Winona Ryder: Undead

I’m not sure, but Winona Ryder (b. 1971) may be the first star younger than me that I’ve profiled here. (As always, if I’m wrong feel free not to correct me!) The idea for this post occurred to me after seeing Ryder’s terrific work on Stranger Things. I was reflecting on how appropriate the role was for her, almost stunt casting. The natural question was why? What about it resonated? You mean, an edgy, haunted, self-medicating, seemingly mentally ill character in a horror vehicle set in the 1980s? What about that would NOT be right?

More than most contemporary stars Ryder has managed to keep a nice tight hold on the kinds of projects she does. This was especially true of her earlier work. There really is an easily identifiable voice to her cinematic handprint. Goth-rock-Victoriana-literary-horror-madness, something like that, right? If Hollywood had done a proper Poltergeist movie in the ’80s it would have starred Ryder as an angsty adolescent, with the crockery around her falling prey to her telekinetic rampage. The character of her career appeals to the imagination, and best of all, her birthday is two days before Halloween. With Tim Burton she made Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Frankenweenie (2012). These weren’t her first movies but they set the tone I refer to. Then came Mermaids (1990), Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) by Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1993), Reality Bites (1994), Little Women (1995), Looking for Richard (Al Pacino’s exploration of Shakespeare’s Richard III, 1996), Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1996), Alien Resurrection (1997), Girl Interrupted (1999). Not long after that, Ryder’s CAREER was interrupted when she had some kind of mental break and got into trouble for shoplifting. She was out of the limelight for a while after that, but then she came back in things like Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, Rebecca Miller’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009) and Darren Aronofsky’s The Black Swan (2010).

Oh, and the death yesterday of Jerry Lee Lewis compels us to recall that she was in the bio-pic about him Great Balls of Fire (1989). Obviously she made lots of other films, some good, some bad, some germane, some outside the scope of what we’re talking about, though a surprising amount falls within it. It’s amazing that she’s been able to accomplish that in this day and age when so few others have. Is she doing the choosing, or does her image, what she represents, inspire directors? She grew up on a hippie commune in a family of artists, and her parents friends and colleagues included Timothy Leary, Laura Archera Huxley (wife of Aldous Huxley), Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Philip K. Dick. Lacking electricity in the rural compound, she spent her time engrossed in books. J.D. Salinger was her favorite author.

I was going to do this post last year on her 50th birthday, that being a benchmark of sorts, but somehow I didn’t get to it, so today we celebrate her just for existing. Ryder was 17 in Beetlejuice. I was 23 at the time and naturally thought of her as a kid then, because she was one. I have never quite stopped thinking of her that way. So now, it’s only when I look at someone like her (darkly beauteous though she remains) that I remember how old I am. I recall being a kid in the 1970s seeing mature stars like Ava Gardner or Janet Leigh on television, and my parents reminiscing about their earlier roles. Watching Ryder on Stranger Things tripped a light switch, made me realize that now I was experiencing what that was about. I have literally been watching a movie star mature onscreen for over 30 years. Kids watching her for the first time on Stranger Things will see one thing. I’ll see another, something richer, full of memories, and associations. There is a willowy, melancholy teenager inside that old broad. Echoes of youth and beauty are what lent such power to the Grand Dame Guignol films I wrote about here, though I don’t say that Ryder is reader to go THERE just yet.

But in related news, I’m delighted to report that she’s in the cast of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, slated for release next year.