Lay down your flowers at the shrine of the Queen of Generation X because, according to the Independent, she’s Hollywood’s “fallen angel”, a sad spirit of decades past who floats through our consciousness without a drop of relevance and reeking of nostalgia. Between her first real exposure to fame in Beetlejuice to Heathers‘ game-changing vision of the American teen (not forgetting her grand romance with Monsieur Johnny Depp), Ryder was a cultural icon of the 1990s. However, while Depp’s soul still lives on through Jack Sparrow action figures, Ryder hasn’t been so lucky in Hollywood. 2001 came to be known as the the year of the great “downfall”. The actress found herself arrested for shoplifting $5,000 worth of goods from Saks Fifth Avenue’s Beverly Hills store and was sentenced to 3 years probation and 500 hours of community service. While she certainly wasn’t without her supporters at the time (who could forget those legendary “Free Winona” tees, as if Amanda Bynes would ever get the same treatment), the media lashback wasn’t so kind.
Considering the hotbed of sin we all believe Hollywood to be, you would be led to think a crime like shoplifting would barely raise the eyebrow of a public who’s seen it all. But headline after headline sought out to humiliate “sticky fingers” Ryder, with news of her arrest topping the rumours Osama Bin Laden had been captured, much to the actress’ personal horror. Ryder’s crime came to represent everything the public resents about Hollywood culture: the idea that such a privileged woman would dare steal things she could so easily afford; a cheap thrill only the fabulously rich would dare stoop to. Everyone ignored the psychological reasoning behind shoplifting because calling her a spoiled little girl was far more entertaining. While stars are constantly caught for DUIs, they seem only to receive a light tap on the wrist from us for their reckless endangerment. Ryder’s fairly victimless, non-threatening crime, however, was deemed unforgivable.
Ryder ended up pretty much going into hiding in her hometown of San Francisco. Considering she’d been suffering from a pill addiction at the time of the arrest, this wasn’t necessarily a case of a star being driven out by the cruelty of the media circus, but was in her own words “very conscious decision not to work” an act of self-preservation. However, ever since her mandatory probation period ended in 2005, everyone has been waiting with baited breath for some kind of huge Winona Ryder comeback. One so spectacular she’d jump out of a cake in a shower of confetti and announce to the world “TADA. I’M BACK” You see, at least Robert Downey Jr. had the good fortune to be the face of the Iron Man franchise: an unambiguous, big-budget, big-exposure comeback which let the gates of Hollywood swing back open for the once troubled star.
Problem is, Ryder’s been steadily working away this whole time and no one seems to really care; with the media consistently declaring that this year, no, this year will be her big comeback. Let’s run through this quickly. In 2006, a year after her probation ended, she starred in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and people were quick to start declaring her return to Hollywood, backed by her smaller comedy The Darwin Awards. She’s had work released every year since: 2007 saw the release of Sex and Death 101 (written by Heathers scribe Daniel Waters) and The Ten, 2008 saw The Last Word and The Informers. 2009 brought her back into the mainstream with a small role in the Star Trek reboot.
However, by 2010 and the release of Black Swan, the word comeback when talking about Ryder, well, made a comeback. There was, admittedly, a sense that Ryder may have found her definitive comeback role playing an ageing ballerina, but her part in the movie seems to have been entirely drowned out by the furore surrounding Natalie Portman’s intense, physically demanding performance. And any attention that was left over went to being surprised Mila Kunis could act. And now we’re all being treated to a third round of the Ryder comeback with her return to Tim Burton’s warm embrace in last year’s Frankenweenie and this year’s high-profile drama The Iceman, in which she plays the wife of notorious contract killer Richard Kuklinski, as well as James Franco-starring thriller Homefront.
It’s pretty easy to imagine a meeting between Ryder and her PR agent, as she nods slowly to everything her PR agent says while her brain replays every Youtube video Lil Bub has ever starred in. Or at least in light of this quote about the aftermath of her arrest: “I just sat there. I never said a word. I didn’t release a statement. I didn’t do anything. I just waited for it to be over”. Not a believer in damage control, then. It’s unlikely then that she’s listening to any attempts to co-ordinate the comeback Hollywood expects her to make, opting to slowly trickle back into the film industry without much pomp and circumstance. Which begs the question: will Ryder ever have a “comeback film”? Or is she already back and we simply didn’t notice?
To challenge her image even further: did Ryder even really suffer exactly the dramatic “downfall” we all prescribe to her? The thing is, her career was already beginning to suffer as the 90s came to a close and the icons of Generation X no longer seemed so relevant, forcing them to re-adapt their identities for the millennium. Ryder wasn’t the only one to suffer, although her arrest made the blow particularly devastating. Consider this: the only decent movies Uma Thurman’s made this decade were the Kill Bills and Ben Affleck’s dark, dark Gigli-phase started around 2000. Ethan Hawke probably just survived thanks to Richard Linklater and Chloë Sevigny seems better known now as a fashion muse. To return to the Independent’s recent article, it went so far as to call Ryder’s role in The Iceman as “bouncing back from her decade in the wilderness”. When does a career slump turn into a total Hollywood banishment? Ryder still worked through the last decade, just on movies that also happen to star Kevin James.
The fact is, the highs and lows of your average film career just don’t make good press for Hollywood, whose vocabulary extends only to “bigger is better”. Comebacks are the real-life redemption stories we can adapt into an Oscar-winning drama 15 years down the line, with Chloe Grace Moretz having her big comeback starring in The Winona Ryder Story. It’s pretty much our equivalent of the circle of life those lions were singing about. Isn’t that depressing?