If I can think of one actor who totally embodied the culture of one particular decade, it would have to be Winona Ryder. You can’t think of the 1990s without her. She’s also the one actor in my opinion who desperately deserves a comeback.
Ryder burst on the scene as a young girl in 1986’s Lucas and then two years later became the Goth girl for a generation with her performance as Lydia Deetz in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and the first high school girl of bitchery as Veronica Sawyer in the cult black comedy classic, Heathers. In 1990 she started off the decade strong with Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and then as Charlotte Flax, a young Jewish girl in 1963 who wanted to be a nun because of her crazy mother (Cher, of course!) in Mermaids.
She has that cooky weirdness about her that made the audience both find her fascinating and want to protect her. She was a young girl yet she wasn’t like anything movie audiences had seen before—she was bohemian, original, humble, yet down-to-earth and sincere. In the early 1990s, Ryder had an opportunity to stretch her acting talents in an onslaught of literary period adaptations. As the naively innocent fiancé, May Welland, opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in Martin Scorsese’s lush adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (which garnered her a Supporting Actress nomination and a Golden Globe win), as the tomboy caregiver Jo March in Gillian Armstrong’s smartly directed Little Women (a Lead Actress Nomination), as the promiscuous and dangerous Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and as the destitute Mina in Francis Ford Coppola’s delightfully ridiculous Dracula, Ryder displayed different facets of her personality and became a household name. The one non-period film that perfectly reflects the decade of the 1990s was the Ben Stiller-directed Reality Bites opposite Stiller and Ethan Hawke. Ryder reflected the hopes and anxieties of Generation X as Lelaina Pierce, a post-graduate Valedictorian who can’t find a job and creates a mockumentary film about her friends and what life is like for twenty-somethings in the early 1990s. She finished off the decade as a young woman dealing with mental health problems in 1999’s Girl, Interrupted, a film she executive produced herself.
Then the millennium came, and with it her arrest for shoplifting and her hiatus from films. In my opinion, there’s still a crazy amount of judgment about this incident that continues to haunt and hurt her career, even when other celebrities (Robert Downey Jr., Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise, etc.) can still ride out setbacks (in the forms of drugs, sex scandals, and Scientology). But Ryder can’t seem to catch a break. Her inability to transcend this stigma is both a result of audiences still wanting her to only be who she was in the 1990s and a deep-seated misogyny in the film industry.
While she has made some critically and commercially successful films within the past few years (Star Trek, Black Swan, Frankenweeie, and The Iceman), she has still yet to make a breakout comeback to put her back on the map. At only 42, Ryder still has the talent to make it in the industry. The only problem is that audiences need to accept that she’s no longer Lydia Deetz or Veronica Sawyer still worrying about the problems of high school—she’s a multi-layered woman in the prime of her life. Maybe with the announcement of Beetlejuice 2, Ryder will be able to show us what a grown up version of Lydia will look like—enabling the audience to finally see Ryder not as a symbol of one particular decade, but as an adult actress with incredible potential.