What the Hell Happened to Winona Ryder?


She was arguably the actress of my generation.  Or at least she was during my late teens and early 20’s.  And then, she disappeared from the big screen in the midst of a bizarre shoplifting scandal.

What the hell happened?

ryder - lucas

Winona Ryder got her start in the 1986 teen cult classic, LucasLucas was one of the better coming-of-age dramas from this time.  Many members of its cast of unknowns would go on to be stars.

Lucas was of course played by the late Corey Haim and the film co-starred the scandal-prone warlock, Charlie Sheen.  Ryder played Lucas’ best friend with an unrequited crush.  Courtney Thorne-Smith and Jeremy Piven had small roles as well.

Everything about Lucas is cliché right down to the slow clap that ended every coming of age movie from the 80’s.  But the cast and execution set it apart.  Ryder’s role was small, but it helped get her noticed for later roles.

ryder - square dance

In 1987, Ryder got her first lead role in the low-budget country music drama, Square Dance which co-starred Jason Robards and Rob Lowe.

Ryder plays a teen from the country who ventures into the city.  No doubt she learns important life lessons.  I haven’t seen the movie myself, so I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a slow clap.

Odds are you haven’t heard of Square Dance either.  It’s a small movie.  But it showed casting directors that Ryder could play a lead.


In 1988, Ryder appeared in Beetlejuice.

Beetlejuice was a transitional film for director Tim Burton.  Pee Wee’s Big Adventure had shown that the former Disney animator could direct a hit film.  Based on the success of that film, Warner Brothers was willing to develop his idea for a Batman movie.  But they wouldn’t green light it yet.

In the meanwhile, Burton began looking at scripts he could direct at a budget the studio would agree to.  He settled on the supernatural comedy, Beetlejuice.  Burton cast Ryder as the goth teen, Lydia Deetz, after seeing her performance in Lucas.  The rest of the cast was filled with actors who would also go on to great success.

Beetlejuice helped save Michael Keaton‘s flagging career.   It gave Burton the clout he needed to make his Batman movie.  Ryder (along with co-stars Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) didn’t get as much credit for Beetlejuice‘s success.  But it certainly helped get them noticed.  And it was the start of a partnership with Tim Burton.

ryder 1969

In 1988, Ryder also appeared in 1969.  That’s the name of a movie.  I didn’t mean to suggest Ryder was a time traveler.

In the late 80’s, there was a wave of 60’s nostalgia that elevated hippies to the level of sainthood.  As a result, Hollywood released a handful of movies starring the 80’s brat pack celebrating the Summer of Love.

1969 starred Ryder, Keifer Sutherland (who went on to star in the hippie-comedy Flashback) and Robert Downey Jr.  1969 didn’t have much of an impact on anyone’s career.  It got mixed reviews and disappointed at the box office.

Next: Heathers and Edward Scissorhands

Posted on July 21, 2011, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actress and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 216 Comments.

  1. lebeau,

    Just some interesting cross-WTHH tidbits for you to mull over, the next time you update this:

    Lost Souls was produced by Meg Ryan’s production company, Prufrock Pictures, initially as a vehicle for her to star in (duh). When she eventually passed, Winona came aboard. I thought I read somewhere that when Lost Souls bombed, it took Prufrock with it, but that doesn’t appear to be the case (though obviously it didn’t help matters any, as imdb says Prufrock’s last movie was in 2002).

    That fascinating NY Times article about Lindsay Lohan and The Canyons reminded me of this nugget: in 2003(?) Woody Allen supposedly wanted to cast Ryder and Robert Downey Jr in Melinda & Melinda, but couldn’t afford (or even get?) the insurance on the two.

    One of the lower-profile films in Winona’s post-shoplifting resume: The Informers (2008), starring potential WTHH candidates Billy Bob Thornton and Mickey Rourke, and Kim Basinger (who’s probably the only bright spot in this otherwise terrible movie).

    Winona supposedly auditioned for and beat out Uma Thurman (among others) for the thankless job of being Kevin James’ wife in The Dilemma (I think EW said that Uma actually “flew herself in” to audition for the role.. if true I guess that just proves how hard it is for 40-something actresses in Hollywood…).


    • Thanks RL. Those are some terrific little nuggets. I will definitely incorporate some of these details next time I update this article.


