Wise Child

Premiere — June 1989

— by Phoebe Hoban
Winona Ryder’s refreshing blend of precocity and innocence is hard to maintain under Hollywood’s bright lights.

The Great Balls of Fire set sits in the Cook Convention Centre in Memphis like a giant, 50s-style doll’s house waiting foe Barbie and Ken to arrive. Everything in it, from the rugs to the curtains to the wallpaper to the upholstery to the tschotchkes (which in this part of the world are probably called gewgaws), is water-melon pink or mint-julep green or covered with pictures of poodles. We’re talking serious retro; this is the stuff 1980s diners and MTV videos are made of. This is the house where Jerry Lee Lewis and Myra, his 13-year-old child bride, live.

The crew is setting up. Myra’s pet poodle, Peaches, bedecked in pink ribbons, is curled obediently in a basket. A prop guy carries Myra’s miniature dollhouse into her house; a neat visual pun. “I want people on the set. there’s a wedding about to happen,” bellows co-writer and associate producer Jack Baran. Winona Ryder materializes on the threshold between the living room and a room where a baby grand dominates the black-and-white checkered floor. She has black hair, porcelain skin, and wide-set eyes so large they almost look kitsch. Decked out in pearled white – a short brocade dress, a pillbox hat, and gloves – she resembles a tiny Jackie Kennedy. Dennis “the Killer” Quaid, resplendent in a jacket with leopard collar and cuffs, his hair marcelled until it looks like gold lamé, sidles up to her; she barely reaches his shoulder. The two stars rub noses.

“Da ring, please.” Hams Quaid. “With this ring, I thee wed and my worldly goods I do endow,” he pronounces.

“Fat chance,” says director Jim McBride, and the crew cracks up.

That’s exactly what people might have said about 17-year-old Ryder landing this role. It’s a part to kill for; a rock ‘n’ roll Lolita to Quaid’s piano-pumping Humbert Humbert in the tale of a real-life scandalous romance. “Emily Lloyd was originally a consideration, but she wasn’t available,” says McBride. “I’d never seen Winona’s work. But then she walked in the door, and we all just sort of fell down. She was perfectly Myra.”

Ryder has received consistently good reviews since her debut as the girl Corey Haim doesn’t fall in love with in the 1986 film Lucas. She’s practically the only thing to watch in Square Dance, as she comes of age under the eyes of her crotchety grandpa, Jason Robards, her wanton mama, Jane Alexander, and her retarded boyfriend, Rob Lowe. Then came Beetlejuice, in which she plays a nubile, Morticia-like character with a penchant for black veils and a perfect deadpan. She was also in the short-lived 1969, with Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Downey, Jr. Most recently, Ryder starred with Christian Slater in Heathers the latest of the child-of-Blue-Velvet films to surrealize the suburbs.

“I’ve heard people say it’s Breakfast Club meets Blue Velvet,” says Ryder, “but I describe it as a movie about teen angst bullshit that has a body count – which is a line in the movie.” Ryder plays Veronica, a pretty, popular member of a high school clique that includes three rich bitches all named Heather. But when J.D. (Slater) enters the scene, with his motorcycle, pierced ear, far-out dad, and Jack Nicholson persona, their teenage fantsies take on a lethal edge, and soon the cute, coiffed corpses start piling up, murders masquerading as suicides. In this movie, dead meat is just a study-hall day-dream away. In a last blast of satirical violence, Veronica, puffing on a cigarette Bogart-style and covered with blood and soot (she looks like a member of a punk-rock band that got carried away with special effects), triumphs over darkness, sort of.

“Her character in Heathers has a moral ambiguity,” says director Michael Lehmann, “and she played it both smart enough and naive enough. She got the subtext right.”

“We weren’t parodying suicide at all,” says Ryder somewhat defensively.

“We were parodying what society makes of issues like that. It’s like we’re winking at you with everything we’re saying. Believe me, I’ve had friends who have killed themselves, and it’s nothing to be made fun of. I consider (Heathers) the best thing I’ve ever done. I really love Veronica. She’s one of my role models.”

Ryder’s next project is called Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael. It’s another dark comedy, directed by Jim Abrahams (Airplane!). Ryder plays Dinky Bosetti, who, she says, “is sort of a lot like me. She’s like no other character I’ve come across in my life. She’s very cool.”

