger continually -- possibly even masochistically -- allows herself to be filmed from the least flattering angles and in the harshest lighting. Her sad and goofy Martha has a pudding face made even less attractive by glasses the size of manhole covers, only thicker, and, in the cruel arena of an American small town, she attracts merry bullies and small-beer torturers the way sugar lures flies. She walks as if she's neither left or right footed. She's not exactly color-coordinated.

But it's not just appearance, either: Winger is also careful to understand the principle of Martha's retardation, the organization of Martha's marginally dysfunctional mind.

Martha cannot tell a lie. Think how this inhibits her in society: "Have a nice day?" "No." No wonder she's dangerous.

Moreover, she cannot tell the difference between a big lie and a small lie; all lies are equal, as are all truths. She lacks the capacity to discriminate in any way, shape or form. It's a strength of the script by Naomi Foner that this isn't viewed as "cute" and that it doesn't represent Martha as some kind of blithe spirit with a gift that makes her "special"; she's a bleak spirit and her gift makes her really irritating. In fact, that's the film's key strength: that it doesn't sentimentalize Martha.

But given this honesty and Winger's greatness, it's sad to report that the story around them does little to match their weight. Derived from a novel by Masy McGarry Morris, it's one of those small-town-hell numbers in which Martha's bumbling somehow manages to rip the lid off a variety of festering hypocrisies and fTC deceits. The form probably dates back to Grace Metalious' "Peyton Place," and has inspired possibly a thousand variations since.

Martha lives with her cousin Frances (Barbara Hershey), a prosperous widow who had married the town's richest citizen when she was 16 and buried him when she was 30. Frances is sleeping with a married attorney (John Terry) who is running for the Town Assembly, and the movie opens with his drunken wife (Laurie Metcalf) crashing the Volvo into Frances' front porch, a scene that under Stephen Gyllenhaal's ambitious direction plays more like black comedy than Gothic drama. Meanwhile, at the dry-cleaning plant, lowlife Elvis-wannabe Getso (David Straithairn in an out-of-the-norm performance) is sleeping with at least two of the other women and stealing from the till, where Martha, who works there as a charity case, sees him.

What sends these tight little worlds spinning out of orbit is the arrival of . . . classic melodramatic stroke . . . a drifter. This is Gabriel Byrne as a blowsy, alcoholic tough guy named Mackey (great drifter name, no?), who snivels his way into the job of rebuilding Frances' porch. Soon he seduces the defenseless Martha -- but he cheats and gives her a plastic pickle jar. In small-town America these days, the movie argues, candy is dandy but Tupperware is quicker. Having had his pleasure with her, he gets annoyed with her, makes love to drunken Frances and sets the ball rolling for the inevitable violent act that is strictly de rigueur in this sort of thing.

As you can see, "A Dangerous Woman" has enough plot for 10 movies and its melodramatic reversals and revelations become so labored that by the end they seem funny. At least none of the women turn out to be men. But Winger doesn't seem to notice: Her Martha hews to the line and plays out the string. It's a great piece of acting in a strictly mediocre movie.

"A Dangerous Woman"

Starring Debra Winger, Barbara Hershey and Gabriel Byrne

Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal

Released by Gramercy

Rated R

... **

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