      • You prob’ly know this already, but one of the horror films Ryder starred in — “Lost Souls,” perhaps — she refused to go “on the road” to promote it (talk shows & the like, I guess).

        Ryder was in one of THE WORST — perhaps THE VERY WORST — movie I’ve yet seen: “The Ten,” in which she passionately kissed a ventriloquist’s dummy. I felt sorry for her, I really did…this was the ONLY movie after viewing it on DVD that I was actually ANGRY at the actors, writers, and directors…in fact (pardon my ego) here is my amazon review of it:

        Have you ever seen a movie so bad that you actually held your head in your hands, shaking it in disbelief? Ever see a movie SO UTTERLY AWFUL that you’ve gained a new level of respect for ED WOOD? Not the biopic about Ed Wood, but Ed Wood himself???

        It has happened. I’ve seen a movie so inexplicably appalling that I’m in favor of mandatory mental competency tests being given to Hollywood directors, actors, and screenwriters before a frame of film is shot. This cinematic cold sore is The Ten. It’s an allegedly comedic collection of short stories “based” on each one of the Ten Commandments [tee hee].

        Let’s see, where to begin: IT’S NOT FUNNY. Not in the slightest. The stories have little or nothing to do with the particular Commandment to which it’s linked…unless, of course, one can truly draw a line from the “thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s goods” ruling and connect it to two guys in prison making the beast with two backs (get the kids out of the room). Here’s a sample of the dialogue, an argument between The Ten’s host/moderator (played by, alas, Paul Rudd) has with his wife (Famke Janssen) in front of gigantic approximations of those TWO STONE TABLETS Moses brought down from Mt. Lebanon or wherever:

        Man: You know what, Gretchen? You know what you can do?
        Wife: Don’t say something you’re gonna regret.
        Man: Go…
        Man: Fly…
        Wife: I’m warning you, Jeff.
        Man: A…
        Wife: Don’t you say it!
        Man [earnestly]: Go fly a kite, Gretchen! Go fly a kite!

        Get a load of this: A street sign reads, “No Parking 8AM – 6PM Mon. thru Adultery.” One cop says amid a gathering of policemen [after they see a crime], “Maybe we should call the cops.” OY, what a hoot! Plus there’s plenty of ham-fisted humor about butt-banging, size of the male member, California Gov. Ah-nuld, Mexican farmers, the Rapture, and a Mexican guy named “Jesus” who’s really…the son of G*d! Golly, what guffaws!

        Further, Jessica Alba proves once again how gosh-awful CUTE and yummy-hot she is while displaying minimal acting ability. Winona R pours herself into a scene where she’s passionately French-kissing a ventriloquist’s dummy. Oh the humanity! I actually felt sorry for her. I would rather eviscerate myself with a rusty lawnmower than sit through Ten again.

        If there’s somebody you wish to excise from your life, to cast him or her into the Abyss of the Formerly Known, give that special someone a DVD of The Ten. Give this wretched excuse for a “movie” to a friend and make an instant enemy.


        • I’ve seen video on dailymotion of Ryder promoting Lost Souls via E! interview, but heard the same thing about her reluctance to promote it. She was pretty much MIA for the recent Homefront as well…

          I’ll sadly concur with your assessment of the cringe-inducing “The Ten”. The only saving grace for Ryder’s participation in it IMO is that she was in two of the ‘better’ vignettes (relatively speaking). And Shemp, you’re very restrained :) in describing what she does with the puppet… anyone curious should search on Youtube.

          I keep telling myself that the actress who gambled on Heathers (and won) will of course tend to pick other risky, ‘out there’ comedies (Sex and Death 101, The Ten) and lose…


  2. Watching a Woody Allen movie is worse than getting a tooth extraction without novocane! How can this third rate hack keep making movies that his ugly ass gets to star in?


  3. 10 Actors Who Completely Wasted Their Careers:

    8. Winona Ryder

    Winona Ryder became a crowd and critical favorite after her starring role in Beetlejuice and went on to cement that profile by starring in popular films like Heathers, Edward Scissorhands, Dracula, Age Of Innocence, and Reality Bites. She was even supposed to star as Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III and undoubtedly would have improved the ridiculed film had she not pulled out because of exhaustion.

    In the mid 1990s she starred in the box office bomb The Crucible and the disappointing Alien Resurrection, but with her talent Ryder could easily have overcome those setbacks.

