Winona Ryder: 10 essential performances

From Beetlejuice to Stranger Things, we journey back through the remarkable film and TV career of Winona Ryder.

Alex Davidson
Updated:

Heathers (1988)

Heathers (1988)

The huge success of the Netflix sci-fi series Stranger Things is deserving for so many reasons. The excellent child actors. The superb score. The warm recreation of 1980s movie tropes. For many viewers, though, particularly those who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s, the sweetest pleasure was seeing the popular return of Winona Ryder, one of the most iconic actors of the era.

At the peak of her career, few young actors showed such range. The teenagers she played were completely different – goth Lydia Deetz, subversive Veronica Sawyer, naive Myra Gale Brown, awkward Charlotte Flax – yet Ryder succeeds in making them all charismatic and very likeable characters, despite their flaws. Although in the years before Stranger Things the films she appeared in didn’t match the quality of her earlier work, she nevertheless has a hugely impressive range of memorable performances to her name, and whittling this list down to 10 was a challenge – if only there were room for her poignant May Welland in The Age of Innocence (1993), for which she won her only Golden Globe.

Beetlejuice (1988)

Director Tim Burton

Beetlejuice (1988)

In her first collaboration with Tim Burton, Ryder is the goth teenager incarnate playing Lydia Deetz, who is saddled with a ridiculous stepmother (Catherine O’Hara) and forced to move into what turns out to be a haunted house. Lydia is able to see the ghosts of the house’s previous inhabitants (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin), whom she befriends and tries to save from a fate even worse than death by calling on the services of Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a wily, obnoxious spirit.

All of the cast are so strong in Burton’s film, and Ryder matches them, be it revelling in the gothic trappings of the mansion, which her stepmother hates, or struggling over the wording of the perfect suicide note. But she is at her best when she lets loose; her groovy routine to Harry Belafonte’s ‘Jump in the Line’ is hard to beat for joyous cool.

Heathers (1988)

Director Michael Lehmann

Heathers (1988)

Heathers (1988)

“Heather, my love, there’s a new sheriff in town.” Damn straight there is, and with this scathing satire director Michael Lehmann, screenwriter Daniel Walters and stars Winona Ryder and Christian Slater blew away the clichés of high-school drama. A witty, nasty take on the vicious social hierarchy of the average American school, Heathers sees Ryder’s Veronica unhappily wedged in a clique of three girls called Heather. When psychotic J.D. (Slater) arrives on the scene, he encourages Veronica to break free through deadly means, and soon the corpses begin to pile up. As Veronica rues: “Dear Diary, my teen-angst bullshit now has a body count.”

Veronica is a very demanding comic role, and Ryder seizes on it, making Veronica the unlikely moral conscience at the heart of the film. Her role is not as showy as those of Slater, or Kim Walker as the most obnoxious ‘Heather’, yet it’s unquestionably her movie, and she makes the happy-ish ending (demanded by the studio as the original was too dark) work.

Great Balls of Fire! (1989)

Director Jim McBride

Great Balls of Fire! (1989)

This biopic of rock’n’roll star Jerry Lee Lewis has its flaws, including a miscast Dennis Quaid and an odd tone that veers between celebratory and condemning. But Ryder is terrific as 13-year-old Myra Gale Brown, whose marriage to Lewis (she was also his third cousin) caused a scandal and stalled his career.

As a young girl thrust into an adult’s role, Ryder gives a poignant, often funny performance. Her face during the rushed marriage service perfectly portrays a teenager’s gaucheness and uncertainty, and while Great Balls of Fire! doesn’t go nearly far enough in condemning Lewis’ behaviour – at the end, he still emerges as a rebellious hero – Ryder rescues Myra from obscurity and creates a likeable, sympathetic character. If only the film could have been all about her.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Director Tim Burton

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

The opening scene of Tim Burton’s beautiful, moving fairytale sees Ryder playing an elderly woman telling her granddaughter about the origins of snow. Flash back a few decades, where an Avon lady (Dianne Wiest) discovers Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp), the creation of a long-dead inventor (Vincent Price), in a dilapidated mansion. She invites him to live with her, where he falls in love with her daughter, Kim (Ryder).

Ryder is a superb at acting with her eyes, particularly in the scenes where Edward speaks of his love for her; the famous “hold me / I can’t” scene is heartbreaking. Her finest moment, though, is the blissful snow dance, and she twirls under the ice as he chips away at his sculpture, a rare moment of pleasure for them both – all the sadder as he isn’t aware of her presence. It’s a magical sequence, and a triumph for Ryder.

Mermaids (1990)

Director Richard Benjamin

Mermaids (1990)

Cher’s honking rendition of ‘The Shoop Shoop Song’, and Ryder’s endearingly goofy dance moves in the music video, may be most people’s most vivid recollection of this charming coming-of-age movie, set in the early 1960s. Yet Ryder’s performance as Charlotte Flax, a gawky teenager with a bohemian mother (Cher – who else?) struggling with her deep desire to become a nun whole harbouring unwholesome thoughts about the local stud (Michael Schoeffling), is the film’s strongest asset.

