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?
Winona Ryder got her start in the 1986 teen cult classic, Lucas. Lucas 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.
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.
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.
1989 was a very big year for Ryder. Heathers was released in the US (it opened in Europe in ’88).
Daniel Waters wrote Heathers for legendary director, Stanley Kubrick. Originally, the script ran over three hours and Waters was convinced that Kubrick was the only director with the clout to film it at that length. After several failed attempts to convince Kubrick to direct, Waters settled for Michael Lehmann.
The original choice for the role of Veronica was Jennifer Connelly. When she turned down the part, that opened the door for Ryder. Ryder, who was 16 at the time, begged for the role. Eventually, Waters agreed and she was cast.
Heathers is a dark comedy about high school suicide. It is pitch black even by dark comedic standards. Ryder’s Veronica hangs out with the popular girls at school all of whom are named Heather. Ryder’s character begins a relationship with the new boy in town played by Christian Slater. Eventually, the duo begins killing off the popular kids and covering their tracks with fake suicide notes.
Heathers was a small movie. Over the years, it has maintained a loyal cult following, so it feels bigger than it was at the time. But its dark subject matter, no-name cast and low-budget made it a tough sell to the mainstream. It actually flopped at the box office grossing roughly half of its two million dollar budget. But it more than made up for that over the years on video.
More important than the film’s box office performance was the cultural impact. Hollywood has been trying (and mostly failing) to make the next Heathers ever since.
Ryder has been talking up a sequel in recent years. But both writer Daniel Waters and director Michael Lehmann have denied it. Says Lehman:
“Winona’s been talking about this for years — she brings it up every once in a while and Dan Waters and I will joke about it, but as far as I know there’s no script and no plans to do the sequel.”
In 2012, it was announced that a Heathers TV show was in development. The show would have centered on Veronica and her teenage daughter who must contend with a new generation of mean girls. The new girls were all named Ashley and have descended from the two surviving Heathers from the movie. Thankfully, it was not to be.
Posted on July 21, 2011, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actress and tagged alien, Beetlejuice, dracula, Edward Scissorhands, entertainment, girl, Heathers, interrupted, Johnny Depp, little women, lucas, mermaids, movies, reality bites, star trek, the black swan, Winona Ryder. Bookmark the permalink. 213 Comments.