The Sublime Mrs Ryder, the age of experience

Joan Goodman


She’s been acting for a decade and has appeared in 20 films. She’s been directed by Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola and Tim Burton. Now, at 23, Winona Ryder can choose the films she wants to make and the directors she wants to make them.

SHE’S never done teeny-bop movies, beach movies, gang movies, drug movies — indeed she’s never taken on a script that was less than literate. She doesn’t do nude, she wasn’t somebody’s girlfriend and she hasn’t been a model. From the beginning, she’s played character roles. Not all her early films were successful, but she always gets good notices. Among her credits are Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Age Of Innocence, Beetlejuice and last year’s “Generation X” comedy, Reality Bites. In less than 10 years, and by none ofthe traditional routes, Winona Ryder, at 23, has become the actress of her generation.

She is the opposite of, say, Demi Moore or Sharon Stone. She has no flair for self-dramatisation. She’s not a natural schmoozer and can be tetchy, impatient, moody and defiantly silent. She just can’t get the hang of being a movie star. She doesn’t dress for it, not even grunge or street chic. She wears a simple black sweater and skirt over black tights and low boots, sort of nondescript-as-style.

She comes over as a cross between two actresses who have almost nothing in common beyond their surnames: the beautiful, fragile, gamine Audrey Hepburn and a latter-day Katharine Hepburn, witty, determined and sure. Ryder speaks to her generation. Now she has come of age as an actress in Little Women, a seminal American story about coming-of-age. One of her co-stars is Susan Sarandon, a fine actress who spent her youth playing people’s girlfriends: “I’m glad to see Nonie going for the roles she has. It’s taken my generation years to get to the point where she is starting out.”

Whether Little Women will have the same impact in the rest of the world that it’s had in the US, where it has won Ryder an Oscar nomination, is uncertain. It is a quintessentially American film from the classic US novel by Louisa May Alcott. An iconic work in America, it is considered irredeemably sentimental in Europe.

Little Women is set in New England at the time of the American Civil War. The four March girls, Jo, Amy, Meg and Beth, are being raised in a single-parent home by Marmee, while Daddy March is off fighting the war. Marmee (a noble Sarandon) teaches her girls morality and individual responsibility, which immediately exile them from their caste. The screenplay is laced with politics and the misery of discrimination and poverty as well as the struggles of women. The script takes additional material from accounts of Alcott’s own family.

The book is read by virtually every schoolgirl in the US and predictably turns them all into Jo wannabes. As played by Ryder, Jo is the rambunctious tomboy who spurns love and marriage to go off to New York to become a writer. There have been at least two other movies made of the book. But in recent years, Hollywood has considered it too saccharine for another remake.

There wasn’t a studio in Hollywood interested in doing the film until Ryder committed herself to the project. (The feeling is that she could get the telephone directory greenlighted.) Ryder concedes, “Everybody was scared of making Little Women — no one’s going to go and see it, it won’t make money and blah, blah, blah — I don’t think it would have been made at Columbia unless I said yes, or unless Julia Roberts wanted to do it.” There was a confluence of reasons for Ryder to do the film. She had read the book and loved it when she was 12, and her parents, writers themselves, have written about Alcott in two books.

“One book,” Ryder explains, “was about famous women writers who were under the influence of drugs when they wrote their masterpieces. Louisa May Alcott had contracted a disease while she was a nurse in the Civil War and was given morphine. She became addicted and was on it when she wrote Little Women.”

Ryder liked the feminist thrust of the book and the individudlism of the characters. Then there was the film’s proposed producer, Denise DiNovi, who had produced two of Ryder’s prior and favourite films Heathers and Edward Scissorhands. DiNovi and Ryder had become fast friends. DiNovi asked Robin Swicord to write the screenplay and Ryder fell in love with the script. That meant she was there at the very early stages and was involved in the choice of director.

“It was funny to be on the other side of it,” says Ryder wrinkling her nose. “I hadn’t really done that before, been to all those meetings and stuff, so I was just so surprised. There are a lot of executives who are women but they’re not all geniuses. They’re the ones greenlighting Disclosure or Indecent Proposal. Sitting around a table and hearing them talk, I thought they must be kidding and I would laugh. Then there would be kind of dead silence and I would go, Oh-oh. Luckily, Denise was there.” Between them, DiNovi and Ryder thought of Gillian Armstrong to direct.

