Today marks the 20th anniversary of Winona Ryder's screen debut in Lucas (1986). For Ryder it was the launching of a strange film career in which she, as the most human of movie stars, has constantly bucked against the machine of movie stardom. For the rest of us, the scene depicted above, when Ryder pushes through a crowd and steps up to the camera for the first time, was the moment fate sealed forever with an audible snap.
Said ex-fiancee Johnny Depp of Ryder's improbable coffee-brown eyes, "you could dive into them and never leave." The loveliest screen visage since Louise Brooks, and for some the only contender, Ryder shares with Brooks the stubborn refusal of dumb-tongued, empty-eyed glamour, no matter how many vintage 1920s Oscar gowns she slides into. The seductive aesthetic of Generation X (reclaim it with pride, brothers and sisters) is an ability to look good while dicking off. Nobody in the business looks as good or can slack as hard as Winona Ryder. Every time you nominate the woman for Best Actress, she's outside on a smoke break, reading a battered Catcher in the Rye.
How has it manifested onscreen for twenty years?
Ryder's fine, funny and sweet in Lucas. She draws the eye like a laser pointer, heart a-ache for Corey Haim's Lucas - such a loser she cannot snag the school loser- and punky-adorable in proto-grungewear. It's an obvious straight path to her early celebrated outsider roles in black comedy classics Beetlejuice, Heathers and Edward Scissorhands.
My favorite Ryder performances are of course the above - her Lydia Dietz sucking all energy out of a room in Beetlejuice to the point where her nerve-frazzled yuppie father can barely speak to her coherently; Veronica Sawyer inHeathers frantically scribbling diatribes in her journal, until she embarrasses herself in writing: "God! I sound like a fucking psycho!" But also her dim-bulb Mina Harker lighting up and discovering her soul through the black poetry of Bram Stoker's Dracula (the way she hisses "Take me away from all this... death" is terrifying, sad, and raises arm-hair- among other things; it's a great reading). Her eyelash-batting human monkey-wrench May Welland Archer in Age of Innocence. Her ultimate species outsider Annalee Call in Alien: Resurrection is like an android Pikachu, easily wounded, pouty and tenacious. I can go on and on. For twenty years. (On the other tack, if you want Ryder at her most jaw-droppingly hot, investigate Reality Bites, How to Make an American Quilt, and (gulp) Autumn in New York)
It's the lady's particular Cool that she is opinionated, well-read, blithely disinterested in the icon business - sure, that's all James Dean fine-and-good. The unspoken appeal of Winona Ryder isn't gamine perfection (though she's got it in excess). It's not casual iconoclasm. You cannot help but recognize yourself in and love someone so aggressively screwed-up and real.
May we all dive in and never leave.