Broad Cinema: Winona Ryder And The Struggle Of The Outsider

An It Girl who never asked to be an It Girl.

From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.

This week we are celebrating Winona Ryder. Get your tickets to Alamo Drafthouse's A Scanner Darkly screening here

Winona Ryder didn't ask to be your icon.

She wanted to be a skateboarder or a writer. At least when she was twelve. Either way, she never aspired to be a movie star. She started acting just because she loved movies. Her mother ran a tiny movie theater and would let Winona skip school to watch movies. That was fine by her, because she was consistently bullied for being "too boyish" by other kids - a funny thing to tease a girl about whose short pixie hair was later coveted by women throughout the '90s (and for some of us, it’s still the epitome of style!).

This portended a pattern for Winona that has continued through her career: she's revered at the same time she’s ruthlessly mocked. You can trace her personal trajectory by exploring her choices to play roles where she was able to explore otherness. Outsiders, weirdos, and out-of-the-mainstream roles have always been where Winona Ryder works best.

She began her career specializing in weirdos. She’s said that her first few roles were described in the script as "the ugly girl." Her debut turn in Lucas should’ve been an indication of what roles attracted the actress: the misfit best friend who doesn’t get the guy. There are shades of vulnerability she shows as Rina that we see time and again in some of her greatest roles. Winona’s specialty is vulnerability with a brain. In Rina, she introduced herself to audiences as the quintessential band geek who might as well be invisible. There are only a couple scenes where anyone except Lucas acknowledges she’s in the room, and even he blows her off for his football friends. It takes a fine touch to act when no one reacts to your presence in a scene.

Just two projects after Lucas, Winona gained a true collaborator in the weirdo oeuvre by nabbing her breakout role as Lydia Deetz in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice. This was only one of three times they collaborated over the years (Edward Scissorhands and Frankenweenie being the others), and Lydia became the role that broke open her career.

I was very lucky because Tim Burton really gave me a career. I don't think Hollywood would've known what to do with me. If I hadn't done 'Beetlejuice,' I think I would've just gone back to my school.
-- Winona Ryder

Ryder plays Lydia as the ultimate outsider: she can’t relate to any living being she knows. She only finds a place she belongs once she embraces the ghosts haunting her house. It’s the happiest ending to a haunted house ever. This movie also marked a profound turn in Winona’s career, where she began to be offered roles instead of having to audition.

Don’t get me wrong: she still fought for projects she wanted. Her managers didn’t want her to take Heathers, but she loved the dark tone of it. The symbolism of being a Veronica in a roomful of Heathers was exactly her cup of tea. (Or, orange juice with Drano, as the case may be.) Veronica seemed to belong, but never truly did. Her acceptance into the in crowd was fleeting, as she was too smart to be content to play croquet and coordinate her mallet to her scrunchie.

An oft-overlooked but equally deserving film of Winona’s is Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael. Dinky Bossetti is a hybrid of Lydia Deetz and Reality Bites' Lelaina Pierce. Dinky is every inch the outsider, dressed in black, feeling detached from her adoptive parents and tentatively searching for her birth parents. As the rest of the town gears up for the return of famous hometown girl Roxy Carmichael, Dinky begins to wonder if Roxy is the birth mother she’s been searching for. In the end, Dinky doesn’t so much fit in as come to embrace her outsiderdom, and in that process, becomes a more realized version of herself. 

Winona next courted controversy by playing Jerry Lee Lewis’s child bride in Great Balls of Fire!, continuing a trend of challenging and unconventional roles. But then she made the biggest mistake a weirdo satisfied with her misfit status can make: she fell in love with a movie star and was unwillingly thrust into superstardom.

Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp became the faces of '90s Hollywood love. He was a trip himself, wearing Victorian-style tuxedos and leather jackets, always with the scruff. While their relationship only lasted four years, it was the Winona of this time that has been burned into the brains of those of us of a certain age. 

