Winona Ryder hasn’t changed much. Thirty years since her debut in “Lucas,” she’s still a delicate pixie with giant brown eyes, still the appealingly disheveled outsider. The only difference is, now Ryder is playing the mom instead of the naif.
She’s starring in the series “Stranger Things” on Netflix, and so – as is the case every time she shows up in a movie since her shoplifting scandal in 2001 – we find ourselves asking: Is this Winona Ryder’s big comeback?
The answer is: probably not, at least not if you’re expecting Ryder to reclaim her past glory. Ryder is one of those rare actors whose very presence evokes a certain era. That can be a strength in certain roles, and her casting in “Stranger Things,” set in the 1980s, feels particularly appropriate. But that can also be limiting; just look at the flame-outs of Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Bridget Fonda and pre-”Pulp Fiction” John Travolta. Quentin Tarantino can only revive the careers of so many people.
With her unorthodox commune upbringing, encyclopedic knowledge of movies and harmless brand of subversiveness – not to mention that fact that Timothy Leary was her godfather – Ryder was the aspirational exemplar for 1990s Gen Xers. Somehow she’s still that same person, even as the world around her has changed a lot.
Ryder shot to fame in the time before Twitter and TMZ. Paparazzi didn’t stalk her three-year relationship with Johnny Depp. Even so, Ryder didn’t relish the limelight.
“I remember when I first started being in magazines, I had pretty thin skin,” Ryder told Tavi Gevinson for Interview Magazine. “There was a whole era where I got linked to everybody. People that I had never met. I was like, ‘How? I’m home alone reading chapter 12 of a book.’”
The critics were also starry-eyed. Ryder received two Oscar nominations, for “The Age of Innocence” in 1993 and “Little Women” the next year, and the acclaim for her roles in “Reality Bites,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Beetlejuice,” “Mermaids” and “Girl, Interrupted” was universal. She was a mainstream success, but, with her interest in slightly off-kilter parts, she also had a particular appeal among a niche of outsiders.
“She inspires a kind of cultist love that I don’t see other ingénues inspiring,” “Heathers” screenwriter Daniel Waters told The New York Times recently. That explains why the fanboys love her. J.J. Abrams, for example, cast her as Spock’s mom in 2009’s “Star Trek.”
The Duffer brothers (twins Matt and Ross), who created “Stranger Things,” were especially fond of Ryder because of her roles in the Tim Burton movies they grew up watching.
Their sci-fi mystery series is set in 1983, and everything from its synthesizer-heavy score to its plot twists reveals a deep nostalgia for the movies of yore. There are elements of “Poltergeist” and “E.T.,” “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies.” The story kicks into motion after young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing after a wild night of Dungeons & Dragons at a friend’s house. Ryder plays his mother, and she’s convinced her son is trying to communicate with her through the lightbulbs in her house. It’s up to her, along with her older son and a disenchanted sheriff, to decode what happened.
Ryder is so ideal for the role, not only because she’s so good at exuding a certain brittle scrappiness but because she’s such a wistful presence, always reminding viewers of the past. She’s a human proxy for the 1980s and ’90s, partly because she’s been frozen in time since she was the Gen X poster child – she took years off from acting after that shoplifting arrest and hasn’t had a major role since.
She’s also either delightfully analog or an annoying Luddite, depending on your perspective (and probably your generation). She keeps cassettes of memorable voice mails and VHS bootlegs, she said in a recent interview. She doesn’t understand the allure of a stylist and, in that same vein, hasn’t caught on to the person-as-brand ethos of modern celebrity. She doesn’t tweet or Instagram or Snapchat. “Even the term ‘followers’ is faintly creepy to me,” she told the Telegraph a couple years ago.
Aside from that small role in “Star Trek,” in recent years she’s played a cheating wife in the Vince Vaughn-Kevin James comedy “The Dilemma” and an angry has-been ballerina in “Black Swan.” She also did very good work in parts few people saw, playing scientist Stanley Milgram’s wife in “The Experimenter” and a councilwoman in the HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero.”
“Stranger Things” is the closest thing she’s had to a lead role. Even though it’s an ensemble drama, Ryder stands out as much for who she is as how well she acts.
Of course, people are going to immediately wonder what’s next for her supposed big comeback. There’s chatter about a “Beetlejuice” sequel, and she’ll be in a Marc Jacobs ad campaign.
In the meantime, she’s making the press rounds for her new series. Her interviews reveal no viral-ready sound bites, and publicity stunts aren’t in her playbook. She may not get back to A-list status again, but maybe that’s all right. Hasn’t she done enough?