It’s a lovely turn from Ryder, playing a hopelessly inexperienced adolescent who thinks, after her first kiss, that she might be “pregnant with the next Jewish Italian Messiah”. Behind the comedy, though, she embodies the insecurity and need for approval that will strike a note for anyone who has ever been a teenager.

Reality Bites (1994)

Director Ben Stiller

Reality Bites (1994)

This one nearly didn’t make it on the list, not because Ryder isn’t great in it – she is – but because watching the film itself is an aggravating experience. As a time capsule of 1990s fashions and trends, it’s grand. The satire of MTV culture is bang on the money. The sneering navel-gazing of its twentysomething characters, particularly Ethan Hawke’s Troy, is much harder to warm to. It’s all the more remarkable that Ryder’s Lelaina, who makes a self-indulgent documentary about the preoccupations of her tiresome friends, and who, frankly, chooses the wrong guy at the end, emerges as a likeable and engaging character.

Ryder looks great here, rocking mid-90s styles like a pro, and her best scenes are with potential lover Michael (Ben Stiller, who directed the film), which show a sweetness lacking in those she shares with bad boy Troy, who treats her poorly throughout. She helps even duffest lines land (sample groaner: “He’s so cheesy, I can’t watch him without crackers”). Sometimes the mark of a great star is to shine even if the film you’re in is a dud. A very popular dud, as it turned out.

Little Women (1994)

Director Gllian Armstrong

Little Women (1994)

In Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic about four young sisters growing up in Massachusetts during and after the American civil war, Ryder takes Jo, by far the most interesting of the March sisters, from youth to maturity. At the start of the film, Jo is an adventurous but often childish teen, prone to jealousy and strops. Over its course, however, she becomes more kind and independent – one of the great strengths of Armstrong’s film is her focus on the feminist themes in Alcott’s novel.

Little Women earned Ryder her first best actress Oscar nomination (to date her only other nomination has been for her supporting turn in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence), and she should have won the award, which went instead to Jessica Lange’s showy turn in Blue Sky (1994). As tender as her scenes with her on-screen sisters are, it’s the moving final scene, where she excitedly reveals to the man she loves (Gabriel Byrne) that they can be a couple, that shows Ryder at her best.

The Crucible (1996)

Director Nicholas Hytner

The Crucible (1996)

Ryder’s Abigail in the adaptation of Arthur Miller’s brilliant play, inspired by the Salem witch trials, is one of her most underrated performances. Paul Scofield won a BAFTA as the harsh Judge Thomas Danforth, Joan Allen was Oscar-nominated for her noble Elizabeth Proctor, but it is Ryder who leaves the strongest impression, as a young girl who accuses people of witchcraft, following an ill-fated affair with an older man, John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis).

Miller’s sympathies are not with Abigail, who lies and intimidates and whose actions result in the deaths of innocent people, but Ryder invests the character with the pitiable fury of a girl not just scorned, but abused and cruelly rejected. Ryder never lets us forget that Abigail is a girl, treated appallingly by the adults around her. In the key scene where Abigail awaits the response of Elizabeth to the claims that her husband had an affair, a response that could send her to her death, Ryder is electric.

Friends – ‘The One with Rachel’s Big Kiss’ (2001)

Director Gary Halvorson

Friends: The One with Rachel's Big Kiss (2001)

A gifted comedian, Ryder is seldom given humorous material to work with, particularly in her adult roles. Even in dreck like Mr. Deeds (2002) she still manages to shine, but her funniest role since her early career was as Melissa, an insufferable college friend of Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), who fails to back up the latter’s claim that they once “made out” in college. As Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) looks on skeptically, Melissa comforts Rachel by stating kindly: “maybe I passed out and you did things to me when I was sleeping”.

The pay-off, where a frustrated Rachel plants a kiss on Melissa, and Melissa’s reaction, is perfectly judged tragi-comedy, although the gales of studio laughter nearly drown out the pathos. Many celebrity cameos in Friends fall flat, but Ryder’s works perfectly.

Stranger Things (2016)

Creators Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer

Stranger Things (2016)

Don’t call it a comeback, as Ryder has continued to work on many films and TV series over the last few years, but it has been a thrill to see how warmly her appearance on Netflix hit series has been received. For a series set in the 80s, and that taps strongly into the sonic and visual tropes of 1980s film and TV, the casting of Ryder could have seemed like stunt casting, shoehorning in an 80s icon for added nostalgia. In fact, the series is set in 1983, a few years before Ryder’s career took off, and the kids-focused action/adventure storyline isn’t typical of her 80s work. But it gives Ryder her best role in years.

Single mother Joyce Byers starts the series as woman-on-the-edge, hysterical at the mysterious disappearance of her 12-year-old son. As the show develops, so does Joyce’s character, from her desperate delight at being able to communicate with her son through Christmas lights to finally taking control and journeying into the dangerous world of the Upside-Down to save him. The next series in due out in 2017. It’s great to have her back.

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