Much of the first half of Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married (2008) seems to concern itself with the sibling rivalry between the Rachel of the title (Rosemarie DeWitt) and the dissonant Kym (Anne Hathaway). But there is a taut subtext. It turns out we are all awaiting the arrival of their mother at the rehearsal dinner. And when she does turn up in all her chilly grace, it takes a while for us to register -- because perhaps the last time we saw her on screen was in Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky -- that this fascinating, aloof creature is played by none other than Debra Winger. A.O. Scott, in his review of the film in The New York Times sums up our feelings best as Winger, "in a few quietly incandescent scenes as their mother, briefly lifts the movie onto another plane altogether, somehow combining movie-star charisma with an almost heartbreaking restraint and giving us a taste of what we've been missing in the years of her semi-retirement."
Little did I dream at the time that Ms. Winger would grace the stage of the Rubin Museum two years' later. I started the neuroscience series Brainwave at the Rubin in 2008 with the late, great Lou Reed as one of the pioneering participants. For the 2011 iteration, I wanted to explore what happens in our brains when we dream. This was not irrelevant to the central Buddhist content of the Rubin: It was the future Buddha's mother, Queen Maya who had a dream that she was penetrated in her right side by trunk of a great white elephant, leading the wise men of the court to proclaim that she would give birth to either a great ruler or a great ascetic. (No prizes for guessing which part of that prophecy came true.) A regular attendee of Brainwave programs was a young filmmaker and writer by the name of Noah Hutton who maintained a blog called The Beautiful Brain http://thebeautifulbrain.com/. Given his interest in neuroscience, I approached him about filming some of these on-stage conversations. In the course of our negotiations I bemoaned how hard it was to find people to talk about their dreams in public -- personalities whose dreams we would actually be interested to hear about, that is. I had already run through my rolodex with the Carl Jung Red Book Dialogues that featured David Byrne, Sarah Silverman, Marina Abramovic, Gloria Vanderbilt, Twitter's Jack Dorsey, Charlie Kaufman, Alice Walker, Smashing Pumpkin's Billy Corgan, Adam Gopnik, Stefan Sagmeister, Cornel West and Jonathan Demme. Who in New York was left? And for Brainwave at the time I don't think we had Henry Rollins, Amy Tan and Meredith Monk on the roster.
So Noah offered, "Maybe I could ask my mom if she would like to do it." I must have hesitated a second too long. Or maybe I looked blankly, or puzzled enough that Noah felt he had to quickly fill in, "My mom's Debra Winger."
I made the hopscotch association of "Oh, Noah -- Hutton -- Timothy -- formerly married to Debra -- right!" in my head, agreeing all the while that it would be a splendid idea. Within days Ms. Winger had written back, "I was witness to several evenings at the Rubin on the Red Book nights and loved them. I only hope I can live up to the standards you have set for enlivening both the participants and the listeners." She did. No question. You can see for yourself here.