    But then in December 2001, Ryder was arrested for shoplifting $5500 worth of clothes from a Beverly Hills department store. During the highly publicized trial Ryder was accused of being on various drugs to explain why a millionaire would steal clothing, and she was found guilty on most of the charges and had to serve probation.

    Though she has since worked steadily in lower budget films or bit parts in blockbusters (like 2009′s Star Trek) her career has never recovered from the stigma of her bizarre crimes.


    • The author of that list picked a terribly sensationalist title for it, and made some questionable choices… I don’t care how many bad movies De Niro makes near his career’s end, he doesn’t belong on a ‘completely wasted his career’ list like this, and especially not at #1! (Ahead of Lindsay Lohan? Seriously?)

      I also don’t agree that Ryder ‘completely wasted’ her career. ‘Could have been a bigger star’ or ‘Could have stayed A-List/near A-List longer’ I could (sadly) agree with. But ‘wasted’? Not really. If anything, she capitalized on what would have to be considered, at least partly, luck (Beetlejuice was her 3rd movie, and she actually turned it down before reconsidering; Heathers was truly lightning in a bottle, considering the relatively unremarkable future careers of Lehmann and Waters) to really strike it big while she was young, and stay relevant for far longer than many teen stars do.


    • 10 Amazing Actresses Hollywood Don’t Know What To Do With:

      Winona Ryder

      Winona Ryder may be a convicted kleptomaniac and a kook, but they forgave RDJ, and now he’s the highest paid actor on Earth. For Ryder, a two-time Oscar nominee that was regarded as an exciting, vibrant talent in her youth, thankless roles in films like Star Trek (which was a major critical and commercial success, but it gave Ryder nothing to do) and Homefront (a Jason Statham action vehicle? Come on!) is the best she can currently get.

      Only supporting roles in The Iceman, in which Ryder easily holds her own against the powerhouse that is Michael Shannon, and Black Swan, which finds the actress scarily parodying her lot as a faded former star, have given her much to do post-arrest. It’s difficult to know whether the 2001 trial for shoplifting has been the sole reason for Ryder’s fall from grace, or if it’s her stubborn refusal to stay in her 20s forever that’s seen the offers dry up, but she certainly has the acting skills to get back to where she once was.


    • They Threw It Away – Self-Destruction and Acting Careers:

      I agree Winona did far more with her career than she had any right to have done–she is not an exceprionally talented actress, even thought he camera loves her. She was twice up for Oscars (for Little Women and The Age of Innocence) and was even a favorite for the latter performance, though she got beat out by Anna Paquin. Had she done a Barbara Walters confessional after the shoplifting incident and admitted she was f***ed up and had made a horrible mistake, she would have been able to revive her career; instead, she stuck to her stupid and unbelievable story she was shoplifiting “as preparation for a role”, and kept waiting for people to forgive her with out apologizing, and no one did.

      by: Anonymous reply 56 01/06/2014 @ 04:43PM


    • 9 Celebrities Who Committed Career Suicide!:

      1. Winona Ryder

      Winona Ryder was a huge film star in the late ‘80s and all through the ‘90s. She landed a number of diverse leading roles in many well-received films including “Edward Scissorhands,” “Reality Bites” and “Girl Interrupted;” however, after getting arrested for shoplifting at a Saks Fifth Avenue department store, she became better known for her personal struggles with depression and anxiety. The arrest also put an end to Ryder’s promising career as a heavyweight dramatic actress.


    • Future of Movie Stars: Who Will Shine? Who Will Fade Away?


      I never of the shoplifting incident being the thing that ruined Winona Ryder’s career. In looking at her IMDb page, it seems her peak years were the late 1980s to mid-1990s and if someone is a doe-eyed ingenue, outgrowing that stage in life is a major career challenge. She was already well on the downslope long before 2001. It reminds me a bit of Meg Ryan and how the Russell Crowe affair gets blamed for completely ruining her career, when being a cutesy rom-com sweetheart approaching forty and the awful plastic surgery she went on to have, were factors, too. She tried some serious dramas well before the scandal, but the nominations didn’t follow. There were other actresses close in age who were more popular, got more critical acclaim, hadn’t jacked up their faces, or some combination of all three.


  4. Gone Girl: The Disappearance of Winona Ryder


    Thoughtful retrospective from a sad fan…


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