Somebody once asked me what therapy was like. I answered, "Where do I start?" This is how I feel about Winona Ryder's career. Its great
Somebody once asked me what therapy was like. I answered, "Where do I start?" This is how I feel about Winona Ryder's career. Its great, it's confusing, it sometimes makes you wish for your money back. And you don't know for sure that it will ever end.
Not that it should end. After all, I like Winona Ryder. I like her because I think she's talented. (To answer your next question, no, I am not an idiot.) From what I have been able to glean from interviews, she seems like a real person — even in the profile-by-numbers hack jobs in checkout counter rags. She's also interesting, and I don't say that word the same way I would to an acquaintance whose play I just saw and don't have the guts to tell him in the lobby afterward that it was dreck. I mean she is genuinely fascinating in a way unlike anyone else making movies.
However, since Ryder's business is show business, Genuinely Fascinating becomes a liability if not properly metastasized into the highly bankable but not especially artistic Watchable But Not Too Unpredictable, and she's far too Counterculture to do something like that. In other words, she's a former indie queen whose leap to mainstream features coincided with her exodus from her teens. She hasn't been in big enough of a hit to make the A-list but is hardly a manufactured pretty face that the media can simply tear down and replace with a new one. Can we guess what will happen to her based on the fates of those actresses who have trod this muddy path before? No. Winona Ryder is the first of her kind.
She started, at age 14, in Lucas, the 1986 teen tearjerker starring Corey Haim back in that one brief shining moment when movies starring people named Corey were considered cool. The five movies that followed (Square Dance, Beetlejuice, 1969, Heathers, and Great Balls of Fire) showcased her range marvelously. Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael notwithstanding, she served up winners in 1990: Edward Scissorhands and Mermaids. The little quirkette that could, did. There she was, freshly 19 years old, starrer of hits, co-starrer with established movie veterans. Cool, unique, talented, and touted for an Academy Award nomination. "What in the world do we do with Winona Ryder now?" her people may have wondered. Ten years later, they're still scratching their heads.
If she were an A-list superstar, the procedure would be obvious: Team her up with an A-list actor in a commercially appealing script. Let her go on vacation. Repeat. However, the Gordian Knot that is Winona Ryder's career can be untangled by starting with one premise: She is not an A-list superstar. Not one of her films has been a blockbuster. There was no Ghost, Pretty Woman, or Speed to vault her into the elite. To argue it more bluntly, just imagine her as the female lead in any movie based on a John Grisham book. I rest my case.
But she's too damn good to go begging. This leaves ... everything else. The variety in her filmography over the last decade rivals that of anyone. She's been a 19th-century New York society princess (The Age of Innocence), a jerk (Night on Earth), a winner of "the actress whom Woody Allen (once-removed in the form of Kenneth Branagh) would most like to bang this year" award (Celebrity), and a Chilean (The House of the Spirits). She's done the classics (Bram Stoker's Dracula), the memoir (Girl, Interrupted), the theatrical parable (The Crucible), and the contemporary novella (How to Make an American Quilt). She's done cloying and trashy (Autumn in New York), warm and touching (Little Women), condescending and shallow (Reality Bites), and inane and forgettable (Boys). She's even done a sci-fi sequel (Alien Resurrection). And she was in Looking for Richard, whatever the hell that was.
If it's hard to say what type she is, it's because she isn't a type. She has stunning physical features, but no one ever seems to refer to her as a stunning beauty. The boyishness that marked her as a teen still hasn't quite left her but she's unmistakably feminine. She can be strong, but can never be tough enough to substantially mask her girlishness. All anomaly and no conformity make Winona an original girl. The strange part is that we know she's nearing 30, but she's hardly aged since she was a teen. To this day, she's never played a character older than early 20s, except in Edward Scissorhands, where, in a couple of brief bits as a grandmother, she looked like a teenager in old-age makeup. That probably sums it up best: She's the world's oldest ingenue.
I had a Winonapalooza in my flat while I was writing this. I'd seen most of her films already, but I rented a bunch of them in search of clues. How does the least interchangeable movie star in history continually land one movie after another when they achieve such scattershot success at the box office? How did her career get so big and stay there when she's not a media slave and never does nudity? How does she regularly play articulate and smart characters when, as a clerk at my local video store averred, she "talks funny"?
Then early on in Girl, Interrupted, she lit up a cigarette and that's when it hit me. It's far-fetched, unproveable, and I risk eternal damnation for writing it, but it's the only thing that makes sense: Winona Ryder entered a pact with Satan and Big Tobacco. Satan gets her soul, Big Tobacco gets her to promote its product, and she gets not only a successful movie career but ages slowly as part of the contract, thus making what is already a long career even longer.
Look at all the evidence, circumstantial or otherwise. Big Tobacco and Satan have been in the corruption business forever. Satan has the power and Big Tobacco has the money to make anyone a superstar. But with Big Tobacco's image on the wane, it makes sense that it would seek partnerships in its soul-proprietorship division. Enter Satan, Inc. Over the years, Ryder has had friendships and liaisons with musicians, whom, as we all know, have already signed with Satan, Inc., so it's not unlikely she met the Big S at a party early on. She portrayed a teen capably enough as recently as last year in Girl, Interrupted — still more proof that she's aging slower than Dick Clark. She smokes in the movies more often than anyone since Humphrey Bogart. Satan's even getting in on the product placement racket; Ryder's most recent film was Lost Souls, which was about the rise of Satan in the body of a mortal. And of all the unflattering celebrity parodies done on the series South Park, it was only until the movie — in which Satan tries to take over Earth — that Ryder gets skewered. Ergo, her career hums along, Big Tobacco's happy, and Satan's making room on his mantel.
But in the end, is this really such a bad thing? We're all free to sell our souls to the highest bidder if we choose, right? Despite Big Tobacco's best efforts, I doubt we'll ever hear any stories of nicotine addicts dying of emphysema and gasping, "Winona Ryder made me take up smoking." As for her staying young and beautiful forever, so what? She's not hurting anyone. I notice she's never in the news for being arrested or doing anything unseemly. And not only do we get some swell movies out of the deal, but think of the staggering irony at play here. She's pushing a product that causes wrinkles and shortens life, and her own wrinkle-free life is on a path to last far longer than average. Despite all her talent and love for acting, she does nothing with less conviction in movies than smoke cigarettes. By all accounts, she's a nice person, yet she's destined for hell. And South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut and its Satan propaganda disguised as comedy grossed more money in domestic box office receipts than any of the last 13 — 13! — movies she's done.
In one scene from Little Women, Ryder, as Jo March, frets to Marmie about finding her place in the world. Marmie says to her, "You have so many extraordinary gifts, Jo. How can you expect to lead an ordinary life?"