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Winona Ryder: How artistic desire allowed the actor to conquer Hollywood twice

I have this sense that I didn’t really start growing up until my twenties.” – Winona Ryder

American actress Winona Ryder has become a pop-culture icon with her brilliant performances in cult-classics like Beetlejuice and Night on Earth. Although she took a hiatus from her film career after the critical failure of 2002 film Mr. Deeds, Ryder has made an incredible comeback strong with a recurring role in the immensely popular Netflix series Stranger Things. On her 49th birthday, we take a look at Ryder’s interesting journey and how she overcame all her personal struggles.

Named after the city she was born in – Winona, Minnesota, Ryder was born to a family of writers. Most of her family on her father’s side were killed in the Holocaust, they emigrated from Romania and Russia. Ryder’s father also worked as an archivist for psychedelic guru Timothy Leary (who was Ryder’s Godfather). Ryder later clarified, “My parents were not hippies; they were writers. They were very active politically, but on the intellectual side, not on the ‘taking drugs in a field and listening to the Grateful Dead’ side.”

Growing up, Ryder was exposed to a lot of intellectually stimulating conversations as her family was friends with prominent writers and artists like the Beat Movement poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the science-fiction novelist Philip K. Dick. When she was aged seven, her family moved to Rainbow, a commune near Elk, Mendocino County, California, where they lived with seven other families on a 300-acre plot of land. However, Ryder still maintains that they did not live on a commune because of the negative associations of communes with cults. She said: “We shared 300 acres of land with other families, but it wasn’t a commune. We had our own house and we went to school and it was normal. I practically grew up in the ’60s because my house was like that, and I’ve read a lot of stuff from then. But what’s great is my parents aren’t stuck in the ’60s. My dad is so into the culture of today.”

Given that there were no television sets or even electricity on the remote property, Ryder found herself enjoying literature and became a huge fan of J.D. Salinger’s iconic novel The Catcher in the Rye. She had a tough time in a new school when her parents moved to Petaluma, California. Aged 10-years-old at the time, Ryder was subjected to bullying by her new classmates who thought she was an effeminate boy. She was continuously and relentlessly bullied through her high school years, despite her early success in Tim Burton’s 1988 film Beetlejuice. The actress revealed how difficult it was to endure that, “I remember thinking, ‘Ooh, it’s Beetlejuice, like, the number-one movie. This is going to make things great at school, but it made things worse. They called me a witch.” At the age of 12, Ryder was properly introduced to the performing arts for the first time when she enrolled at the American Conservatory Theatre and took her first acting lessons. Despite all her problems in school, she graduated from Petaluma High School with a 4.0 GPA.

Ryder made her film debut in Lucas (1986), starring Charlie Sheen and Kerri Green, her unmistakable talent was recognised by writer and director David Seltzer. She garnered critical acclaim just a year later with Square Dance and the Los Angeles Times called her performance in the film “a remarkable debut” but it wasn’t until she appeared in Tim Burton’s hallucinogenic nightmare Beetlejuice as a goth teenager that she solidified her status as a promising young actress. Riding on a high, she took on one of her most iconic roles for her next project even though her agent told her that it would ruin her career. She starred as Veronica Sawyer who is part of an elitist clique where all the other girls are named Heather, defending her choice to be a part of Heathers by saying, “When I read the script I understood that it was showing what society does to teenagers, and how it patronises them.” The film’s producer Denise Di Novi explained why Ryder fit the role so well and became a popular culture icon:

“Winona was so smart. She was fifteen, she turned sixteen on the movie. She was a prodigy. From a very young age, she was an old soul. She really got the words and the imagery. She had watched tons of old movies. She was really sophisticated intellectually. She had the beauty of Veronica. She had the intelligence. She was just the perfect anti-Heather.”

She collaborated with Tim Burton once again as Edward’s (played by her then-boyfriend Johnny Depp) primary love interest who finds herself inexplicably drawn to this strange misfit in Edward Scissorhands. Ryder was also selected for the role of Mary Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III but she was forced to withdraw after suffering from “nervous exhaustion”. The same year, she starred in Mermaids alongside Cher, Bob Hoskins and Christina Ricci. Although the film was a moderate commercial success, she received critical acclaim for her performance and received a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Roger Ebert wrote, “Winona Ryder, in another of her alienated outsider roles, generates real charisma.”

In the following years, from 1991 to 1995, Ryder would go on to act in more critically acclaimed films and deliver some of her best performances. She played Corky, a chain-smoking cab driver who drives around Los Angeles in a 1985 Chevrolet Caprice Classic Wagon in Jim Jarmusch’s 1991 portmanteau comedy Night on Earth. Ryder also urged Francis Ford Coppola to make a film adaptation of Bram Stroker’s Dracula where she took on the dual roles of Count Dracula’s reincarnated love interest Mina Murray and Dracula’s past lover Princess Elisabeta. However, the highlight of her film career would come in 1993 when she starred alongside Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence by Martin Scorsese whom Ryder considered to be “the best director in the world”. For her brilliant performance, she won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress as well as an Academy Award nomination in the same category. She followed it up with two more solid performances in 1994, starring in Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites and the fifth film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women.

She lost her footing in between, appearing in box office failures like Boys (1996) and Alien Resurrection (1997), one of the least successful entries in the Alien film series. Everyone thought that Ryder’s comeback would be James Mangold’s 1999 film Girl, Interrupted, a project that she felt so deeply attached to that she referred to it as her “child of the heart”. However, the film was primarily applauded for the performance of newcomer Angelina Jolie, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the portrayal of a rebellious psychopath. The next year, Ryder would receive her very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, in her acceptance speech, she said, “It’s the only time I’ll ever be able to say I’m thrilled to get walked all over.” However, things took a turn for the worse when 2001 came around.

While filming Lily and the Secret of Planting, Ryder had to withdraw from the film because she was admitted to a London hospital and was diagnosed with severe stomach-related disorder. A few months later, she was arrested on shoplifting charges in Beverly Hills, California. Accused of stealing $5,500 worth of designer clothes and accessories at a Saks Fifth Avenue department store, Ryder was the subject of countless tabloid journalism pieces and was ostracised everywhere for using several drugs including oxycodone, diazepam, and Vicodin without valid prescriptions. In December of 2002, she was sentenced three years of probation, 480 hours of community service as well as having to pay financial remunerations. She later explained: “Two months prior to that, I broke my arm in two places, and the doctor, a sort of quack doctor, was giving me a lot of stuff and I was taking it at first to get through the pain. And then there was this weird point when you don’t know if you are in pain but you’re taking it.”

Due to this extended period of emotional turmoil, Ryder took a break from her career and only returned with an appearance in Richard Linklater’s 2006 film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s well-received science fiction novel A Scanner Darkly where she played a drug user who falls prey to the vicious cycle of substance abuse. She also starred in several high-profile projects like J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek (2009) and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010). Her most famous acting stint would only come in 2016 when she headlined the Netflix sci-fi series Stranger Things as Joyce Byers, a single whose 12-year-old son gets trapped in an alternate dimension. The series won the SAG award for best ensemble for a drama series in 2017. Relatively recently, she starred alongside Keanu Reeves in the 2018 film Destination Wedding and was also involved in the 2020 HBO miniseries The Plot Against America.

With the new season of Stranger Things in production, it will be interesting to see what Winona Ryder does next with her acting career which the show has revitalised. This time, it is safe to say that Ryder has indeed made her comeback for good.

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