winona forever: the lasting influence of a 90s icon

As returns to screens in a new Netflix series, we look back through the career of the 90s most beguiling and era-defining actress.

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Jul 7 2016, 1:58pm

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Thanks to Netflix you're about to gaze into Winona Ryder's big, dark eyes for hours on end, binge-watching the upcoming supernatural thriller series Stranger Things. As welcome as it is, though, it's also a reminder of her patchy film work of late; a reminder that Peak Winona was well and truly every single day of the 90s, bookended by Edward Scissorhands and Girl, Interrupted.

When the curtains closed on that decade, alas, so did the golden era of Winona. Since then she's had a bunch of roles — notably in 2010's Black Swan in which she plays an aging ballet dancer; oh, and Spock's mom in Star Trek —but nothing like the string of badass characters that 90s Winona left trailing in her wake. So what happened? Perhaps it has something to do with that 2001 shoplifting incident and her ongoing battles with depression; perhaps it has something to do with Hollywood's reluctance to offer decent roles to any woman over the age of 25. Probably a bit of all three.

Putting that to one side, though, Winona will always own the 90s. Back then she was the poster girl for grunge, propelled to fame via the dark, romantic lens of Tim Burton, with a flawless résumé of unique characters under her belt. In Beetlejuice she had played the pale-faced goth weirdo who levitates to "Shake Senora." She was mysterious and introspective, epitomizing the quiet outsider kid who identifies with the geeks but who also listens to 'underground' music. With those piercing wide eyes, her screen presence was irresistible — to Burton, to us, and of course, to Johnny Depp, whom she was engaged to by the time Edward Scissorhands hit screens in 1990. Naturally the press drew an epic heart around the Hollywood darlings and dubbed their love as the romance of the decade.

She was 19 at the time, her career skyrocketing. Off screen the press churned out column inches on Depp's "Winona Forever" tattoo and the couple's adorable puppy love. On screen her name was fast-becoming synonymous with artistic credibility and alternative indie cinema. Teens everywhere could relate to her outsider characters, pumped full of angst and misty-eyed romance. Even when the lucrative blockbuster offers came flooding in, Winona consistently bagged the most interesting roles in the most interesting movies. To remember those 90s movies now is to remember an unconventional leading actress who 100% owned her roles, while raising a middle finger to studio execs with rigid notions of female characters.

Of course, everyone remembers when they first fell in love with Winona. For some it was when she stared into Edward Scissorhands' jet-black eyes, imploring him to hold her with his razor-sharp fingers; for others it was when she tentatively poked a pistol in Christian Slater's face in Heathers. For me it was when she drove a cab around LA and blew bubbles with her gum in Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth. In that early 90s indie, she flipped her cap backwards, lit a cigarette, and climbed into the driver's seat. This was Winona at her most androgynous: baggy flannel shirt, greasy hair, oil-smeared cheeks. She looks like she just walked out of a Pearl Jam gig circa 1990. As Corky the cabbie, she declines her passenger's request to star in a major Hollywood movie. Fame just isn't for her, she says. You sense Winona winking into the camera here with a look that says, "I am this girl."

She had the decade-defining slacker look down to a T in that film, but no character embodied the Gen X quarter-life crisis quite like Reality Bites' Lelaina Pierce and her slacker cohorts. Watching it as a twentysomething you feel like Winona is channeling your own anxiety about your future, your disastrous job interviews, your failed relationships. Basically she captures the life of the mid-90s, when procrastinating from job-hunting meant lighting a joint and watching MTV all day long. Who'd have thought that a film directed by Ben Stiller in 1994 would feature Winona's career-crowning performance? It's deeply felt, romantic, heartbreaking, perceptive, sincere.

It's kind of hard to believe that, at that time, in the mainstream, Baywatch was raking in the viewers and Alicia Silverstone was box office gold. Where did an actress like Winona slot in among her peers? Perhaps somewhere in between Liv Tyler and Parker Posey? Between Neve Campbell and Christina Ricci? No, they couldn't touch Winona.

If you Google '90s actress' a familiar cluster of starlets appear — Cameron Diaz, Carmen Electra, Silverstone. The most incongruous person on that page, nestled among those actresses like a rare cult movie plucked out of a bargain bin of low-rent blockbusters, is Winona, with her short dark hair, icy white skin, and luminous eyes. But she wasn't just an actress with a one-of-a-kind look; she was an actress whose pockets were overflowing with one-of-a-kind roles.

In the late 90s she went from playing an insomniac movie extra in Woody Allen's Celebrity to a white-blooded cyborg in Alien: Resurrection. Every director in town still dreamed of her face adorning their movie poster. But she had her own special project in mind, something she'd been trying to get made for years. 1999's Girl, Interrupted —which she produced as well as starred in — saw her enter the mind of Susanna, a deeply depressed and lonely young woman whose 18-month stay at a mental hospital changes her life forever. It was personal for Winona because she had felt that loneliness and depression as a movie star. In an interview from the time, she talks about her paralyzing anxiety: "I was getting thoughts like I don't want to be here anymore."

Describing what drew her to the role, she explains, "I found her so captivating, beautifully written, familiar, and intelligent." Which is something you could say about the majority of her characters. Back then, Winona was many things — a style icon, a versatile actress, a one-time Bjork impersonator — but her originality lied in her careful selection of movie roles and how they reflected facets of her own character. 90s Winona could light up any film. 90s Winona was the queen of the big screen. But hey, let's be optimistic here. Looking ahead to Stranger Things and Beetlejuice 2 (God I hope that one works out), it looks like The Winonaissance is imminent.

@OliverLunn

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Text Oliver Lunn