Martha Horgan, a naive woman with an intellectual impairment who lives with her aunt Frances in a small town, is known for always telling the truth. She works at a dry cleaner, where her compulsive truth-telling leads her to report to the boss that another employee has been stealing from the cash register.
The thief, in turn, accuses Martha, and she loses her job. In the mean time, a mysterious stranger named Mackey appears at Martha’s residence after learning that Aunt Frances needs her porch repaired. Mackey is hired and becomes intimately involved with Martha… which only leads to tragedy.
A Dangerous Woman is a 1993 American romantic drama film directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal. The screenplay was written by his wife Naomi Foner, loosely based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Mary McGarry Morris. The feature was co-produced by Amblin Entertainment and Gramercy Pictures. It stars Debra Winger, Barbara Hershey, Gabriel Byrne and Gyllenhaal. It included Gyllenhaal and Foner’s two children, Jake and Maggie, who later developed acting careers.
Debra Winger was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her performance and also won Best Actress at the Tokyo International Film Festival. The film has never been released on Region 1 DVD. The film was once released on video in the United Kingdom by First Independent Films.
Film Review for A Dangerous Woman
In “A Dangerous Woman,” Debra Winger sinks deeply into the drab role of Martha Horgan, a sheltered innocent living in a small California town. Characters like Martha have a way of attracting the storyteller’s interest at a very precise point in their lives. It is the moment just before the character’s peaceful existence is ruptured by some seismic force, a force like sex or death or a symbolic coming of age. “A Dangerous Woman” is soap opera enough to churn up all three.
With Ms. Winger’s eerily convincing performance as its centerpiece, the film creates a world of sexual chicanery that would do any television series proud. Martha is taken care of by her Aunt Frances (Barbara Hershey), a rich, beautiful widow involved in an extramarital affair with a state assemblyman (John Terry). That liaison starts off the film with a suitable bang, as the assemblyman’s wife (Laurie Metcalf) drunkenly drives her car into the widow’s front porch as a means of registering her irritation.
Martha, a fragile creature in a girlish nightgown and thick glasses, watches this outburst in bewildered horror. But the film intends it as a harbinger of Martha’s own act of violence, which is already in the works and will serve as the story’s dramatic climax. “A Dangerous Woman” builds, vividly if not entirely believably, to an enduringly strange crime that almost resembles an act of tenderness, and to a crazy coda that reaches the last word in dysfunctional family life.
Martha is kept occupied by a menial job at the local dry cleaner’s, where some additional hanky-panky is under way. A co-worker there is Birdy (Chloe Webb), a kind soul who tolerates Martha’s notion that the two women are best friends. Birdy has a no-good boyfriend named Getso (David Strathairn), who steals from the till and romances other women behind Birdy’s back. Martha, who has a kind of moral clairvoyance, sees and abhors Getso’s dishonesty when no one else can.
Also on hand, in the story’s sudsiest role, is Gabriel Byrne as Mackey, the handsome, hard-drinking carpenter who shows up to fix Frances’s porch and manages to romance Martha along the way. Although played with a robust physicality by Mr. Byrne, Mackey is also the most literary conceit in this story, which has been adapted by Naomi Foner from the novel by Mary McGarry Morris. The scene that has him making a simulated confession, with Martha enlisted to play priest, makes it clear that “A Dangerous Woman” has its origins on the page rather than on screen.
The film has been given an appealingly languid and intimate mood by the director, Stephen Gyllenhaal (“Waterland”). And its cast is attractive, holding the interest even when the story’s contrivances are left needlessly exposed. (Martha’s purchase of Tupperware is allowed to take on symbolic meaning.) Among the more entertaining small performances is Jan Hooks’s brief turn as a cosmetics saleswoman trying awfully hard to adapt her sales pitch to a customer as challenging as Martha.
But the only real focus of “A Dangerous Woman” is Ms. Winger’s furiously self-effacing performance. She stares out perplexedly from behind Martha’s glasses and tries to make the audience understand what Martha sees. Affecting a quizzical, birdlike posture (and a look so dowdy she resembles Gilda Radner in her satirical nerd role on “Saturday Night Live”), Ms. Winger breathes life into Martha’s thwarted gentleness even when the film leaves her at a disadvantage. “A Dangerous Woman” never quite explains Martha’s past, or the forces that shaped her. It only catches her at a fateful moment, when the makings of a small-town melodrama are already in place.
A Dangerous Woman (1993)
Directed by: Stephen Gyllenhaal
Starring: Debra Winger, Barbara Hershey, Gabriel Byrne, David Strathairn, Chloe Webb, John Terry, Laurie Metcalf, Viveka Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake Gyllenhaal
Screenplay by: Naomi Foner
Production Design by: David Brisbin
Cinematography by: Robert Elswit
Film Editing by: Angelo Corrao, Harvey Rosenstock
Costume Design by: Susie DeSanto
Set Decoration by: Margaret Goldsmith
Art Direction by: Kenneth Hardy
Music by: Carter Burwell
MPAA Rating: R for some graphic sexuality, strong language and a scene of violence.
Distributed by: Gramercy Pictures (USA), Island World (International)
Release Date: December 3, 1993