The Beautiful Darkness of Winona Ryder

Netflix’s horror/thriller series Stranger Things has hands down been the best surprise of the summer, proving far more original and entertaining than anything that has come out at the movies all season with its mix of vintage Steven Spielberg AND Stephen King brands of storytelling. At the heart of the show is Winona Ryder’s Joyce, the desperate mother frantically searching for her son who has been taken by some otherworldly force. The popularity of the series has thrust Ryder back into the spotlight in a way the two-time Oscar nominee hasn’t been in for years. With her many scenes full of manic terror and heartbreaking despair, Joyce is the perfect character and overall fitting vehicle for Ryder at this stage of her career, showcasing her maturity and playing on her strengths as an actress. More than that, though, Ryder’s turn in Stranger Things has reminded audiences and the industry of her power as an actress and her unparalleled ability to thrive in the darkest of material.

It seemed almost instantly from her early days in film that Ryder found a comfortable niche in the darker side of cinema, and to this day her most famous roles have been in movies which most actresses wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole due to their supposed lack of commerciality and their off-center ideologies. However, unconventional material is what she’s always been drawn to, and only a unique approach and understanding like hers could showcase the truthfulness behind the dark comedy of Heathers, not to mention the gothic beauty of Dracula. It also came as no surprise to anyone that she should forge such a strong connection and kinship with her male director equivalent, Tim Burton, so much so that only she could bring Beetlejuice’s Lydia and Edward Scissorhands’ Kim to life in such distinct and unforgettable ways, for a time making herself Burton’s ultimate muse.

When Ryder reached the level of A-list movie star, she dabbled in more conventional fare such as the dramas The House of the Spirits and Autumn in New York. Yet it was the more mysterious and somber takes on life which she kept going back to, which have proven to be the most continuous themes throughout her career. In her heyday, when Ryder had her pick of any project written for young actresses, it was the little-seen thriller Boys in which she played a young woman running with her dark past which drew her in. Her penchant for such material made her a natural to play the devious Abigail Williams opposite Daniel-Day Lewis in The Crucible, which saw her turn in one of the most ferocious performances of her career. Even if one of her choices was lacking in either story or direction, Ryder was still able to bring forth the twisted elements which she connected with in the first place, such as the supernatural horror film Lost Souls, which saw her chasing a man who may be the antichrist.

Immediately after Ryder made the conscious decision to walk away from studio films following a lack of involving material and a very public scandal, she fled straight to the indie film world where the cinematic darkness was right there waiting for her. It was during this time that Ryder turned in some of her most interesting and versatile work, such as a woman who unknowingly falls in love with the man who wrote her deceased brother’s suicide note in The Last Word and as a hollow and conflicted past-her-prime news anchor in The Informers, based on Bret Easton Ellis’ book of short stories about 1980s L.A. However it was Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s surrealist novel A Scanner Darkly which showed the actress in a multi-layered role as Keanu Reeves’s drug dealer girlfriend with a hidden agenda. The way Ryder seamlessly plays the two sides of her complicated character is only heightened by the way the film’s gorgeous animation captures her ageless features.

The last few years have seen Ryder make a comeback of sorts, taking on roles in a variety of projects with nothing in common other than presenting alternate views of humanity’s darker side. Darren Aronofsky’s comment on how he purposely kept insisting on take after take from the actress simply because he didn’t want their time together on Black Swan to end is certainly telling. The comment is more than understood when seeing Ryder at her most magnetically unhinged in the film as the aging ballerina forced to give up her reign to Natalie Portman’s fresh-faced ingenue. While the turn didn’t bring forth the kinds of accolades it should have, Ryder’s part in Black Swan ushered in a new phase in her career, allowing her to take roles she couldn’t have before, including a mentally disturbed playwright in The Letter and the wife of one of the most notorious contract killers in U.S. history in The Iceman. In both instances Ryder was lucky enough to be paired with leading men (James Franco in the former and Michael Shannon in the latter) who both fed and elevated her unique acting style.

Recent times have also seen the actress reunite with Burton, arguably the one director in her entire career who has understood her qualities best. In 2012 she voiced a melancholic school girl named Elsa Van Helsing in the director’s widely-praised black & white stop-motion animation piece Frankenweenie. The fact that the 40-year-old Ryder used her own unaltered voice for the middle school-aged character was never thrown into question. For Burton, she was the only actress who got Elsa’s loneliness and isolation from the start. The pair’s last collaboration to date, The Killers’ music video for the band’s single “Here With Me,” beautifully exemplified both artist’s gifts – namely Burton’s knack for sculpting worlds of dark wonder and heightened imagination and Ryder’s ability to appear like she’s lived in them all her life.

The way Ryder has always been able to balance the dark, the curious, and the vulnerable has allowed her to enjoy a definite kinship with the array of complex characters she has chosen to inhabit. The career she has carved for herself has been defined with so much unadulterated boldness and pure instinct, cementing her standing as an actress who, it’s safe to say, will never be classified as “cookie cutter.” Much of this is due to many of Ryder’s supposed real-life quirks, which include an alleged dislike of sunshine, a rumored fear of bright colors, and a noticeable unease in front of large public crowds (always apparent each time Ryder appears on a talk show). It’s no surprise at all that Ryder should thrive in films such as Dracula and Beetlejuice. The characters in those films live in the kind of world she herself seems to belong to, where the weird and the strange appear beautiful and poetic.

Decades on, films such as Heathers and Edward Scissorhands (titles which doubtless many felt would flop due to their unorthodox nature) are now considered classics and have firmly established Ryder as an irreplaceable screen presence and a true movie icon. But it’s not just her knack for picking out such wacky projects which has made her a name. It’s the way she infuses that hypnotic essence she possesses, which allows her to find herself in each role and take back with her a piece of whatever character she has just played once shooting has wrapped, that will forever remain her signature.

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the author

Frank Calvillo lives in Austin, TX and has been in love with movies ever since his father showed him some Three Stooges shorts when he was five years old. Today he loves all kinds of film, regardless of era, country, budget or genre. He believes every film has an audience and is at least one person's favorite movie. His ultimate goal is to write a script for his boyhood crush, Michelle Pfeiffer. Twitter: @frankfilmgeek