The Woman in Winona

Harper’s Bazaar — December 1994

— by Polly Frost

Louisa May Alcott created Jo, the definitive tomboy, in “Little Women.” This month Winona Ryder brings Jo to the screen, with a more feminine perspective. Polly Frost finds her on the set of her new film, “Boys.”

Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and “fall into a vortex,” as she ex- pressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace.
–Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

Winona Ryder has grown up since the age of 14 in front of cameras. Now 23, she returns to adolescence to portray Jo March, the tomboy who wants to become a writer–the character who has been a role model for generations of women–in Gillian Armstrong’s film of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, written in 1868.

Ryder has a passion equal to Jo’s when she speaks about her own form of expression: acting.

“The set…” she says. The word causes her to smile and blurt out half-sentences, a jumble of memories. “I got my first period on set.”

Ryder hugs her knees as she talks about herself: her body is somewhere inside her loose black and white-striped T-shirt. We’re sitting and talking on–what else!–a set. Ryder’s working on Boys, a movie directed by Stacy Cochran.

We’re interrupted from time to time by her mother, Cynthia Horowitz (Ryder is a stage name), and by other visitors–two young actors, the film’s makeup artist, its producer. On the table between us are the props of her life: a tin of cookies, correspondence from fans and friends, a birthday card she needs to sign so it can be Federal Expressed to her half sister, CDs, a nonfiction book about the self-esteem of teenage girls. It’s the messiness of passing obsessions, the typical look of a young woman’s first apartment or last dorm room, but this is Ryder’s trailer, and the sign on the door says PATTY VARE, her current character. Jo is already a past life.

When Horowitz stops by she talks about her own fascination with Louisa May Alcott. She loves the gothic writing the author did early in her career, before she became a successful author of juvenile fiction. Horowitz put together an anthology called Shaman Women, Mainline Lady with Winona’s father, Michael Horowitz; the book includes a story by Alcott.

“It’s basically women’s writings on the drug experience, from Sappho to Patti Smith,” she explains, and says she loves Alcott’s lurid tale A Marble Woman. Horowitz is a sandy-haired woman in her 50s, with faintly freckled skin and gray-blue eyes. She’s hyper- articulate and analytical, but her face flushes as she speaks. “Did Alcott take drugs!” I ask.

“She was acquainted with the diction,” Horowitz says. “She wrote about it and used it in her literature… basically as a device to describe feelings that a proper lady shouldn’t discuss. She loved writing the dark, more imaginative tales, but she also loved Little Women.”

“But you know it, sir, and you know that a man may defy public opinion, and pass scatheless, a woman must submit and walk warily, if she would keep her name unsullied by the breath of slander. A time may come when she will learn this, and reproach you with unfaithfulness to your charge, if you neglect to surround her with the safeguards which she is, as yet, too innocent to know that she needs.”
–A Marble Woman, A. M. Barnard
(a pseudonym for Louisa May Alcott)

“I never drank or took drugs.” Ryder says. She seems to have put together a monologue about herself making the standard interview questions unnecessary. It’s a casual and down- to-earth one that the press has retold. She was raised in part on a commune in northern California by parents who were more intellectually curious than hippie-ish. She broke up with Johnny Depp last year and is now involved with David Pirner, the lead singer for the rock group Soul Asylum. Along the way she has costarred in such films as Heathers, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and The Age of Innocence, and has worked with Tim Burton, Cher, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Martin Scorsese.

Talking with her is like being in an open convertible on a California freeway; her autobiographical sentences swerve and veer off. We never reach the center of anything, but it’s an enjoyable ride.

She felt his hands tremble, saw the color flash into his cheek, knew that she had touched him at last, and when she rose it was with a sense of triumph which she found it hard to conceal. Others thought it fine acting….
–Behind a Mask, Louisa May Alcott

When we discuss her work in movies, a more spontaneous Winona Ryder appears. “When you’ve been an actor your whole life, your emotions and the acting get confused. When you fight with your boyfriend, you start acting–it’s like work. I’ve worked with every young actor. Usually they have a problem, or they’re fucked up, or they’re recovering.”

I ask about the differences between her and Depp; she answers by explaining that they had nothing in common in their approaches to acting. Dating an actor, she says, is “seeing each other on billboards.” And breaking up “was like The NeverEnding Story because it was such a public thing. We didn’t know how to break up.”

She says that until she played the appearances-obsessed May Welland in The Age of Innocence, she didn’t realize how challenging it can be to portray repression.

But what can a woman who spent several formative years on a commune know about psychological constraints!

“You learn to repress a lot, oddly enough, when you are an actress, because you express so much,” she muses. “Especially when you’re a teenage actress–you get confused. You don’t express yourself in your own life. I was trying to have this life I wasn’t comfortable having and trying to be this Person that I was reading I was. And then, when I was 19, 1 read a disgusting article called something like ‘Hollywood’s Hidden Breasts.’ It was about all the actresses who you wouldn’t think had breasts but did. It was the first time I read something that referred to me that way, and I thought, ‘They don’t think of me as a child actress anymore.’ I felt very violated.”

