The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Winona Ryder
One of the many great things about “Stranger Things” dominating the pop culture conversation this summer is that the Netflix show has, finally allowed star Winona Ryder to make a much deserved comeback. One could say that, in the early nineties, Ryder was the Jennifer Lawrence of her time. Back then, she was the actress big-time directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese jockeyed to cast in order to get their passion projects financed, as she was seen as something of a box-office lock.
One of the defining personalities of “gen-x”, Ryder first made the rounds as a child actress in movies like 1986’s LUCAS (opposite Corey Haim and Charlie Sheen) before really breaking-out in 1988 with her part as Lydia, the goth girl in Tim Burton’s BEETLEJUICE. The next year she had a lead role in the cult classic HEATHERS, before getting raves as Jerry Lee Lewis’s teenaged-bride in the Dennis Quaid-starrer, GREAT BALLS OF FIRE. It was probably her role in Burton’s EDWARD SCISSORHANDS that made Ryder such a huge part of the zeitgeist, with her off-screen relationship with co-star Johnny Depp establishing the two as the kind-of “hipper-than-hip” couple of the moment, with Depp famously getting a “Winona Forever” tattoo, which was changed to “Wino Forever” following their break-up.
Throughout the nineties, Ryder was a major star, with well-received turns in Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, Scorsese’s THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, LITTLE WOMEN, THE CRUCIBLE, Woody Allen’s CELEBRITY and GIRL, INTERRUPTED. Sadly, her personal life became a fixture of the tabloids, especially after a bizarre shoplifting episode, and her career cooled to a puzzling degree, even if her performances were always good.
In recent years, Ryder has been reestablishing herself as a character actress in movies like THE ICEMAN and STAR TREK (reduced to playing Spock's mom at only thirty-eight), but it’s her part as the terrified mom, Joyce Byers, in “Stranger Things” that has put her back on the map in a huge way. While only one of the many great things about that show, the role has, without a doubt, given her a substantial part to chew-on, with her conveying both a mother’s love and her absolute horror at the insane, paranormal activities she’s witnessing. Ryder is an essential ingredient to that show’s success and I can’t imagine a season two without her.
A few weeks ago I profiled Ethan Hawke for this column, and I argued that his part as Trent in Ben Stiller’s REALITY BITES was probably his most iconic. The same goes for Ryder, although her Lelaina is probably less your prototypical “gen-x” slacker. The movie is arguably the definitive film about college grads struggling to succeed in a world that doesn’t especially value their artistic ambitions, and movies like the recent GET A JOB still try to ape its success. Ryder is terrific as the likable heroine, who, in addition to toiling in a variety of menial jobs, also has to choose between Hawke and Ben Stiller’s yuppie MTV exec, who tempts her with success – something which goes hand-in-hand with selling-out. Ryder’s smart, tough-cookie character became a heroine to many a Gen-x girl, and her nineties fashions stand as an iconic staple of the time.
I absolutely hate Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ALIEN: RESURRECTION. As a teen, I thought it was an OK addition to the saga, but having revisited it a few years ago I saw it for the absolutely dumpster fire that it is. While Sigourney Weaver makes the movie almost worth checking-out, Ryder is terribly miscast as Call, a tough android in the Bishop-mode, a note Ryder didn’t seem to get in her weird performance, which goes from being over-emotional to almost zombie-like at times. It’s hard to really pin the blame of Ryder though, as the movie’s such a mess I don’t think anyone could have salvaged it (although Ron Perlman has a few good bits).
When I was researching this column, I was surprised to see that Michael Lehman’s HEATHERS was actually a huge box-office flop upon its initial release. It was such a cult hit during Ryder’s salad days in the nineties that I assumed it was a smash. Suffice to say, it wasn’t. If “Stranger Things” does anything, hopefully it’ll encourage younger, teen viewers to check out Ryder’s filmography and see HEATHERS, which stands as one of the best high-school movies ever. An acidly satiric take on popularity, it’s so profoundly dark that I doubt any studio would ever have the guts to try it now, with Christian Slater’s roguish murderer, J.D, being presented as such an attractive character, while Ryder’s Veronica winds-up being a thoroughly complex, anti-heroine, and the type of part I couldn’t really see any contemporary teen actress really having the skill to pull-off like she did.
Any time I go to a wedding, Harry Belefonte’s “Shake Senora” is played, and you can blame Burton’s BEETLEJUICE, as well as Winona’s famous dance number set to that song, for it still being such a huge part of the pop culture. Arguably, this was the moment Ryder became a star.
Ryder’s IMDB page doesn’t really list anything major coming-up, but I assume that she’ll be popping-up a lot over the next few months, with the biggest potential role being in season two of “Stranger Things” which, God willing, will show-up sometime in 2017.