“One of my mother’s favourite films when I was growing up was My Brilliant Career — I saw it maybe a hundred times. So I kept saying we’ve got to get Gillian to direct.” But Arrmstrong resisted. She felt Little Women was too close to My Brilliant Career. Finally she was persuaded to meet Ryder and talk. “I basically begged her,” says Ryder. “I bombarded her with compliments, she couldn’t even speak, I talked about how great she was visually and emotionally. That her films had substance and she got great performances out of actresses. I just talked her into it, thank God.”

For her trouble, Ryder has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar; but she doesn’t want to talk about that. It’s a rare refusal. Normally she speaks with audacious candour. Her youth shows in frequent outbursts of giggles, and an occasional lecture on J.D. Salinger (along with George Orwell one of her favourite authors), sham values and the importance of music in her life.

She sits almost obediently, on a large overstuffed sofa, looking tiny and vulnerable and younger than her 23 years. She is luminous with almost no make-up. She has near perfect features, brown velvet eyes, porcelain skin and a swan’s neck.

Don’t let it fool you. There’s a strength, too. It’s in the directness of her gaze, the thoughtfulness of her words and the intensity of her emotions. She has stood up to bullying directors and she’s trusted her own judgment about the films she’s made. Maybe she’s given it up only recently, but she’s not smoking and she isn’t chewing her nails, though they are already bitten to the quick. Well, nobody’s perfect.

She’s nervous about the Oscar nomination and with reason. Most people don’t think she’ll win. It’s not just that her youth militates against her. There have been younger candidates. But Ryder’s not really a part of Hollywood, unlike Jodie Foster, who grew up in the industry and still lives there.

The comparison with Jodie Foster flatters and confounds Ryder. They come from opposite ends of the acting spectrum. Foster works from the outside in. She intellectualises a performance before internalising it. Ryder does it the other way round. She works instinctively, then brings a creative intelligence to bear. Hollywood and the Academy voters understand and appreciate Foster’s efforts. With Ryder, the effort doesn’t show. She makes it look too easy.

Ryder is an outsider both by circumstance and by choice. When she first began making movies at 13, she continued to live in her home-town of Petaluma, California, 38 miles north of San Francisco. She didn’t acquire a permanent Los Angeles base until, at 19, she bought her first house in the Hollywood Hills. It was then that her disenchantment began. “I never fitted in there,” she says. “It’s such a fake society. You get the feeling that everybody is scamming everybody else. You can’t tell if people are being nice because they like you or because they want to use you. Nothing is genuine. Everything runs on rumour and gossip. It’s really sick. ” She sought refuge and anonymity in New York, where she’d always wanted to live. She bought an apartment in Lower Manhattan. It worked out pretty well when someone was with her. Less so when she was on her own. “It was the crime factor,” she says. “I couldn’t deal with it and there’s no reason to live that way. If I got hungry in the middle of the night, I couldn’t go out and buy myself a pizza. I couldn’t go anywhere at night and besides I was too far from my parents.”

Ryder is that late 20th-century anomaly: the instinctively conservative child of unconventional parents who embraced the alternative lifestyle of the Sixties. Her father, Michael Horowitz, is a rare books dealer and archivist, who has been a chronicler of the counterculture. Allen Ginsberg is a friend, Timothy Leary is Winona’s godfather. Her mother, Cindy Palmer Horowitz, is a writer and video artist. Her sister and two brothers have Sixties names — Sunyata, Jubal and Yuri (for the first Russian cosmonaut). In that respect, at least, the family is reminiscent of the Phoenixes — River, Leaf, Liberty, Summer and Rain. The Phoenix parents were, like the Horowitzes, standard-bearers of Sixties values — missionaries in the Children of God sect, no less — but unlike Ryder’s family, led a nomadic life ranging across north and south America. Both families seem to have an unusual closeness; Ryder still talks often and fondly of her parents.

