Take a bow, Winona

Richard Corliss

December 26, 1994 (January 9, 1995)

Winona Ryder trusts her instincts. “I didn’t do the strategic, career-building thing, where I make two big movies, then a small independent one, then another big one,” she says. “I do the films I like.” But there was once, early in her prodigious career, when she took on a movie role in a forgettable number called 1969 just to get out of town. She was 16, and her first hit had just opened: Beetlejuice, in which she plays a crape-draped kid obsessed with death. It was just a movie, but some of her classmates in Petaluma, California, taunted her mercilessly. “These hick school kids,” she recalls, “they thought I was a witch.”

Well, maybe not a witch, but some species of ethereal being. A dark angel, perhaps. Though at 23 Ryder is a prime icon of the post-teen set – more than one writer has called twentysomethings the Winona Generation – there is a quality in her dark, Walter Keane-eyed beauty that pulls her out of her time and into the crinolined past. No modern actress has her watchfulness, her fiery reticence, her gift of girlish blush and fluster. Nobody else even tries to monitor the intelligent, expectant heart beating in a virgin’s breast. The true Ryder heroine is a gentle soul in tremulous transition to maturity. Not a fairy-tale princess, either, but a bright child, ripe for romance, who opens a storybook and eagerly falls into its pages – an Alice in search of Wonderland.

These are old-fashioned virtues. Indeed, without Ryder the movies might have forgotten them. And that is why Hollywood has virtually ceded the 19th century to her. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in The Age of Innocence and now in director Gillian Armstrong’s stately, shimmering version of Little Women, Ryder must translate for a modern audience the purity and confusions of a time when a first kiss was the climax to an adventure and goodness was a goal worth fighting for.

She does it all in close-up. “The camera really does love her,” says Meryl Streep, with whom Ryder co-starred in last year’s The House of the Spirits. “It can’t seem to get enough of what she holds in her eyes.” Ryder has that double charm of the true movie star: the charisma to draw emotion from the viewer, the technique to express delicate shadings of that emotion. “Winona,” says Armstrong, “has huge technique for someone her age.” At the same time, she adds , “like the best actors, she intuitively thinks into her characters.” It’s a method both more direct – from her eyes to your heart, grand old movie-style – and more subtle than the high-voltage, I-scream-in-your-face style favored by most young actors. They are heavy metal; Winona is unplugged.

But that, as Ryder might tell her old school taunters, is just movies. Winona is a Gen X star, so she has to be nuts, right? Aaaah, probably not. “There are so many casualties among people who grow up as actors,” says Denise Di Novi, who produced Little Women (as well as Edward Scissorhands and another signature Ryder film, Heathers). “Winona is definitely not a casualty.” She did struggle with a prescription drug that she took to relieve insomnia without knowing it was addictive. Says Ryder: “The doctor literally said, ‘You can eat them like candy.’ When I realized I needed them, I stopped taking them.”

All right, but she loves rock ‘n’ roll, hangs out at music clubs in Hollywood and even has a pop-star boyfriend – Dave Pirner, leader of the alternative band Soul Asylum. Surely they have to be going to hell on a Harley. Yet to hear Ryder, the two are more George and Gracie than Sid and Nancy. He hangs out on the set when she’s filming, she accompanies him on tour, and there are no stories of either being the typical girlfriend or boyfriend nightmare. When relaxing, they often stay home and watch movies (their latest: the British TV series Prime Suspect). To describe her relationship with Pirner, Ryder uses “a very underrated word: nice. He’s had his struggles – we all do – but day to day he’s jolly. He’s not a tortured artist.”

Neither, from all evidence, is Ryder. She sounds perfectly normal, if anyone is these days. “I want everyone to like me,” she says. “I don’t want to disappoint anyone. I hate not getting along, or being forced into a confrontation, or throwing what looks like a tantrum. The bottom line is, I’m like everyone else.”

If she is like anyone else, it is the 19th century heroine she has just played; between Winona Ryder and Jo March there are some spooky parallels. Both are bookworms and avid letter writers. Both grew up in a close family that lived in a house with no electricity or running water. The Marches of Concord, Massachusetts, were transcendentalists; the Horowitzes of Petaluma were part of an agreeable commune. Winona (named for the Minnesota town in which she was born) had Timothy Leary as her godfather. Her father is an archivist of counterculture magazines and books and runs a small publishing company.

There are two more Jo-Winona connections. For decades Ryder’s parents have worked on a film script about Louisa May Alcott and her relationship with New York critic and short-story writer Fitz Hugh Ludlow. “My dad owns the Fitz Hugh Ludlow library,” she says. One of Winona’s treasured volumes is a red-bound children’s book of Little Women. Inside the front cover are the words: this book belongs to polly klaas. Polly, the Petaluma child who in 1993 was kidnapped and brutally murdered, became a sacred preoccupation for Ryder; she put up a $200,000 reward for Polly’s attacker and now supports the Polly Klaas Foundation. The Little Women film is dedicated to her memory.

Winona, who took the name Ryder when she started acting, would commute with her folks by car (they couldn’t afford the airfare) to Los Angeles – a nine-hour drive. The long haul was a blessing in disguise: because traveling was such an ordeal, Ryder turned down roles in many a cheesy horror film. Her debut, Lucas, made when she was 13, set the tone for her later choices. It was a sensible, sensitive tale of ordinary kids growing up. Soon she got her first two defining parts: in Beetlejuice and in Heathers, Daniel Waters’ blistering portrait of suicidal teens. Heathers remains Ryder’s favorite picture; she keeps pestering Waters to write a sequel.

In a series of engaging dramas (Mermaids and Edward Scissorhands, starring her then beau, Johnny Depp), Ryder grew up on film and matured in her skills. By the time of Little Women, when she had enough clout to jump-start the project and enough savvy to help select the luminous young cast, she could play a very convincing big sister to her screen sibs. She kept the young actresses amused on the Vancouver set with games like Take a Bow. For example: “Bow like the fading star who knows she’s going to be replaced next week.”

Ryder won’t fade soon. Adult roles are imminent; she’ll fill the characters as well as the costumes. Once waif thin, she now has a figure so womanly that, after it was on show in a Vogue pictorial, she was accused of having had breast implants. The very notion propels her into a verbal dither. “I’m way too chicken to go under the knife,” she says. “The thought of someone touching your breast with something metal is like the most – it’s so – I mean – it’s horrifying to even think about!”

With an impressive total of 14 films in eight short years, the early box-office success of Little Women, an Oscar nomination for The Age of Innocence and two or three movies – due out this year, Ryder can think instead about the brilliant career behind and ahead of her. She has other things in mind too. “I’m one of those people who wanted to be a mom since I was five. But I don’t know when it’s going to happen. I’m not going to try, but I’m not going to not try.”

For now, she seems happy – as few of her screen characters are – in a craft she does well and with a man who loves her. “Dave is noncompetitive,” she says, “and men sometimes don’t have that feeling about a successful woman.” Ryder pauses briefly. “That’s the first time I’ve referred to myself as a woman.”

Reported by Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles and David E. Thigpen/New York – 1994 Time Inc.

Script developed by Never Enough Design