Back in the 1990s, Winona Ryder was the celebrity crush for many young men, none more so than I. Pfeiffer, Moore and Roberts were her A-list contemporaries and had their own charms, but Ryder was the cool, nymph-like waif who floated above all others.
The god-daughter of '60s icon Timothy Leary, she embodied that mysterious, arty archetype that '80s teenage film-nerds (me again) pined for in high school. Tim Burton knew this when he cast her as the darkly angelic Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice (1988) and Michael Lehmann gave the persona a sexier edge in Heathers (1989). She inspired some of the best work of directors Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker's Dracula, 1992), Jim Jarmusch (Night on Earth, 1991), Bille August (The House of Spirits, 1993) and Gillian Armstrong (Little Women, 1994); I sat through Age of Innocence (1993) not because it was a Martin Scorsese picture but because Winona Ryder was in it. (She earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance.) And, yes, I watched both Mermaids (1990) and How to Make an American Quilt (1995) at the movies, long before they became girly slumber-party staples. As Lelaina in Ben Stiller's angst-ridden Gen-X anthem Reality Bites (1994), she was everything to everyone, aged 18-25.
But 15 films in nine years took its toll. She copped some bad press for her 11th hour departure from Coppola's The Godfather Part III. (It was the production's insurance company that made that call; Ryder turned up on set with a severe respiratory infection.) Films that barely got released tarnished her industry reputation. Disney threatened to sue if she backed out of Boys (1996); New Line shelved Lost Souls (2000) for two years; she publically attacked MGM when they refused to press-preview Autumn in New York (2000). Fan backlash hurt her after she was miscast in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien:Resurrection (1997) and she was outshone in both Woody Allen's ensemble, Celebrity (1998) and James Mangold's Girl, Interrupted (1999), which she produced. And, yes, I've seen every one of those films – love dies hard... By 2001, when she got busted for shoplifting pricey duds in Beverly Hills' ritzy Saks 5th Avenue department store and rumours spread about her fragile state of mind, her career momentum had stalled.
For the next decade, she seemed to take roles just to pay the bills: Adam Sandler's girlfriend in Mr Deeds (2002); a shrill starlet opposite Al Pacino in the expensive flop S1m0ne (2002); a string of low-rent indies that seemed destined for video store rental shelves (The Darwin Awards, 2006; The Ten, 2007; Sex and Death 101, 2007; Gregor Jordan's ill-fated The Informers, 2008). The hip crowd dug her support part in Richard Linklater's roto-scoped oddity The Scanner Darkly (2006) and her micro-cameo as Spock's human mum in JJ Abrams' Star Trek (2009), but her A-list bankability with Hollywood's decision-makers was long gone.
In June 2009, whilst reviewing her straight-to-DVD film The Last Word, I called her a “once-was.” I implied that she was destined for television and that Geoffrey Haley's offbeat romance may be the last time she was entrusted with carrying a film. Nearly two decades after I framed my favourite print of Winona Ryder and gazed into her doe-like eyes for what seemed an eternity, I had lost faith and abandoned her.
But I was wrong. And, Winona, I am sorry.
2011 begins with two high-profile films that trumpet the professional re-emergence of Winona Ryder. Opposite Vince Vaughan and Jennifer Connelly in Ron Howards' The Dilemma, she hits all the right comic and emotional beats as the philandering wife in a confident, textured piece of commercial film acting. In Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (pictured), she captures the mental and emotional breakdown of an aging ballerina with incisive clarity – one scene, in which she is visited on her sick bed by her nemesis Natalie Portman, exhales the line “What are you doing here?” then partakes in a shocking onscreen meltdown, will be enough to put her into Oscar contention.
How has she done it? Strategically, she acted 'normal' at first. She shied away from lead roles and the laser-like stare of film critics and took comic guest roles in such audience-friendly fare as the zeitgeist sitcom Friends and the TV institution Saturday Night Live. Being able to laugh at oneself proves to the public you have things in perspective. Over the last two years, industry analysts have been stewing over the combination of elements that have seen the actress recover so much lost ground career-wise. When Ryder began garnering buzz for her work in Rebecca Miller's The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009), UK newspaper The Guardian opined, “While Ryder has kept the fresh looks of an ingénue, the mythology that cloaks her is large enough for a star twice her age.”
There is also a great deal to be said for good ol' fashioned timing, a fortunate extension of the cyclical nature of fame, if you will. The Gen X teenagers who hung on the 20-something Winona's every onscreen appearance are now the Hollywood decision makers and media opinion-formers rooting for the 39-year-old's comeback. Earlier this month, US Liberal-mouthpiece The Atlantic hailed her return in a piece titled, 'Winona Ryder's Second Act,' claiming “That the fact that Ryder's (Oscar) nods come for (Little Women) and... The Age of Innocence proves that the Academy was too timid to recognize Ryder's edgier work in dark comedies like Heathers” and that “Her second act could be great on screen.”
Now, those influencing what is hot in Hollywood are after their piece of the rejuvenated star. LA-trend monitor Stylelist.com featured Ryder in a major slide presentation, 'Winona Ryder Style Evolution'; her recent appearance on hipster Jimmy Fallon's late night talk show was her first television interview in six years; Elle magazine commissioned an exclusive high-fashion shoot to accompany their Ryder piece, 'Girl Resurrected.' The question currently circulating is, 'How high can she go?' Her early '90s contemporary, Robert Downey Jr., still sets the standard for lowest ebb/highest watermark career turnaround, but Ryder's next project comes with immense potential and pedigree. She reteams with her Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands director Tim Burton for the hugely-anticipated Frankenweenie, a film that should resoundingly re-establish her long term big screen bankability. More importantly, it will fully restore a generation's faith in her talent and beauty. As her performance in Black Swan attests, the fragile but fierce Winona Ryder, the most endearing and cherished actress of her time, is back.