Winona was named for the Minnesota town where she was born in 1971. The family moved to Mendocino, California and lived communal-style with seven other families — each with their own house — on a 300-acre tract ofland. “There was no heat or running water or television,” Ryder recalls. “We had to use our imagination a lot. We were surrounded by books. I was never bored.” (After about a year, the family moved to Petaluma where they still live and where Ryder grew up.)

It was a very responsible way of life, Ryder points out, and apparently stable and secure, “My parents have always been labelled hippies and I’ve even joked that they were. They were actually much more on the intellectual fringe of the Sixties. They were liberals, kind of beatniks in a way. They weren’t spaced out or whatever goes is okay.” Which doesn’t mean that she never saw any evidence of irresponsibility: “For a kid to watch a bad trip is terrifying,’ she admits. “But my parents had very strong values and still do.

“I just spent last week with them in San Francisco and they’re still doing those things that get them labelled hippies. There’s an 83-year-old woman in San Francisco who’s been taking marijuana brownies to Aids patients because it increases their appetite and relieves the pain. She got arrested and she’s serving time so my parents have been helping her. I think that’s very responsible.”

Ryder has inherited that sense of responsibility. She discusses it with the disarming earnestness of a child. “I think it’s so important to be responsible. First of all, it’s gratifying and you can respect yourself. You look at your work and think, I’m really proud of that. That’s a great feeling. I’ve been offered those big films that are supposed to be smart career moves but if it’s something that goes against my values or if it makes me ashamed, then why do it? There’s nothing worse than a sense of shame or that you’re generating something bad.”

Ryder’s success has been all about choice. She’s a good advertisement for the benefits of a literary education. It’s enabled her to pick good scripts that have something to say and to avoid Brat-Pack fodder that stalled more careers than it started.

Her acting began at home with family performances; her mother ran a cinema in a barn. Ryder had few friends and spent hours watching movies. The result is she has some unexpected heroines for an actress her age: Greer Garson, Bette Davis, Maureen O’Hara, Ingrid Bergman, Anne Bancroft, Ginger Rogers — and the feline and rather fey British actress, Sarah Miles. “It was when I saw her in Ryan’s Daughter that I really wanted to be an actress. She bowled me over in that and everything I’ve seen her in. I think she’s one of the most beautiful women in the world, too.”

Because Ryder was odd-girl-out at her neighbourhood school, her parents thought she might be happier at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. When she was 13 years old, she was plucked from her acting class to audition for the role of Jon Voight’s step daughter in Desert Bloom, a low-budget movie. She was videotaped but lost the part to Annabeth Gish. The videotape, however, lived on. It won Ryder an agent before she had done any professional work, a rarity in the business. A year later, the videotape got her the role of a loner-turned-cheerleader in Lucas which launched her career. It was a good start for a 18-year-old, a film that dealt honestly with the problems of adolescent love. That was in 1986. She was the same age as Judy Garland when she made her screen debut, and a year younger than Elizabeth Taylor when she starred in National Velvet, yet Ryder was always thought of as an actress rather than a child actress. She completed nine films in the next five years.

“My parents really didn’t want me to be an actress at first'” Ryder recalls. “They were afraid that I was too young. That it would take me away from home. But I told them that I had to act and eventually they realised that I really wanted to do it.” Who knows what sturm and drang went on between those lines. Michael Horowitz has said that Winona “had a flair for the dramatic, even as a young child”, and she is still known as a great teller of tales.

At first her parents were cautiously supportive, guiding her into the right sort of roles, watching out for her. “My parents were never really stage parents in that awful sense,” says Ryder, giggling. “They didn’t involve themselves that much. They were always with me on location but even then they didn’t intrude. They were too starstruck by everyone to interfere. They would watch what was going on and who was there. It was almost embarrassing. But I was never on a location without one of them. The other one would have to stay home with the other kids.”

Lucas became a cult favourite and led to her second film, Square Dance, with Jane Alexander and Jason Robards. Ryder plays Gemma, a farm girl who shuttles between her mother and her grandfather trying to find her place in the world. She gives an extraordinary performance that matches the more seasoned actors. Her naturalness and instinctive behaviour are remarkable. In her nascent beauty, you see the woman she has become.