Winona Ryder, the third of four children, was never exactly your normal, everyday kid. When she was four and her family was living in San Francisco, she says, she was hooked on chewable vitamin C tablets – and on lying. When her parents yelled at her for devouring too many vitamins, she told them a burglar had stolen them. “They started hiding my vitamin bottles on the top shelf, which is like the Alps to me.” One day, Ryder was climbing up to get them when a big earthquake hit. “I thought it was God punishing me,” she says. She quickly kicked the vitamin C habit and “stopped lying for about four years.”

When she was around eleven, she fought her way onto the stage at a Pretenders concert; a security guy lunged for her, but Chrissie Hynde took the little girl by the hand and serenaded her with “2000 Miles.” She liked to dress up in little boys’ clothes when she was in the seventh grade. “I was a really weird kid. I’m a huge old-movie buff, and I was sort of transfixed by these old gangster films, and I would go these vintage clothes shops and get these little suits – green tweed knickers with a little double-breasted jacket, and a green tweed tie and argly socks and loafers. I had very short hair, and I did look sort of androgynous, and I’d just pretend I was an a movie all the time. We moved to Petaluma (California), and on the third day in this new school I was at my locker, and I heard somebody say, ‘Hey, faggot,’ and all of a sudden I’m getting clobbered. It was sort of great. I felt like a real gangster or something.” After that, Ryder’s parents put her in independent-study program. With the help of a tutor, she graduated (with a 4.0 average) last December.

Clearly Ryder comes by her eccentricities naturally. Her father, Michael Horowitz (who helped Winona come up with her stage name), runs a rare- book business, and he and his wife, Cindy, who are also Winona’s managers, have written a book on shamanism and compiled a collection of essays by their friend Aldous Huxley. Winona was named after the town in Minnesota where she was born (it’s also the name of an Indian sex goddess, she says). Her middle name is Laura, after Huxley’s wife. Her godfather is Timothy Leary.

Nothing about Ryder is routine: even her break into movies was remarkable. At 12 she auditioned for her first movie, Desert Bloom, and though she didn’t get the part, a talent agent was so impressed with her screen test that he suggested her for Lucas only four months later.

Right now she’s sitting behind Jim McBride, her hands on his shoulder, watching rushes. Dennis Quaid slips into the chair behind her, easing her onto his lap. In her Brady boys T-shirt and jeans, she’s more schoolgirl than femme fatale, but this plays up her seductiveness. Whether she can’t keep her hands off the guys or they can’t keep theirs off her, she and her director and costar remain pretty constant physical contact whenever they’re in the same room. Now they’re a human sandwich watching Myra and Jerry Lee on the screen.

They look terrific; tiny, saucy Myra is cruising with Jerry Lee in a vintage Cadillac when he shows her a marriage licence he’s hidden in the glove compartment and pops the question. Ponytail bobbing, she says, in her sensible southern twang, “But you’re as old as my daddy.”

“It’s amazing that Winona can be so sophisticated yet so unaffected,” says McBride. “She’s just so charming and seductive, she’s impossible to resist. What can you say about someone you’ve fallen for? In a totally sanitary way. She’s very sexy without seeming to be somebody who has a lot of sexual experience.” By now Ryder has wrapped her arms around McBride’s neck. “But it’s not as though she doesn’t understand the kind of effect she has on a guy,” say McBride, smiling.

“They are so protective toward me,” says Ryder. “I feel like a little doll in a doll’s house.”

An archaic blend of precocity and innocence, Ryder is a throwback to an earlier kind of kid. This is no Brat Packer; she’s like an old fashioned child star, a Margaret O’Brien or a Jean Simmons: a bona fide Wise Child. She’s more interested in whatever book she’s devouring than in partying with her peers. “None of that is romantic or cool or appealing to me at all. I’ve gone to a couple of parties in LA to try to enjoy them. But it really scared me and grossed me out. I see star fuckers and people who do stuff to be seen. It’s kind of ugly. There are so many jaded kids now. I hate to see fourteen-year-olds with drinks in their hands, chain-smoking just to be trendy. It’s like kids don’t know what to do with all this money they suddenly have. It’s really sick, and the industry feeds it.”

But Ryder is not really a snob or a prude, she’s just refreshingly different. Says Robert Downey, Jr., “Winona’s got a well-informed innocence. She hasn’t let all the shit get to her yet. She’s really aware of what this business can do to you in spite of yourself, and I think that will keep her from making other people’s mistakes.”

