Thursday, July 14, 2016

Theory Thursday: Winona Ryder is Underrated

Winona Ryder in Stranger Things
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Stranger Things premieres on Netflix this Friday
Theory: Winona Ryder is underrated.


Ryder in Bram Stoker's Dracula
Some weeks it seems that Theory Thursday is harder to do than others. On this particular week, there isn't a drought of topics necessarily, but there's a ton that feel counter-intuitive. I could talk about why Melissa McCarthy isn't my favorite actress, but that would appeal to those fanning the flames against Ghostbusters (which I don't intend to see nor blindly bash because of women). I could probably talk about Cafe Society and recite why Kristen Stewart is underrated, though I have done that previous - also, there's an endless well of Woody Allen-related material, but nothing that strikes my interest this week. So, what exactly does that leave? Considering that I choose topics relative to Oscars culture, or even more generally quality movies, it doesn't seem right to piggyback on Emmy nominations either. So, just what is there then that would make for a compelling article? 

The answer came in a roundabout way and is not one that I'm not necessarily convinced is controversial enough for the "Theory Thursday" tag. Like most people, the idea of new Netflix series have their appeal, and this weekend marks the release of their latest: Stranger Things. As usual, I abstain from marketing materials to better go into these shows blindly (also, I can't be alone in thinking that the commercials aren't that great). However, there was one performer at the center of the casting list that caught my interest: Winona Ryder. I have a soft spot for her that almost guarantees that I'll watch at least the first episode. It's then that I began to think: Are people watching this because of Ryder? Do people even remember that she's an actress? There's a lot that came into my subconscious and, while not actually backed by overwhelming opinions of others, I do think that it's time that we do give her a little bit of an appreciation.

Ryder is underrated, if just when you compare her legacy to other stalwarts that she's crossed paths with. She arguably was involved in making Tim Burton the best that he could be. She starred in Bram Stoker's Dracula, which is arguably the best and most faithful version of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" to ever exist (also, Francis Ford Coppola's direction and set design is phenomenal). There's of course other hits like Girl InterruptedHeathers and Black Swan to account for. Still, her resume isn't shy of the familiar hits and misses. The only issue is that where many people talk about her peers with a certain reverence, even calling them the best of their generation, it seems like Ryder gets ignored. It could be that her shoplifting scandal of 2001 set her career back unfairly. It could be that there's not as many meaty roles coming towards her nowadays. Whatever the case may be, her career has been far greater than given credit. Yes, she has two Oscar nominations to her credit, but she also has an understated charisma.


For starters, one can look at Tim Buton's career between his first film (Pee-Wee's Big Adventure) and his second (Beetlejuice). Before he met Johnny Depp, he met Ryder. Considering that his debut hardly counts as a Burton-esque film, his follow-up may as well serve as the template by which he has based the rest of his career. Yes, it may feature the far more beloved performance by Michael Keaton, and has a certain charm in the "scare the squares" department; but there's Ryder. She embodied a new archetype that was still an outlier by 1988. She was the "goth" outsider - much like Burton himself - who enjoyed having a kooky personality and had an enviable deadpan humor. Sure, Beetlejuice reflects creativity at its full potential, but there's a reason that Ryder stands out. She's endearing despite finding interest in the supernatural. She makes the film work before Keaton even makes an entrance. She can be scathing without turning the audience against her. She can be vulnerable without being weak. It is a performance that makes the movie great.

Of course, there's that type-casting that did happen. She did star in Heathers, which is one of the great dark high school comedies of the 80's. Her bluntness is even more on display and her balance of homicidal tendencies and passion makes her two for two in terms of oddball teenage characters. Actors would be fine having one of these. She managed to do this consistently, choosing to be edgy in ways that still worked within an accessible mode. By the time that she reteamed with Burton in Edward Scissorhands, she was starting to have a career and was allowed to be a far more normal person who just so happened to love a guy with scissors for hands. One could argue that this makes her a "Hot Topic" idol, but this was only one side that she occasionally revisited; including much later in Girl Interrupted where she took a far more serious look at women's liberation and mental illness. The only catch was that her performance was overshadowed by Angelina Jolie's Oscar-worthy role (also, Ryder was way older than her character).

She was also able to adapt to classic literature adaptations such as Little Women and The Age of Innocence, both of which landed her Oscar nominations. Along with The Crucible and Bram Stoker's Dracula, she seemed to fit as well in costume dramas as she did in goth make-up. She was able to be reserved, playing an outsider occasionally who wasn't so for her weird actions. She was at times fearless and capable of adding nuance to a roll that allowed her to have occasional dives into less than stellar work such as the romantic comedy Mr. Deeds. Still, she seemed to exist in a place of consistency without making a big deal about it. If nothing else, she also could prove to be a normal person and still make effecting cinema of contemporary times with Reality Bites: a film that is very much of its time but is fun nonetheless. For an outsider actress, she seemed to be able to play anything from Depp's girlfriend to alongside Daniel Day-Lewis on more than one occasion. 


There's too much of a 30 year career to properly get into here. However, she hasn't necessarily strayed too far from doing great, if underrated work. Yes, she reteamed with Burton on the less than stellar Frankenweenie, and became increasingly hit and miss after the turn of the millennium. Yet she still could produce great work when it was given to her. She branched out more into comedy while working on existential dramas like A Scanner Darkly. She has cameo roles in works like Drunk History and The Ten while having one small yet arresting scene in the Star Trek remake. Even her resume has been sprinkled with smaller roles, she still makes her brevity count.

Among her later roles, there likely won't be one as indicative of her career as Black Swan. In a campy, psycho-sexual tale of ballerinas and aging, she plays the experienced dancer who is too old to play Natalie Portman's role. While the story is about competition, Ryder's brief role is to show the ravages of age and pettiness. If nothing, it joins films like All About Eve and The Clouds of Sils Maria in showing women in a vulnerable and tragic part of their career. Black Swan may not strike many as a comeback, but it does feel like a synopsis of a certain point that most actresses face. It's tragic to watch Ryder look the future in the eyes, and it's harder because of how true it seems to be of her career following it. While she has done great work, she has become that character, overlooked despite being still young and spry.

The one advantage is that Ryder also has done excellent work in last year's miniseries Show Me a Hero, where she played a small role to Oscar Isaac's main struggle of inner city housing. Still, it was a powerful cast, and one that worked thanks to its diversity and having The Wire creator David Simon available to tell the story thoroughly and accurately. While it doesn't necessarily give Ryder a second career breakout role, it definitely shows that she's still capable of picking great roles. While I have no opinion yet on Stranger Things, the fact that it is on Netflix and is getting a decent amount of press makes me hopeful that it's good. While the streaming service has become increasingly hit and miss with content, it does seem like this is being billed as one of the better things of 2016.

If nothing else, it's hard to imagine a cinematic landscape that wasn't influenced by Ryder. Just look at Heathers or Beetlejuice. Yes, Burton gets most of the credit - even his more frequent partner Helena Bonham Carter. However, try to not look at Ryder and not see an archetype that has popped out of it. She was a strong woman with a dark side, sometimes macabre but usually just scathing towards those who picked on her. It's hard then to ignore in light of the outsider woman that came with Thora Birch in Ghost World, Ellen Page in Juno, or even Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones. While not direct copies, there's a certain credit to Ryder that should be given. While I definitely think that audiences will accept that she was good (and thus make my underrated spiel a bit of a stretch), I think that we should at least assess that she was better than we're sometimes giving her credit for. 

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