She made her first real impression with the sleeper success Beetlejuice when she was 16. As Lydia, the melancholy teenager, allergic to the sun and given to levitating and seeing ghosts, she showed a nice flair for comedy.

1969, which revisited her parents’ old stomping grounds in Haight-Ashbury, was a disappointment. Then came Heathers, the ultimate teen black comedy about murder and suicide, that is still one of Ryder’s favourite films. “I consider Veronica the part of a lifetime.”

Ryder particularly liked it because it was a movie that was made against all odds. “My agents begged me not to do it. They said if I did, my career would be over.” It was the wrong thing to say to someone who runs on “instinct”, “what feels right”, “what I’m passionate about” — not strategy and career moves. She flexed her artistic muscles, changed agents and did the film.

It was a slyly sympathetic performance and made her the hippest teenager in the business. It ensured that she would be offered all the more quirky and intelligent young girl roles. She took those that appealed to her: Myra, Jerry Lee Lewis’s 13-year-old bride in Great Balls Of Fire! with Dennis Quaid; the eponymous Roxy in Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael; and Charlotte, Cher’s confused teenage daughter in Mermaids.

“She proved herself in those parts,” says a director who asked for anonymity. “She proved she could rise above the material and bad direction and give weight to her characters and real believability to the performance.”

Having made three films back to back, Ryder stumbled famously when she withdrew from Godfather III after signing to play Michael Corleone’s daughter. She flew to Rome but never left the hotel room. “I was sick with a respiratory infection and 104 degree fever,” says Ryder with more than a hint of exasperation. “I was told by the doctor that I couldn’t work. I don’t know why nobody believed it. The truth was so simple.”

It would have been, except her then boyfriend Johnny Depp complicated the issue. He was set to play his first major role in Edward Scissorhands for director Tim Burton (Ryder’s old pal from Beetlejuice.) Burton wanted Ryder for the cheerleader who falls in love with Edward but the shooting schedule overlapped with Godfather III. She couldn’t do both. Rumour had it that Depp flew to Rome to persuade her to drop out of the Coppola film.

Ryder’s fever shot up and her respiretory virus worsened. She new home to Petaluma and a regimen of chicken soup and herbal tea. Within weeks, she was up and filming Edward Sclssorhands with Depp. The truth of the matter remains murky. What is sure is that Godfather III would have been a much better film had Ryder played the female lead as planned.

In the event, Ryder and Coppola patched up their differences when she sent him the script of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He agreed to direct and she agreed to star in it — not one of her best choices as it turned out. It was her debut as an adult, and however disappointing the film as a whole and however embittered her subsequent relations with Coppola, it did enable her to make perhaps the smoothest transition since Natalie Wood went from child star to Splendour In The Grass.

Ryder’s romance with Johnny Depp began when she was 18. Depp, famously, has “Winona Forever” tattooed on his right arm. Maybe not forever, but they were engaged, on the point of marriage, for three years. Things began to unravel during the making of The Age Of Innocence. Ryder’s new love is David Pirner of Soul Asylum, the Minnesota rock band. “I’m with him and I’m very happy,” is all she’ll say about him. She thinks she talked too much about Johnny Depp (currently Kate Moss’s beau). “It’s embarrassing now to read those things,” she says. “it’s all so private or should be.” She hates to be asked questions about Depp’s recent behaviour, the arrests and trashing of a hotel room. Pirner is the man on her mind.

“He’s all she talks about,” says a friend, “but I’m not sure how it’s going to play itself out. They are still discovering each other. And right now it looks pretty intense because Nonie is pretty intense. I’m just not sure that, given their different temperaments and lifestyles, Dave will be a permanent fixture in her life. Part of his allure is his outlaw persons status. It appeals to the deeply conservative side of her.”

Others who know them both say they have a lot in common emotionally and intellectually. Still, Pirner with his long, fowing crimped blond hair, his night-owl ways and his purported drug use seems light years away from Ryder’s prim looks and middle-class habits. (She doesn’t do drugs and half a beer makes her tipsy.)

