In 1990, when Winona Ryder was only nineteen years old and working on four films at the same time, she did an interview with the New York Times in which she held a copy of the Heathers script in her arms. She told the reporter that the script was her “bible,” and that her ardor for it had led her to fire her entire agenting team. “My agents were literally on their knees telling me my career was over if I made Heathers,” she said. “It’s so simple. You do what makes you proud. But people can’t deal with simplicity here. They need things to be complicated.”
With this quote — which Ryder gave from her new, unfurnished hideaway up in the canyons above Beverly Hills, while drinking coffee out of a secondhand mug and chain-smoking cigarettes — the actress offered a pronouncement that would go on to sum up much of her career: She was making clear, instinctual choices. Choices from her gut. It was everyone else who wanted to twist her into complex knots, to read subtext into every flick of her thick, architectural eyebrows. At the time, Ryder was cohabiting with Johnny Depp, who was crashing on her floor on a mattress with no bedframe and had a tattoo of her name on his arm. She was, at that moment, the bigger movie star. He had been a television idol, but she had already made eight films, including Beetlejuice, which was a smash. They had co-starred in Edward Scissorhands, but it had only just opened, and audiences weren’t yet sure what to make of a suburban fairy tale about a becardiganed blonde who falls for a goth loner with pruning shears for fingers.
The public was, however, fully fascinated with Ryder, the dark gamine, spiritual grandchild of Audrey Hepburn and Mary Shelley. She was a tabloid fixture, and had been since she played vengeful teenage murderess Veronica Sawyer in Heathers, scribbling bloody confessions in her diary and taping dynamite beneath the bleachers. The paparazzi wouldn’t leave Ryder alone. She started to get paranoid. She wouldn’t talk in limos, for fear that the driver might be listening. “To get off a plane after you’ve worked all day and flown six hours and to have 50 photographers trip you and call you a whore to get a response is repulsive,” she told the Times. She just wanted to make movies. She had wanted this ever since she was a child (then known as “Noni” Horowitz), watching Cassavetes films in her bohemian parents’ house in California wine country, when she had a crew cut and wore punk T-shirts and the popular girls threw Cheetos at her in the cafeteria. Ryder committed to Heathers before she was sixteen, despite every agent’s warning, because even through the black humor she saw the truth in it. She knew firsthand how violent girls could be, how high school breeds toxicity in a petri dish.
What she can’t have imagined is that the adolescent name-calling and snap judgments would follow her into her acting career. (That body of work is on view this month in “Utterly Winona,” a Quad Cinema retrospective that opened last week and continues through September 1.) Everyone wanted Ryder to be something different: a porcelain doll (yes, the Times called her this too); a wild child; a prestige player with Oscar aspirations; a teen queen who could open a blockbuster; a timeless heroine frozen into period-piece; an emblem of the Gen X zeitgeist. It may be difficult to see it now, squinting backward through the haze of three decades, but the young Winona Ryder was a consummate chameleon, both from within and without. For her part, she chose roles that allowed her to veer wildly between the present and the past. She starred in Reality Bites and Little Women in the same year; in another, she toplined Boys and The Crucible — all decisions that made her seem strangely out of time, an artist without era or limitation, whose androgynous pixie shag was both iconic and indefinite. She made the often impossible transition from being a child star to taking on adult roles by courting challenging, macabre material, but also by styling herself for years as a scampish schoolboy, a ragamuffin with a razor cut. Her impish appearance ran cover for increasingly harrowing roles — by 1999, when she made Girl, Interrupted, it was clear that she was, above all, a serious actress. This was the only category she herself seemed to subscribe to or recognize.
Externally, however, the press was constantly trying to pin Ryder down, which meant that they were always jostling for a new angle. For almost a decade, she became (in an age of glossy, breathless, fawning, and ultimately very sexist celebrity coverage) an extension of every new partner she was with. The endless scrutiny of her love life was the stuff not just of legend, but of nervous breakdowns. A writer for Sassy magazine once included in a piece the line “It’s my theory that boys start bands so they can get famous enough to attract Winona Ryder.”
Again, it was the outside world that made everything so complicated, and it is not hard, when you live under that kind of microscope, to turn the chaos inward. When Ryder was caught shoplifting in 2001 — a blithe five minutes of her life that will nevertheless always appear as a footnote in her biography — she had already been struggling with demons for years. She later said that her heist at Saks was less a crime than a cry for help. She was ready to quit acting and step out of the public eye that had been surveilling her since before she could legally drive. The arrest — ironically enough, the result of an all-seeing surveillance camera — was her chance to make a clean break. “There are three ages for women: babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy,” she said, quoting The First Wives Club, of women’s opportunities in Hollywood and her decision to stop working. “I just never got to play that district attorney.”
Ryder was right, but not because she couldn’t come back — she has, indeed, returned with full force, not least of all with Stranger Things. She was right because she knew that she would never fit in playing a D.A.; that her glory would not come from playing a steely woman with blunt edges. Ryder is an actress who trades in permeability, in sideways glances and a slumped shoulder. She has a history of playing strong women — Jo March, Blanca Trueba, Abigail Williams, Finn Dodd, and now Joyce Byers — but their strength almost always comes from plucky grit, a jutted-chin determination that allows room for anxiety and vulnerability. Ryder’s women are never cold-blooded, even when they are killing.
This month, Ryder and another Nineties film stalwart, Keanu Reeves (whom she says she may have accidentally married on the set of Dracula in 1992), star in Destination Wedding, a romantic comedy about two fortysomething cynics who have lost their capacity for surprise. This casting is perfection, if for no other reason than that Ryder and Reeves were young together and grew up under the same microscope, one that can harden and alienate a person from any sense of youthful optimism. And yet they are willing to try again. Ryder has been showing up to press calls in her old, weathered Tom Waits T-shirt, which she has been wearing since she was in her early twenties. Reeves is launching an indie art books imprint. They have grown into themselves, and in this film, back toward each other, like branches of a tree with the same root system. I imagine that the film ends with them deciding to watch each other grow old. In Ryder’s case, for an actress who understandably feared it might be difficult to return, let alone return with enough longevity to make it to Jessica Tandy terrain, this feels like a bold new beginning.
But before we look forward, we keep looking back. This week and next, “Utterly Winona” continues playing some of her greatest accomplishments — The House of the Spirits, Heathers, Mermaids, The Crucible, The Age of Innocence. In these films, Ryder covers hundreds of years of history, and yet always glows at the center of each, as if inventing the words in real time. Stardom may have gotten very complicated for Ryder, but when you return to the work, you see it is all very simple: She knows how to connect, and how to remain utterly herself.
Through September 1