“I hate to think I’ve got to grow up and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as Prim as a China-aster…. I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy, and it’s worse than ever now, for, I’m dying to go and fight with papa, and I can only stay at home and knit like a poky old woman…. ”
–Jo, in Little Women

Winona Ryder’s European counterpart is the gamine actresses such as Juliette Binoche and Nastassia Kinski. They may be mischievous urchins, but they accept the camera as their fate. In America we have tomboys–Katharine Hepburn, Jodie Foster.

Hepburn, who starred as Jo in the 1933 Little Women, playing the tomboy was a feminist call. She tussled with the camera, led it over her angles, dared it to find the female. Ryder’s a different generation of tomboy.

“Your hair! Your beautiful hair” “Oh, Jo. how could you? Your one beauty….”
As every one exclaimed, and Beth hugged the cropped head tenderly, Jo assumed an indifferent air, which did not deceive any one a particle, and said, rumpling up the brown bush, and trying to look as if she liked it, “it doesn’t affect the fate of the nation, so don’t wail, Beth.”
–Little Women

Ryder’s boyishly cut hair falls seductively over her forehead until she tucks it carelessly behind her ears. In person she has a clear, symmetrical beauty, a face that doesn’t reveal the effects of experience. But when she’s photographed, her face becomes marked with a history and an emotional past. In real life her brown eyes flicker adorably, petulantly, always youthfully. Onscreen they reveal a startling knowledge of complex motivations.

Last July I visited the set of Little Women in Vancouver, B.C., on the day of a big scene–the one where Jo has her hair lopped off and sells it in order to make money for the family.

The sets promised the opposite of the polished Merchant Ivory productions. The costume designer for the film, Colleen Atwood, used dresses from the period, or put together new ones out of old fabrics. Ryder appreciated the lived-in quality of the costumes, remembering without fondness the “corsets and Lycra” of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In her downscale approach to the novel, director Gillian Armstrong has set up parallels between the 1860s and the 1990s. Ryder dedicated the film to Polly Klaas, the 12- year-old from her hometown of Petaluma, CA, who was found dead last year after being kidnapped. Ryder worked with the Polly Klaas Search Center and spent time and money on the case, offering a reward. Little Women was Klaas’ favorite book.

Ryder wanted to make a film for adolescent girls and was eager to work with Armstrong. I asked Armstrong about similarities between Little Women and her earlier movie My Brilliant Career (1979), both of which are about headstrong writers. She spoke about how the latter was made during a feminist period, and the female character needed to reject a marriage proposal. Armstrong said she thinks that we can relax now, and that women don’t have to feel betrayed by Jo’s decision to marry.

“Jo does use such slang words,” observed Amy, with a reproving look at the long figure stretched on the rug. Jo immediately sat up, put her hands in her apron pockets, and began to whistle.

“Don’t, Jo; it’s so boyish.”
“That’s why I do it.”
“I detest rude, unlady-like girls.”
“I hate affected, niminy piminy chits.”
–Little Women

“All the girls are role models,” Ryder says, “except Amy.” She laughs. Ryder says she has respect for 12-year-old girls, because “that’s when I started acting.”

“The fact is,” her mother says, “when you’re 12 you can start relating outside your family. How you relate to people is formed then. The more you understand that, the more you’re able to correct. Very often we duplicate negative relationships we had in the first 12 years of life.”

“I don’t do that,” Ryder says without hesitation, “because every time something I don’t like happens in a relationship, I’m careful never to take that from someone again.” Ryder says she doesn’t have any patterns in her life, but it’s hard not to notice that she often seems to attach herself to wild personalities. That seems to occur in her movies, too. She often plays the conservative other.

“Why is it so unhip to be nice?” she asks.

In Mermaids she’s a teenage daughter at war with a sexy mom; in Age of Innocence she represents societal repression; in Heathers she’s a good girl with a demonic boyfriend. In Reality Bites she’s a Gen X heroine. Ryder says she doesn’t intend to be an icon for her age group. Onscreen, she blurs the outlines of her characters, and in her interview she resists labels but of course that is exactly what has made her an image of a generation that says it doesn’t want to be defined by the media.

Watching Ryder on the Little Women set I was struck by the contrast between her Jo and the Katharine Hepburn version. Hepburn gave us a feisty young woman who knows what she wants and goes after it; she rearranged notions of what it meant to be a female star, Ryder’s performance exhibited a different kind of daring; she wasn’t afraid of bringing out uncertainty in Jo.

“Gillian wanted me to play Jo as feisty,” Ryder says, “but I saw Jo from the beginning as really confused–as contra- dicting herself all the time.”

The Boys crew is ready to transform Winona into Patty Vare. She needs to film a horseback-riding scene on what she calls an Urban Cowboy machine. She goes to join the young, all-male cast. Time to go from little women to little men.