Winona Ryder has returned to the fore with the already stratospheric Stranger Things. Netflix’s latest original series – no spoilers here – is a treat for those who miss the eighties thanks to its Spielberg-like earthiness and King-esque collusion between darkness and naivety. At its head is an ensemble of impressive young actors, but Ryder, whose nuance of character and talent for bold fragility has garnered much acclaim, is at its heart. This, we know from her list of credits, is nothing new.
Lydia Deetz, Beetlejuice (Tim Burton 1988)
Despite Beetlejuice centering around an eponymous, dominant character, it’s hard to not see Ryder’s character Lydia Deetz as the engine that makes this film work. Indeed, Lydia can see the Maitlands (between Burton and Ballard, there’s evidence to ban anyone with that surname from driving) when no other can, and her friendship and nuptial movements largely drive the narrative. Ryder commanded the dark humour and teenage paradoxes of this role with aplomb.
Kim, Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton 1991)
Edward Scissorhands is one of those films that has lodged itself so firmly in the shelving of cult status that it shan’t disappear soon. If the career of Tim Burton is to be given an epitaph – it’s due one – it should be a moment or quote from this film. It’s said that Ryder actually dropped out of The Godfather III to appear on this, and it’s not a loss on her part. She can handle serious, but there’s something about Tim Burton’s dark yet trite style that, like the lonely candle, gives renewed shimmer, to Ryder’s gentle warmth. Depp’s oddness aside, her performance in Scissorhands is the finest in it.
Call, Alien: Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet 1997)
Resurrection is the most maligned of the non-crossover Alien films, and the complaints are for the most part justified. Yet, there is argument for the film being a good idea poorly executed, an argument underlined by the backgrounding of the film’s generic concerns. Call, Ryder’s character, is a crucial piece of Resurrection as a science fiction construction, and, without landing spoilers, Ryder acts out the uncertainty of humanity with the caution of the most patient showperson. This in a role that would have made pantomime tempting. It is one of the most underrated performances in modern cinematic history, mostly due to the film in which it features.
Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted (James Mangold 1999)
Girl, Interrupted is usually discussed in terms of Angelina Jolie, for better or otherwise, and this does seem to be a trend for Winona Ryder (Noni to her friends). Yet again, she shines in a film in which she is not considered the main attraction. Alas, Jolie can’t escape her glitz, even in this admirable pre-Tomb Raider role. Ryder, along with gorgeous performances by Murphy et al, is yet again the sun that makes everyone else glow just a little brighter, and, unlike the main stars who share her other stages, she is so clearly the protagonist in name and talent.
Donna Hawthorne, A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater 2006)
The decision to cast Winona Ryder as Donna Hawthorne in Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly is as long-winded to explain as it is joyous to reminisce about. There aren’t many major awards for casting itself, but the film, made for a relatively modest $6 million, by a team that all said yes to a script written with them in mind. Ryder, in keeping with this, pulled off the perfect mix of romance, grit, and caprice, and there is even something about her mode of emoting that rotoscope animation complements.
Ryder has clearly had a glittering and varied career. From classical literary adaptations like Age of Innocence to playing Lisa Simpson’s intellectual rival, there is no clear data with which one might pin her down. Marvel? The RSC? Game of Thrones? Stranger things have happened.