An iconic actress of the 80s and 90s, Winona Ryder was once an It Girl who the whole world was watching, yet at the end of the 20th century, she disappeared from films, her private life becoming more well-known than her screen roles. Ottilie Wilford takes a look back at Winona’s unique career and the remarkable woman herself.
‘What have you done to get this role?’ cries a hysterically drunk Winona Ryder at Natalie Portman in Darren Aronofosky’s Black Swan. The company’s ‘has-been’ prima ballerina is bitterly deranged at being forgotten and replaced by a younger dancer in the production of Swan Lake. To those who have mourned the tragic dwindling of Winona Ryder’s bright star this side of the millennium, her role in that film felt uncomfortably like art imitating life.
In 1991 Rolling Stone magazine crowned the Minnesota-born actor as “the single most exciting actress of her generation”. With her delicate, bambi-like looks, she was an unlikely candidate to command the kind of global attention she did back in the 90’s. She became famous after starring in left-of-centre hits like Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Mermaids and Heathers and went on to receive two Oscar-nominations before she was 24.
She has an unworldliness that harks back to another, golden era of movie stars – charmingly out of touch without the crass egotism that comes with modern-day celebrity. She hasn’t even considered tweeting and has never let a stylist choose what she wears (she once wore a $19 dress to the Oscars). She has maintained an integrity from day one; back in the 80’s everyone around her told her Heathers would ruin her career but she was so desperate to play the role that when the casting agent told her she wasn’t pretty enough, she ran to a mall to get a makeover, returned and “literally pleaded” just to be given a second chance to say the lines. She said in a 1989 interview, “I could probably have the perfect career if I sat down and talked to people and made decisions”. Over twenty years later and it could be said that Ryder has shot herself in the foot. Magazines who interview her about her latest film constantly refer to her “comeback” but it’s easy to see these for the empty words that they are. It’s impossible to imagine Ryder ever regaining the kind of status she had when she was younger.
In Heathers (1988)
Whilst I miss seeing Ryder in lead roles and am pained that someone so talented has been blighted by the Fitzgeraldian truth that “There are no second acts in American lives”, I’d like to believe that her when she says “I don’t have any interest in being a movie star” and that she herself is at peace with being less in demand than she once was. She belongs to a bygone era but her work from her youth is truly irreplaceable.
Ryder, who famously stole thousands of dollars’ worth of goods from a department store in 2000, may not have the most robust mental health. At nineteen when the whole world knew who she was, she was struck with a terrible loneliness. “You can’t pay enough money to…cure that feeling of being broken and confused” she later confessed in an interview about her stifling depression as a young woman. She was desperate to make and star in Girl, Interrupted after reading the memoirs of Susanna Kaysen about her 18 month stint in a mental hospital in the 1960s. It was a passion project for the actor, which she stuck with for seven years until it was finally made in 1999. Given that she also suffered a post-adolescence crisis, we can only infer that Ryder was compelled to exorcise some of her own demons through telling the story of another young woman’s descent into despair.
Winona in Girl, Interrupted
I think it’s safe to assume that the actor’s troubled personal life bleeds into and enhances her on-screen intensity. Ryder’s performances tend to embody a universal truth that T. S Eliot once summed up nicely, that “Humankind cannot bear very much reality”. Whether Ryder is the morbid Lydia who is “in mourning for her life” and feels safer with ghosts than her family, an old lady forever haunted by her young love affair with a man from a magical world Edward Scissorhands, or indeed a student who obliterates the tedious reality of high school hierarchy (literally) rather than accept the status quo, she is never quite content with the real world. It may come as no surprise that Ryder’s favourite book is J.D Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, containing perhaps literature’s most famous outsider.
Ryder vacillates between fragility and strength, a combination that defines a true “outsider”. The unworldliness of her screen-dominating brown eyes exposes someone slightly at odds with reality, and yet she portrays these lost souls as independent, unique individuals who have bravely carved out their own universe.
Although she may be playing extreme versions of the ‘outsider’- teenage goth, murderer or mental patient- she familiarizes them to us with the warmth and humanness she breathes into these outcasts. I have often heard her described as ‘haunting’, and if we take this word to mean making us alive to some fact about the world that we are trying to avoid, then this quote expresses precisely how she reminds us of the human heart’s frightening loneliness: “You go through spells where you feel that maybe you’re too sensitive for this world. I certainly felt that.”