Winona Ryder at Stranger Things 2 Premiere
Photo: Getty Images


Winona Ryder is back making quirky cool again

As Stranger Things returns to our screens, Winona Ryder is iconic again – and that’s exactly as it should be, says Rachael Sigee

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By Rachael Sigee on

While the world, and especially Hollywood, seems to be on the edge of a precipice right now, at least one wrong has been righted: Winona Ryder is iconic again.

Thank goodness for that. The chief officer of oddities is back in her proper place. Namely, at the top of everyone’s Halloween costume wish list in a screen role that feels familiar and exciting at the same time. It’s like bumping into your teenage ex and discovering the chemistry is still there.

Stranger Things is back and so is beloved, bonkers Joyce Byers. Creators the Duffer brothers rewrote the character for Ryder and it makes sense: Joyce – wild-eyed, ragged around the edges and utterly resolute – could only be played by her.

It is hard to think of an actor who has delivered more performances that have lodged so firmly in our consciousness as cult classics. As the ultimate killer of queen bees in Heathers, eternal goth Lydia in Beetlejuice or the cheerleader with a soft spot for scissor-handed oddballs, she managed to be both the archetypal misfit and also the coolest girl in the world (when it was still cool to be dating Johnny Depp, and not potentially dangerous). Ask yourself this – would there be anything more thrilling than having those enormous glassy eyes rolled at you?

She managed to be both the archetypal misfit and also the coolest girl in the world

She was more than an It Girl. She could give wildly honest interviews that would induce a heart attack in most publicists and simultaneously be approved enough by the establishment to receive Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe. Now, we’re used to actresses taking on production roles to have more control over their careers, but Ryder was doing it back in 1999 with Girl, Interrupted which she battled for years to bring to the screen.

An emerging force of nature in the 80s. A bonafide Hollywood icon in the 90s. And then a distinctly worrying time, when it seemed like we might not have any more to add to our ever-rotating ranking of favourite Ryders (everyone had this, right?).

Winona Ryder as Veronica Sawyer in Heathers

In light of what we now know of the toxicity of Hollywood over the last few decades, the grand derailment of Winona Ryder seems almost quaint. Shoplifting $5,500 worth of designer clothes from a Saks Fifth Avenue store in Beverly Hills wasn’t exactly the ball of flames that we might expect to define a career.

It was bizarre, but she was hardly Robert Downey Jr; she was barely Martha Stewart. But the trial was an international obsession, revealing her struggles with mental health and use of prescription drugs. She was sentenced to three years’ probation, community service and drug counselling.

And, whether she retreated into obscurity for her own health’s sake or was frozen out by a cautious industry unwillingly to rehabilitate their favourite rebel (once she had actually done something rebellious), we were denied a noughties Ryder. (Although, in hindsight, the pictures of her in the middle of a paparazzi scrum outside the courthouse, in which she reportedly had her arm broken by a piece of falling camera equipment, are perfect snapshots of the celebrity-gossip-frenzied early-2000s.)

Hollywood likes to label famous women, so it’s easier to keep them in line, but Ryder didn’t really fit the mould. Perhaps that’s why her relatively mundane scandal endured – finally, the epithet “troubled” could accompany her name.

Ryder has said that she spent her thirties being technically old enough to play certain roles, but too associated with younger ones to actually be cast. This is a woman who had a prolific output at a terrifyingly young age: Beetlejuice, Heathers, Edward Scissorhands and Mermaids were all completed before she was 20. It seemed like Ryder was destined to exist only in a sort of perpetual teenage dream, her angst and rawness and naivety and smarts preserved in the amber of a heydey that had long since passed.

Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice

So, to have her returned to us, aged 45 (looking, it has to be said, almost exactly the same as she did two decades ago) feels like a treat that we – and certainly her industry – did not deserve. The only person cooler than a young Winona Ryder is Winona Ryder now.

We got a taster in 2010, with her role in Black Swan. The ballerina, pushed over the hill by the latest ingenue, would have been nowhere near as potent or brittle without Ryder playing it.

In Stranger Things, her tiny frame, translucent skin and elfin features are just as captivating as they ever were, her face just as expressive. The only headlines after this year’s SAG Awards were about Ryder’s contorted glances as her co-star David Harbour accepted the Best Ensemble award for the Stranger Things cast. From just a few minutes on stage, there are reaction GIFs that cater to every situation imaginable.

She is unmistakably herself, while at the same time being able to inhabit characters entirely, whether she is tangled in fairy lights, accidentally murdering her best friends or dancing in the snow. She could, and still can be, both defined by a role and still be Winona.

Johnny Depp might have altered his tattoo in the 90s, but 2017 is a good time to be proudly in favour of Winona Forever.


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