Double Take

When Mare Winningham first read the script of Georgia, what should have been a dream come true at that point seemed like a nightmare: playing a famous singer/songwriter.

For years, the Sonoma mother of five had kept the two parts of her professional life separate. An Emmy Award winner for the TVmovie Amber Waves (1980), she knew that being a singer and songwriter wouldn't win any points for her in Hollywood, and she never used her TV and film experience to help her musical career, either. So even though the script offered her the chance to co-star with her old friend Jennifer Jason Leigh, she declined because she was about to launch a national tour promoting her first self-financed album, What Might Be.

Furthermore, the role of the cold, self-possessed Georgia was confusing to Winningham. The tall, slim actress has a down-to-earth warmth and the natural beauty of a well-scrubbed schoolgirl. “Georgia's part was too close, but also very far away,” she says, recalling her initial response. “It was too weird that Georgia was this famous singer and I was trying to pursue my career from the ground up.”

Winningham has performed at the Hotel Utah, the Bottom of the Hill, and the Starry Plough in the Bay Area, but mostly at Los Angeles clubs while working in TV and 12 movies, including Turner & Hooch. By 1991 when all the children were in school, she recorded a 12-song CD and went out on tour, opening for John Wesley Harding's band. When the record didn't catch fire, she agreed to do the film.

The story of Georgia and Sadie (who is addicted to drugs, alcohol, and the need to sing like her adored older sister) was Leigh's idea. Her mother, Barbara Taylor, wrote the script for Leigh and Winningham. Taylor and Winningham had worked together on three TV shows since 1981, when the then-20-year-old Winningham starred in Freedom, Taylor's true drama about her oldest daughter, Carrie Morrow, who ran away from home at 16 to join a carnival. (Morrow and Leigh are the daughters of the late actor Vic Morrow; he and Taylor split up when Jennifer was 2 and Carrie 6.)

With four sons and one daughter, ages 7 to 14, Winningham did many of her 35 TV movies and much of her folk-rock concertizing when she was pregnant. “My husband, Bill Mapel, has been a full-time father,” Winningham relates. When she went on location, the family traveled with her.

“In the only part of [Freedom] that Barbara fictionalized,” Winningham explains, “she had Carrie pursuing a singing career and succeeding. She wrote in eight or 10 songs for me, but like in most films, only a few chunks appeared. The great thing about Georgia is that Barbara felt 'the music is the movie and the movie is the music.' “

Early on, according to Winningham, “Barbara insisted that all the music be done with no prerecording. Five cameras, one take, and that's it. Most movie producers told [director Ulu Grosbard], 'You're insane. You can't do that because you won't be covered if there's a problem.' But one or two remembered that Robert Altman did it with Nashville, and it made all the difference because the music was so immediate. Then the money people eventually agreed to let me do it.” Winningham's composition “If I Wanted” is in the film, along with songs by Otis Redding, Lou Reed, Eric Clapton, and Van Morrison.

But Winningham remained troubled by the character of Georgia: “I thought she was the most solitary person I ever knew. A piece of her is unavailable to anyone including her husband and kids. I don't understand that kind of separateness. I have a much more chaotic and noise-filled life.”

The difficulty in assuming the character of Georgia, Winningham says, is that “I didn't want to be this spoilsport in the presence of Sadie out of self-protection and because she can't give her sister what she wants. Georgia finally tells Sadie some harsh truths, but she's also there for her during critical times.”

In a way, Leigh was there for Winningham when they met at a summer arts camp near L.A. At 17, Winningham, the daughter of a Los Angeles school teacher and the athletic director of Cal State University at Northridge, was a chaperone for 14-year-old girls. She used to entertain them by playing her guitar and singing the songs she had just begun composing. “I was very vulnerable,” Winningham says, “but Jennifer always requested my songs and remembered the lyrics. I was touched and thrilled.”

Though the point of the story is that Sadie can't sing, Winningham's protective about Leigh's vocal style in Georgia. Leigh sings Elvis Costello's “Almost Blue” in a whispered phrasing, and when she does Van Morrison's “Take Me Back,” “It's an 8 1/2-minute tour de force,” Winningham enthuses. “It's wrenching. Some people said they can't listen to it, but I like the originality and fire and renegade spirit she brings to it.”

Georgia continues at the Gateway in S.F. and the California in Berkeley.

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