To be honest, I’m a little surprised that Winona Ryder continues to operate in relative obscurity these days. While the 90s were not entirely kind to her, particularly towards the end of the decade, she has since proven herself in a number of films. In the 2010s alone, she has had small-but-standout roles in several movies, mostly smaller independent features. Yet a major comeback, which in her industry translates to awards and high-profile roles, seems committed to eluding her.
I don’t think that is a question of her talent. The main problem seems to be that like a lot of actors and actresses, we only seem interested in associating Ryder with a very specific type of character. The self-effacing, slightly cynical, and extremely stubborn characters she has played throughout her career were fine for people when she was young, beautiful, and charmingly eccentric, but she aged out of those roles, trying repeatedly to branch out throughout the 90s and early 2000s. Some of those efforts were successful, but a lot of them weren’t. Time moved on. Younger actresses took over the parts Ryder popularised for the first ten years or so of her career.
Given that Winona Ryder’s best movies tend to highlight an intensity and multifaceted determination, it isn’t terribly fair that her industry has largely chosen to shut her out. Generally speaking, the only time we see her in wide release features (the 2009 Star Trek, Black Swan, or the profoundly awful The Dilemma) these days are in small, often thankless supporting roles. That strikes me as a shame. There aren’t a lot of recent examples to go on, but there is no doubt that Ryder deserves better opportunities than what she has had to sustain herself on.
While not the greatest actress of all time, Ryder is still a formidable presence. Check out Black Swan (which people have actually told me she wasn’t in, even after they saw the fucking film) or Experimenter. An older, perhaps smarter (or at least more self-assured) Winona Ryder could be an asset to many different types of films. Sooner, rather than later, she’s going to lend her talents to something that will generate a greater-than-usual amount of positive attention. A new Netflix series entitled Stranger Things is set to debut on July 15th, with Ryder cast as the lead, so that might be worth paying attention to.
Since she’s currently wasting away, and keeping in mind that the film industry at large continues to be fairly unkind to women over a certain age (she’s 44), let’s hope something comes up sooner, rather than later.
1. Beetlejuice (1988)
It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to find Beetlejuice on any list of the best Winona Ryder movies. The role of Lydia Deetz was only the third of Ryder’s entire career up to that point. Her performance and interactions with her family, with the recently deceased/diseased Maitlands, and with Beetlejuice himself are disjointed and slightly awkward.
I choose to believe Ryder did that on purpose. Ultimately, for someone with fairly limited acting experience, her performance is remarkably assured. Making some simple connections to the isolation and frustration that Lydia feels, which is partially influenced by her young age (Ryder was about 16 at the time of filming, and it seems fair to assume Lydia is about the same age), Ryder’s performance provides the film with an odd, almost realistic centre. She plays well off of every other actor in the movie. Simply put, it’s not going to be a Beetlejuice sequel without her, no matter how important Michael Keaton obviously is.
2. Heathers (1988)
Between Beetlejuice and Heathers, Winona Ryder pretty much set the stage for how most people were going to perceive her as an actress. Her efforts throughout the 90s and beyond would work to embrace and offset the perception at different points. Trying to branch out to different things would turn out to be a mixed bag.
Still, at least for the moment, Ryder seems to be having a blast. Heathers brought out the best in Christian Slater, as well, even if you want to make the argument that he was closing in on the most committed, loving Jack Nicholson parody of all time. Heathers seemingly wanted to be the 80’s youth commentary on all those teen dramas of the previous decades. Or it’s just a hyperactive morality play that is probably still carrying those high school grudges to this day. Either way, Ryder’s performance generates sympathy and sustained interest. The transition of Veronica from passive to something along the lines of decently fucking awake is fun to watch. Ryder provides a perfect, unique complement to the rest of the film.
3. Mermaids (1990)
Mermaids is nothing spectacular, but Ryder’s role as Charlotte, which includes having to play off of Cher’s brassy mom character, is a lot more interesting than Edward Scissorhands. Both are pretty great. Both were released in the same year. It’s Mermaids though that provides the best indication of how far Ryder had come by this time point. There are different, more interesting nuances to Charlotte, who still had that awkwardness Ryder was so good at, but also had a lot more confidence. Her scenes with an extremely young Christina Ricci are a lot of fun, pointing to Ryder’s ease at creating natural, complex familial relationships with a variety of different actors.
4. Night on Earth (1991)
Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth is a great movie for introducing people to Jarmusch’s penchant for minimalist plots, eccentric figures, and very-low key humour. A series of stories, which are really only connected by the fact that they involve drivers and passengers, one of which is a vignette with Ryder as the cab driver, and Gena Rowlands playing the passenger. It is perhaps the most interesting segment in the film, and a lot of that comes from Ryder’s performance, and her chemistry with Rowlands, one of the best of the past forty years. The segment survives entirely on characterisation and dialog. As a skid row driver who catches the eye of a film producer, Ryder provides a memorable performance through both the character and the conversation. Again, she’s playing someone on the fringes of whatever passes for society in the universe of the film, but it’s a considerably different figure than other examples of that personality.
5. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Did Winona Ryder peak in the late-80s/early-90s? I don’t think so. While the 90s would reveal that Ryder had clear limits for what she could do as an actress (while she’s good in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, she seems extremely out of place in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence), there are also numerous strong performances in the 90s, the 2000s, and into the present. Ryder provided reliable, believable performances in films like Girl, Interrupted, Boys, The Crucible, and Reality Bytes. Unfortunately, reliable is sometimes not the same as spectacular. It doesn’t help that as good as Ryder is in some of those movies, she would sometimes be overshadowed by showier performances (Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted).
Then you have fine-to-awful performances in a few-too-many mediocre-to-terrible films. Enough of those movies can become a problem for future endeavours (unless, apparently, your name is Nicholas Cage). Shitty dreck like Autumn in New York, Lost Souls, and The Dilemma hasn’t helped Ryder’s career trajectory.
Still, that comeback notion continues to strike me as reasonable. Her performance in Richard Linklater’s disturbing rotoscope adaptation of one of Phillip K. Dick’s most personal, bleak novels is a good argument that she is far from washed up. Once again, Ryder seems to prove she is at her best in films that allow her to contribute her own energy to the proceedings. Barring that, she seems to also work well in films that deal in those fringe characters we mentioned earlier, and A Scanner Darkly certainly qualifies for that status, as well. It’s a good film for a lot of reasons, and that includes providing Winona Ryder with an opportunity to both contribute and stand out.
She did both of those things with her most recent film, 2015’s Experimenter.
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