Perhaps Ryder’s greatest challenge will be learning to temper her passion. She falls in love too easily. Not necessarily with men or sexually; she becomes obsessed with ideas, books, people, scripts and they begin to dominate her life. Last year in Portugal, where she was filming House Of The Spirits, she found herself in the midst of a nervous collapse. She had just finished The Age Of Innocence and Bram Stoker’s Dracula and had simply taken on more than she could handle.

“I was desperately unhappy. I couldn’t steep. There was so much drama in my life, I didn’t have time for the little things that make life fun and make me happy. I had to get back to a real life outside of my work. I know who I am now,” she says.

She no longer counts her life in movie titles and she refuses to suffer for her art. “I’m 23 and I want to act my age. Do things that people my age do. I don’t have to suffer to be good and I don’t have to be every director’s favourite to have a career,” she says. It’s a sarcastic reference to Francis Coppola whose talent she admires but whose methods she hates. According to Premiere magazine, when they were making Dracula, Coppola would shout, “You whore!” to Ryder to get her to the right pitch for a scene. It didn’t go down well. She’s said she’d never work for him again.

Part of what helped her find herself, she says quite seriously, was working with Martin Scorsese on The Age Of Innocence. “He’s the greatest director on the planet,” she declares. “He made me proud of my work.”

Scorsese returns the compliment. He knew the moment he met her that he wanted her to play May Welland, Daniel Day Lewis’s wife in the film.

One of the actors in the cast recalls, “I think Winona was in love with just being there. She had such a good time. She had so much energy. She and Dan Day Lewis were mad for each other all through the production. They were all over each other. It was like a freeing of the soul.” Liberation off-set was at odds with the onset role of May, a restrained, manipulative, though still likable, character Ryder had wanted to play since studying the Edith Wharton novel at school.

Her Oscar nomination, as Best Supporting Actress for The Age Of Innocence, gave her confidence to take charge of her career and brought her back to the early best advice she had been given by godfather Timothy Leary – always challenge authority. She did it first by going from two star-laden productions (Age Of Innocence and House Of The Spirits), to the low-budget Reality Bites for first-time director Ben Stiller. She says she simply fell in love with the script by a 23-year-old novice writer, Helen Childress. It’s about a college graduate who gets fired from her job in broadcasting “for intellectual condescension”. Her boss isn’t the only one she sneers at. She looks down on her flatmate who works at The Gap and her college friends who can’t get jobs at all. With her nose for good writing, Ryder came up trumps. Herself a child who had trouble getting on with her contemporaries, she wanted to make a film that appealed to her own age group. She succeeded.

“I didn’t make it because it was a smart film to make,” Ryder demurs. “I did it because it had something to say to people my age and I don’t think Hollywood takes them seriously at all.”

She wanted to make Little Women for the same reasons. “The film is very relevant. It’s about issues and themes that are important today. It has something to say about developing character, developing your mind, helping others. It’s not just about how to be hip or how to be cool. I know a lot of young women from my home town who have said they’ve been waiting for a movie like this. Something that speaks to them, and I thought, hell, if my name can get Hollywood to make films like that, great!”

Little Women is dedicated to Polly Klaas, a young girl from Petaluma who was snatched from her home and after a long search was found murdered. “She was from my home town, my school I’m friends with her family,” says Ryder. “It was horrible. Now there’s a foundation. I’m on the board and I try to help. I love kids and if I’m in a position where I can have some positive effect I take it.”

What distinguishes Winona Ryder as an actress and as a person is her sense of herself she is secure. Melanie Griffith or Kim Basinger are always on, whether filming or not — everybody around them are satellites. Ryder has an internal life which she gives out in her films, not in snippets in chat shows. And she’s nobody’s pushover, not even a revered LSD guru’s. “I don’t see that much of Tim Leary any more but about a year ago he showed me this crazy video that he had done about some psychedelic phenomenon. I didn’t understand it at all and I told him. ‘You know, Tim, you always taught me to question authority and you’ve always been my authority — now I’m questioning you.'”

Script developed by Never Enough Design