“This role is a big challenge,” says Ryder over dinner at the Peabody Hotel in Memhis. “Not only do I have to play a part, but I have an obligation to the real Myra. I can’t let her down, or else I’ll really feel like shit. She’s already invented; I can’t create anything.” While Quaid and Jerry Lee Lewis became pals, Ryder spent less time with the real Myra. “It’s great to have her as a source, but I wanted to just sort of play the Myra that I see. I picture her as a real bobby-socker, you know, with bobby socks, and she knew everything that was happening because she read all those articles in Dig! Magazine. But I didn’t want to copy her. It’s great when Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro become exactly like the person they are playing. But I think you can immerse yourself without doing the exact same physical thing.

There was one scene that did cause Ryder some tribulation, the one she refers to, with clinical humor, as the “insertion scene.” After all, she was playing this sultry little thing to a lady-killer like Quaid/Lewis under the direction of McBride, and she wasn’t so sure it was going to be as easy as it looked, say, in The Big Easy. “Even in real life, I’m not exactly a veteran,” says Ryder with a disarming giggle. So she rented The Big Easy. “I rewound and fast-forwarded a bunch of times,” she says. “I wanted to see how Dennis and Jim handled it. I got a little scared because I’m thinking they’re dealing with Ellen Barkin here, and she’s, like, sex personified – and I’m not exactly like that. But they’re not doing the typical insertion thing.”

Ryder, McBride, and Quaid discussed the scene, with McBride opting for it to be shot above the covers and Ryder and Quaid insisting that the action take place under them. Ultimatly, the less explicit scene was shot – thanks in part to stormy weather in Memphis. “We hadn’t really agreed,” says Ryder, “and it was kind of uncomfortable, and then all of a sudden there was a tornado watch, and we all had to go down to the basement for half an hour, and it gave us a bit of time to cool off and relax. And then everything was in sync again.”

“The scene is really, really sexy,” Ryder adds. “I have, like, a bra on and he pulls up my skirt, and we’re under the blanket and stuff. It’s really scary because it’s like, like, the deflowering of Myra, and she starts out sort of meek and demure and then she starts to get into it and starts to, like, lose control, and there’s music, and she starts to really move and stuff, and he stops her and says, ‘Where d’you learn to move like that?’ And I say, ‘It’s the music,’ and he gets out of bed and storms away, leaving me thinking I did something wrong. It goes through a whole range, from being sort of a game to being painful to feeling really good, and then he freaks out, and I start to cry.”

As far as her real life goes Ryder has successfully warded off advances from people in the business. “I’ve had a lot of propositions in the last year,” she says. “A seventeen-year-old girl can easily be taken advantage of. But you know, to them seventeen isn’t that young. It’s just sort of, you know, ripe for the picking. I’m really naive about stuff like that, and it’s sort of creepy.”

The next day on the set, there’s a tempest in the dollhouse. Jerry Lee lurches over the piano, pumping out a tidal wave of arpeggios. A sleepy Myra, lip still swollen from Jerry Lee punching her the night before, emerges from the bedroom in childish pink pajamas. “Do you believe I’m sorry?” he says.

“You can’t hit me no more, Jerry,” she says.

“I told you I was sorry.”

“No, that ain’t what I mean…”

“Oh, yes it is. You think you’re the only one ever got hit. You think I don’t get hit?”

“Jerry, I gotta tell you something…” By now he’s cornered her, and his arm is raised to smack her. “Jerry,” she blurts out, “we’re having a baby!” Quaid’s face goes through a series of contortions – first shock, then laughter, then sobs. He lunges forward, and she pulls back, scared. Then he buries his head in her lap, and she rocks him in her arms. She does a half dozen takes, each dramatically different. Ryder plays Myra as a wounded innocent, as a resigned rock ‘n’ roll wife, as someone hurt, as someone angry. She transforms the action with small gestures. In one take she pats Quaid’s back with tender forgiveness. In another, she slaps her hands down on it, feels her bruised lip, then slowly strokes his hair. Her line readings change too. “We’re having a baby,” she pronounces almost proudly. “We’re are having a baby,” she whispers when the camera rolls again, as if each word hurt.

Wearing black leggings and a white blouse over a lacy white chemise, the actress is curled up on her bed after a long day on the set. Ryder, who is obsessed with J.D. Salinger and has two copies of The Catcher in the Rye with her, flips through a dog-eared paperback. “You know how some people rub crystal when they get paranoid?” she says. “This is my crystal. Me and Holden are, like, this team.” She shows me one of the many quotes she’s underlined in the book. “The goddam movies,” Holden says. “They can ruin you. I’m not kidding.”