The Best Girl in the World

Stern — 25 April 1991

— by Jochen Siemens
In America Winona Ryder is already regarded as the new Liz Taylor, in Germany she is now coming out with three films at once. STERN-reporter Jochen Siemens met the 19 year old – and can’t forget her.

A tear. It pearls out of her left eye and runs down her cheek.. The girl is standing on the runway and looks over. With her hand she wipes away the tear. She smiles, tilts her head back and rolls her eyes towards heaven. Then she boards the small plane. End. End of a story which began three days ago in a hotel lobby in the American ski resort Aspen. Three days Winona and I. Three days that changed our lives.

It was a Saturday when we first met. Around three o’clock in the afternoon. It was ice-cold outside and the snow was sparkling on the mountains of Colorado. Champagne-snow, as it’s called here. It glitters like a million diamonds when it covers the ground and rustles and crunches when somebody walks across it.

So it was this particular Saturday and Winona was standing in the hotel lobby. Our eyes met for a short time. We had a date. We wanted to talk about her films. Winona Ryder is an actress and appears all of three times this spring in the German movie theaters. As Kim in “Edward Scissorhands”, as Charlotte in “Mermaids” and as the girl Dinky in “Welcome home, Roxy Carmichael”. In America, all three films ran at the same time. Winona Ryder went to bed one night, and woke up a star. A schoolfriend for every girl and the first love for every boy. Winona just needs to rush for a second through the frame and blink her eyes once – immediately she personifies the feeling of a whole generation. The 19 year-olds.

Those who don’t want to be kids anymore but still aren’t allowed to be grown-up. 19 is the most serious year of all. At 19 you are absolutely convinced to know really everything better than the grown-ups. 19 year-olds are more honest, eager and critical than everybody else. Winona is the best 19 year-old in the world. “The new Liz Taylor”, “the new Natalie Wood”, as the American critics proclaimed.

I say, “Noni?” because her best friends call her that way. And with that everything starts. Winona jerks “Hello, how are you?” she says. She is very small, her skin is pale – delicately pale – and the locks of her hair dangle in front of her eyes. Also, Winona has a bit of a crooked spine. Somehow she looks like a junkie-brat.

We stand around like teenagers after school, she with her Chanel bag and I with my plastic bag. Fat Americans plod between us with their loud ski suits and candy-colored boots. “Can you ski?” I ask. “No, and you?” she replies. I tell her that at the STERN everybody skis extremely well, except for me. The editor, I tell her, was even once a professional skier. “Great,” says Noni.

“Mermaids” will definitely become her most successful film. It’s a film for Sunday evenings. Noni plays Charlotte, who must cope with her wacky mother, played by Cher. The mother moves with her two daughters across America, always has a lot of boyfriends and cooks great stuff like marshmellow-kebabs and bubble-gum-burgers. Charlotte – Winona – hates all that, and wants to become a nun. The whole day she fumbles with her rosary, watches religious films and sings along with the songs. Then, she meets a boy and suddenly loses her determination to stay a virgin for the rest of her life. The boy, a simple guy from the country, is bellringer at a church. Noni has her first sexual encounter with him – great scene – on the belltower.

“Mermaids” is Winona’s picture, because it plays the whole time on her face like a stage. The nose, which wrinkles when Noni has to bite into a vanilla steak; the frowns on her forehead, which are so deep of exasperation when her mother yells at her; and the big dark eyes, which can heartbreakingly suffer when Charlotte has to think about sex. In one scene Winona lies for minutes on her bed and pouts, throws and rolls around all at once. It looks like she is suffering on behalf of all 19 year-olds for all the misery in the world. 19 year-olds are that way, they feel responsible for everything. For the ozone gap, the price of gas, famines and the bad moods of their mothers. “We can go up” says Noni.

Winona comes from Winona. No joke: Her parents named her in 1971 after the small town they where living in. But the Ryders, a young, liberal intellectual couple, soon moved with small-Noni to California, near San Francisco, because of the feeling and freedom there. “We lived there with some other families on 120 hectares, no commune, but we did a lot together” says Winona. Her parents took life very seriously, daddy wrote social essays and mom shot some documentaries. The whole day they debated and reflected. The family’s best friends were beat-poet Allen Ginsberg and drug-bard Timothy Leary, who is Noni’s godfather. The five of them often sat together on the porch in the evenings, looked out onto California and philosophied. Winona became a strange girl, a small brat with short black hair who didn’t care about the boys in school. “Once they beat me up. Three guys with their fists. They shouted the whole time: Faggot, faggot. They thought I was a boy. I was bleeding on my head and had to wear a bandage which was quickly full of blood-stains. I showed that off proudly throughout the city.”

It is difficult to have fun with Noni, because she takes everything so seriously. “Do you have a boyfriend?” I ask, although everyone knows that she is going with teen-star Johnny Depp. “Yes, but I don’t want to talk about it. Do you have a girlfriend?” she asks in return. “Yes, one who loves Chanel and sometimes drinks canned beer for breakfast” I say. “That’s great,” says Winona and grins a little, “Johnny is a fascinating person, I have deep feelings for him” she tells.

We sit on a big white sofa, wide apart. One day, she must have been 14 or so, she played at an off-theater in San Francisco. A friend of her parents saw her and recommended Noni for an acting school. Then came her first roles in “Beetlejuice” and “Great Balls of Fire” Roles by chance, because at that time Winona wasn’t known in Hollywood. “I never wanted to do the typical teen roles, once a teenie always a teenie. When you then become older you have to play any crap to make a living. Like Molly Ringwald for instance.”

The dogged ambition with which Noni plunges into every film has caused a bitter sacrifice in 1990. After shooting three films – Winona sometimes had to act in two films simultaneously – came the offer to play the daughter in Francis Coppolas “The Godfather Part III”. An offer from heaven. An extremely tired and nervous Noni drove to Rome, and didn’t come out of her room on the first day of shooting. “I was totally exhausted and ill.” A doctor ordered her to stay in bed and Coppola took his own daughter for the part. Winona says very seriously “This will definitely never happen to me again” The oath of a 19 year-old. The day comes to an end and Noni and I look upon the sparkling snow. She hums a song by the “Replacements”, her favorite band: “Your present age is always the toughest, everything tugs and pulls on you.” I think about the summer. Then, Noni and I can spend five hours every day together. That’s the time it takes to watch all her three films in a row.

Of course, that story with the tear and runway and airplane was a little white lie. But good heavens, I’ve got to have a dream to hang onto.