I’m going to date myself here, so please don’t laugh at grampa Faraci too much, ok?
I was eleven when BEETLEJUICE came out. My family went opening weekend, and when we walked out of the theater, there were cameras and lights. They were filming the audience for one of those testimonial type commercials and at eleven I was little and had a big dumb smile. A camera got shoved in my face and someone who I couldn’t see because of the lights asked me what I thought of the movie. This… this was my moment to be on TV. My moment to make my mark on this world in a way no one else could. My small child brain scurried to find something to say, something profound and original. Something only I could come up with. My lips parted, and I spoke…
“I like Lydia”.
That statement, made by a pre-teen who was starting to see the world through a new lens, a lens doused in sexuality. She wasn’t my first crush, but Winona Ryder as Lydia was different from the ones who had come before. It wasn’t just that she was super cute all gothed out, though that was clearly the beginning piece, there was more to it. Winona Ryder wasn’t just attractive, she was a seriously good actress.
Wait… no, not was. Is. And not good. Great.
Winona Ryder is a great actress, and for some reason, people seem to keep forgetting it.
With STRANGER THINGS, there’s been a rise in people remembering just how good Ryder is. They rightfully praise her work as the beleaguered mother of a missing child. They say how great it is to see her back to her best and working hard. They say she’s getting her second chance. I hear these things and I think, “motherfuckers, where have you been?”
I’m sitting here looking at Winona Ryder’s IMDb page and I can’t find a single performance where she doesn’t kill it. MERMAIDS? She’s great in it. AGE OF INNOCENCE? I know some people have problems with Ryder in it, but screw them, she conveys so much emotion, so much passion and pain, in that movie. LITTLE WOMEN? If you’re gonna bash on LITTLE WOMEN, you need to get out now. Watch that movie and try to keep from crying – if you don’t shed a tear, your soul is dead. ALIEN: RESURRECTION… look, the movie is garbage, but she (and the also always great Sigourney Weaver) gives it her all.
Yes, she’s made some less than good movies. LOST SOULS. MR. DEEDS. THE DILEMMA. But watch her in those movies. Watch Winona Ryder doing a scene with Adam Sandler and you will see an actor so good that she easily overcomes Sandler’s inability to show any real emotion. Ryder, in every movie, gives her all. Would the death of Spock’s mom in STAR TREK have any weight with a different actress in the role? The character is so flat on the page, only there to die, that I don’t know that it would, but Ryder brings it, and she brings it hard. She brings it so hard, that I feel like yelling at JJ Abrams for killing her off. Ryder would have been so damn good in STAR TREK movies! Arg!
Maybe part of the problem, part of what made so many people sleep on just how great Ryder is comes from her personal life. There was a time in the 90s when you couldn’t go through a supermarket checkout without seeing Ryder’s face on a tabloid. Ryder’s crime was being in love with Johnny Depp. They were the king and queen of cool, but for some reason, Depp was the one everyone looked at as a great actor. While Ryder was getting nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes, while she was starring in Mojo Nixon videos and convincing Francis Ford Coppola to make BRAM STROKER’S DRACULA and working alongside Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis in a Martin Scorsese film, everyone was crowing about her then boyfriend who starred on 21 JUMP STREET. We ignored her talent, even as her contemporaries praised it because the bad boy sold more copy.
When Depp and Ryder split up, the world seemed to be in a place where it had to choose who to be friends with, and it chose Depp. Ryder kept making some great movies, but somehow she kept getting ignored by the masses. Everyone walked out of GIRL, INTERRUPTED with a big old thing for Angelina Jolie. The movie, which Ryder produced, garnered Jolie her first Oscar. Ryder got nominated for a Blockbuster Entertainment Award. Seriously, people? Did you see her in that movie? Come on now. You did her wrong.
Not too long after that, Ryder ended up in the tabloids again, this time for shoplifting. The stories about drugs and depression spread fast, and shit that sells tabloids but should not be any of our damn business started getting covered on the nightly news. With that, Winona Ryder kind of went away for four years. She didn’t go to prison, but she may as well had – Ryder had become persona non grata at the studios. During that time, Woody Allen wanted to cast Ryder along with Robert Downey Jr. in his not great, but better than it gets credit for MELINDA AND MELINDA. Allen couldn’t get the money to make the movie if he cast the two, as he explained in the book, CONVERSATIONS WITH WOODY ALLEN:
“I couldn’t get insurance on them. We couldn’t get bonded. The completion bonding companies would not bond the picture unless we could insure them. We were heartbroken because I had worked with Winona before and thought she was perfect for this and wanted to work with her again.”
Think about those two actors, two of the best of their generation, working together. Think about how great that could have been. Now, Robert Downey Jr., to be fair, had a long, bad run with drugs, including multiple stays in rehab clinics. I can see why an insurance company would be wary of the guy. But Winona Ryder… she had one screw up that was, let’s be honest, pretty tame. Didn’t matter, her career was in the tank.
Oddly, she would make her return to film working with Robert Downey Jr. in A SCANNER DARKLY. While Ryder got a whole bunch of praise for her role, she was still relegated to straight-to-video movies like THE DARWIN AWARDS and SEX AND DEATH 101. Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr. was taking over the world in IRON MAN. That isn’t a knock against RDJ, he’s awesome. It’s a knock against a system that will sooner forgive a leading man than a leading woman.
It’s been almost 30 years since I first saw Winona Ryder in BEETLEJUICE. In that time, my boyhood crush (which is still going strong) has turned into an appreciation of her talent; a talent that has only grown over the years. Ryder has survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and she’s come out stronger. When STAR TREK came out, writers quickly pointed to it as her return, and for most audiences I guess maybe it was. Others turned to BLACK SWAN, where Ryder plays a once-loved dancer, now too old to take the stage, and again it was heralded as her return. Not many people get to return twice in a year, but Ryder did it, because fuck it, she’s never been one to follow the usual path anyway. Personally, I laughed at these calls of a comeback. Winona Ryder didn’t need a comeback in my mind; what she needed was for Hollywood to fall to it’s knees and beg her to take them back. To me, she was the shit, and everyone else was just starting to remember that.
She’s played the outcast, the center of attention, the fighter, the wife, the mother, and every other possible role out there. She’s shown her ability to be dramatic and funny. To be sinister and pure. To be filled with rage and filled with hope. She’s covered the gamut, and no matter what part Winona Ryder plays, she plays it in a style all her own. A style I never get tired of. Whatever Winona Ryder does, wherever she goes, if it’s on TV or in the theaters, I’ll be there.
Because I love you Winona Ryder.
*Header Photo: STRANGER THINGS, Netflix