From the time she quietly stole all her scenes
as the sweet, studious Rina bravely trying to cultivate a relationship with the
distracted "Lucas" (1986, her film debut), Winona Ryder put Hollywood
on notice that she was no ordinary actor. Her enormous, extraordinarily expressive
brown eyes (which read black on screen) reveal a profound inner life and have
drawn comparisons to those of the legendary Bette Davis, and an early champion,
director Tim Burton, has raved about her radiance that reminded him of the "timeless
old movie stars". The finely chiseled, petite actress has trusted her instincts
on her way to becoming the preeminent actress of her generation. "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 told Richard Corliss of Time
(January 9, 1995). "I do the films I like." Against the advice of her
parents and agent, the teenager courageously starred in the dark "Heathers"
(1989), and far from hurting her career, the cult favorite became her true breakout
Ryder's unconventional upbringing certainly
contributed to the startling intelligence and self-possession behind those wide-set
eyes. Born Winona Horowitz to two hippies thoroughly "into the pudding",
she grew up surrounded by some of the brightest lights of the counterculture.
Timothy Leary was her godfather (her father Michael Horowitz disavows any involvement
with the acid guru's 1970 prison breakout, giving full credit to the radical Weathermen),
and Allen Ginsberg often dropped by the Mendocino commune where she lived for
four years enjoying a life without TV (without electricity!) that turned her onto
books. Money was scarce, but love was in abundance. Yet when the family finally
settled in Petaluma, California, she discovered that her years "on the bus"
set her apart from her peers, and this experience as a "suburban reject"
would help inform some of her best work from "Beetlejuice" (1988) to
"Girl, Interrupted" (1999). Her parents promptly curtailed the public
school experiment and to add spice to her home study program enrolled her in acting
classes at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre.
there by a talent scout and screen tested for a role in "Desert Bloom"
(1986), Ryder lost out to Annabeth Gish, but her audition tape found its way to
director David Seltzer who cast her in the underrated "Lucas". The following
year she played a Texas teenager torn between her grandfather (Jason Robards)
and her mother (Jane Alexander) in "Square Dance" and walked away with
the best reviews, setting the stage for her first collaboration with Burton, "Beetlejuice"
(1988). Ryder nailed her supporting role as a morose teen with a penchant for
black clothing who is thoroughly alienated from her suburban parents, and nearly
stole the film from co-stars Michael Keaton, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis with
her low-key, perfectly deadpan vocal delivery. Further solidifying her reputation
as a queen of teen angst with "Heathers", she deftly negotiated the
complex terrain as her character advanced from passive hanger-on to murderer with
a conscience, all the while retaining the audience's affection. Excellent as the
child bride of rock idol Jerry Lee Lewis (Dennis Quaid) in "Great Balls of
Fire!" (1989), she was the sole bright spot as the offbeat but intelligent
Dinky in the uneven "Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael" (1990).
with Burton, Ryder (despite an ill-advised long blonde wig) delivered a naturalistic
portrait of a young woman at first repulsed then later drawn to the freakish but
gentle "Edward Scissorhands" (1990). Although the director did not depict
her as thoroughly disaffected, he certainly took ample shots himself at the cookie-cutter
conformity of suburban existence. Rounding out the year as Cher's eldest daughter
in "Mermaids", Ryder played a neurotic Jewish girl who wants to become
a nun to escape the unconventional lifestyle of her mother, receiving the film's
best notices and picking up her first acting award from the National Board of
Review. Though illness reportedly had forced her out of the pivotal role of Mary
Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather, Part III" (1990),
she got her chance to work with the director on "Bram Stoker's Dracula"
(1992). Her pale, sylph-like beauty was perfect for the period piece, and Ryder
provided the film's emotional core without being overshadowed by the film's phantasmagoric
special effects, lavish production design and showier co-stars.