After they broke up, Winona further ascended into icon status as Lelaina in Reality Bites. On the surface, this role couldn’t be more removed from her previous work: a modern day girl in a modern day town with modern day worries. She's said she wanted to take the role so she could do something contemporary, without corsets, after a string of period pieces like Dracula, Age of Innocence and House of the Spirits. Dig past the gas card and her dad’s BMW, though, and you get a girl that Winona plays as adrift and detached after graduating from college. Who is she now, if she’s not a college documentarian? This film is still the hallmark of Gen X angst. When the flying saucers land and aliens want to know why so many of us are in photos wearing our fathers’ flannels and have hard opinions on specialty coffee drinks, I will show them this movie.

This role was a double-edged sword for Winona, however. Once Hollywood saw how much nuance she could give a seemingly normal modern girl, they cast her as the (dun, dun, DUNNNN!) It Girl of the moment. Her roles began to get more and more mainstream, to her detriment. (I mean, Boys? How to Make an American Quilt? How was that a thing?) These films stand starkly apart from anything else in her body of work.

Ryder pulled the ripcord and course corrected back to period pieces with The Crucible, a choice that seemed to help her get her footing back with one of the ultimate outsiders from literature (and kind of a dick, to boot): Abigail Williams. Ringleader of a group of girls who dabble in the occult, she instead twists the circumstances and accuses countless other Salem citizens of being witches and (spoiler alert for a decades-old play) ends up leaving town with her uncle’s money after making a huge mess of things. The Crucible offered a departure from Winona's other outsider roles, as most of her characters want to belong and to understand the world. Abigail very much embraces her outsiderness with a spirit of "If I can’t be part of it, I’ll destroy it."

Finally, in 1997, Winona gave sci-fi a try as yet another outsider: Call in Alien: Resurrection. Call was a perfect misfit role for the actress, literally not a part of the human race as an android aboard a ship full of Ripley clones. Her performance in the little-loved Alien sequel is underrated and doesn’t get its due. (Jacob put together a great revisit of this movie here.)

The most iconic era of Winona’s work culminated with her passion project, Girl, Interrupted. It was meant to be the movie that finally got the actress that coveted Oscar, but the accolades went to her co-star Angelina Jolie instead, despite some of Winona's most nuanced and heartfelt work. Go back and watch the film again. It deserves the forgiveness of time, since its legacy suffered from an unrelated event at Saks Fifth Avenue. It... wasn’t great. After her shoplifting arrest, the actress unplugged from Hollywood for a spell and spent most of her time in San Francisco, basically pulling it together.

I feel like I had to learn how to take care of myself and find out what made me happy aside from just making films.
-- Winona Ryder

At the dawn of the '00s, Winona started doing only one or two projects a year, down from her breakneck speed of up to four films a year in the 1990s. This was an era of Winona Ryder simplifying her workload, with guest turns on Friends and an Adam Sandler movie. Scraping herself out for almost twenty years as a professional misfit had left her ready to reflect.

I've learned that it's OK to be flawed, that life can be messy, that some days you glide and some days you fall, but most important, that there are no secret answers out there.
-- Winona Ryder

After her hiatus from Hollywood, Winona has come back around to roles that better fit her persona. It's almost as if her role as former prima ballerina Beth in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan was lifted directly from her diary. Here we have a former ingenue who has been replaced by a younger model (new It Girl Natalie Portman), and she struggles mightily in the face of that rejection. 

This full circle return to outsiders has culminated in Stranger Things' Joyce Byers. For those of you homeschooled under a rock in a black hole, Joyce is the mother of the town weirdos in Netflix's breakout hit series. She spends most of the first season frantically searching for one outcast son with the help of her other outcast son. Joyce does everything she can to track Will down, even venturing into the Upside Down herself and bringing him back, changed forever but still a weirdo. That seems like a good metaphor for Winona herself. Except for her, the Demogorgon was fame and the Upside Down was the early '00s. The criticisms that her performance is frenetic and hysterical are simplifications of a frantic woman’s response to her child disappearing from the face of the earth. She SEES HANDS COME THROUGH THE WALL. You tell me how chill you’d be about that.

Regardless, Winona made it through to the other side, from weirdo to icon and back to weirdo, albeit changed forever. Her career has stood the test of time and we've hopefully got many years of good work waiting for us from her. 

After all, a tattoo said it best: Winona forever. 


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