Winona Ryder Biography

Winona Ryder

Arrested for shoplifting in 2001 and defined by this infamous brush with the law, Winona Ryder has had a roller-coaster ride of a career. What's next for the star?

To have one’s name tattooed on Johnny Depp’s arm would surely be enough for most girls, but Winona Ryder was destined for even greater things. With a career encompassing dazzling highs and scandalous lows, the unconventional actress forged her name as the embodiment of Generation X.

Born Winona Laura Horowitz, but known to her friends as ‘Noni’, Ryder can trace her first name to the Minnesotan city of Winona where she was born on 29th October 1971. The fact that her middle name, Laura, is a tribute to the wife of their family friend, the novelist Aldous Huxley, offers a glimpse into the wealth of intellectual giants who had surrounded and influenced her family, and thus indirectly, her upbringing.

Ryder was the first daughter of bookshop owner, Michael Horowitz and third child of her mother, Cynthia Palmer. Her free-thinking parents were both writers and editors at the centre of an analytical revolution involving great minds such as Ryder’s godfather, LSD proselytiser, Timothy Leary. In 1976, the couple welcomed their second child together, son Yuri.

In 1978, Ryder’s family moved into a commune in the northern Californian town of Elk. The actress has described sharing everything from horses to child rearing duties with seven other families as “no utopia”, an experience which led to her longings for a private family life. School also proved difficult for the elfin teen. Although she would eventually graduate from Petaluma High School with an impressive grade point average of 4.0, Ryder oscillated between home schooling and state school, suffering bullying as a result of being mistaken for an effeminate boy.

At the age of 12, the aspiring thespian followed her dream, enrolling at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, which had launched such stars as Nicholas Cage and Annette Bening. Noni’s flair was first recognised by David Seltzer, during her unsuccessful audition for the part of Rose Chismore in ‘Desert Bloom’ (1985). The writer and director took the next chance he had to cast her as a teen with an unrequited love for the title character of the film ‘Lucas’ (1985).

‘Lucas’ opened to little fanfare, but it marked a significant step in Ryder’s development into the recognisable starlet she is today. Not only was it the actress’s debut feature film, but it was also in its credits that she first appeared with her current surname. Ryder continued to develop her acting abilities, however, with unsuccessful ventures such as ‘Square Dance’ (1987) and ‘1969’ (1989), she seemed doomed to a fate of obscurity.

That all changed when acclaimed director, Tim Burton cast her as the gothic Lydia in his 1988 comedy horror, ‘Beetlejuice’. The film took $8 million in its opening weekend and earned Ryder rave reviews for her portrayal of the morose teen who tries to help the ghost couple of Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis overcome the antics of flamboyant ‘bio-exorcist’, Beetlejuice. Her deadpan delivery of lines such as “My life is one big dark room. One. Big. Dark. Room” cemented her as an icon of her generation, as ‘Beetlejuice’ went on to achieve cult status.

Ryder showed a more sinister side of teen angst in her second cult classic, ‘Heathers’ (1989), where she forms the unwilling quarter of a popular high school clique. The black comedy unfolds as Ryder’s character becomes embroiled in murders together with the dark Jason Dean, played by Christian Slater. Despite a dismal box office performance, ‘Heathers’ has since had a marked influence on filmmakers of the teen genre.

With reviews painting her as “Hollywood's most impressive ingénue”, the then 18-year-old capitalised on her growing reputation and youthful appearance with a biographical film about rocker Jerry Lee Lewis. ‘Great Balls of Fire!’ (1989) sees Ryder play the controversial role of Lewis’s 13-year-old cousin-bride. Following its release on 30th June 1989, critics once again praised Ryder’s contribution, with Rolling Stone commending the actress for her “vividly real performance”. It was also at the film’s premiere that the actress met a brooding young actor by the name of Johnny Depp.

Ryder and Depp’s relationship blossomed over the next few months and, by the time they co-starred in Ryder’s next movie, they had embarked on a relationship that would last three years and culminate in an engagement. The young actors’ romance was reflected on screen, as Ryder reunited with Tim Burton to make ‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990), a love story about an innocent girl and a misunderstood, synthetic man with scissors for hands. This blockbuster would forever etch the iconic imagery of Ryder dancing in a flurry of snow in the minds of its audience as well as winning her a Saturn Award for Best Actress.

Nevertheless, Ryder was about to experience her first taste of intensive Hollywood scrutiny. Declining to play the role of Mary Corleone in ‘The Godfather: Part III’ (1990) cast a shadow that the actress struggled to eliminate, with rumours claiming that her cited reason of illness was a front for other problems. Ignoring the negative press, Ryder maintained contact with the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola, in the hope that she would be able to work with him in the future.

Concentrating on her career, the now established performer accepted a role that would push her further into the mainstream. In 1990, she appeared in the film ‘Mermaids’. In what she described as “a timeless story of teen angst”, a clean-cut Ryder starred as the eldest daughter of a nomadic single-parent family, the other two-thirds of which was made up of Cher and Christina Ricci making her film debut. With her character’s yearnings to settle down and have a normal family life echoing Ryder’s own childhood experiences, it is perhaps unsurprising that this role gained her the industry’s most avid attention up to that point in her career. Her performance as Charlotte Flax earned the starlet a Golden Globe nomination and won her a National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Continuing on her independent course with ‘Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael’ (1990) and ‘Night on Earth’ (1991), ‘Noni’ embarked on a mission to cast off her image as a child actress. In 1992, she approached Coppola with a new script for 'Dracula'. Coppola agreed to the remake and ‘Bram Stoker's Dracula’ was released on 13th November 1992. Starring as both of Dracula’s love interests, Elisabeta and her reincarnation, Mina Murray, Ryder embraced the dark and sultry aspects of the roles, cementing her reputation as a classical actress. In addition to grossing over $215 million worldwide, Dracula marked the coming of age of an actress who had thus far epitomised the edgy naiveté of nineties youth. The world of science fiction once again hailed Ryder as Best Actress with its coveted Saturn Award.

As her success translated to fame, the rising star began to feel a “piercing loneliness”. It was while working on the dramatically violent yet largely overlooked ‘House of the Spirits’ (1993) that Ryder suffered from anxiety attacks and severe insomnia. Terrified that people would think these symptoms were signs of insanity, the budding celebrity initially maintained a silence about her emotional state before deciding to enter a psychiatric institution. Her short stay here would haunt Ryder for years to come.

The romantic icon then joined a cast which included heavyweights Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer to portray a 19th Century socialite whose fiancé enters into a torrid affair with her audacious cousin. Directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese, the adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel, ‘The Age of Innocence’ (1993), allowed Ryder to explore a different palette of emotions and won her a Golden Globe. Nevertheless, the Academy demurred from bestowing her with its ultimate distinction, and she lost the Oscar for which she was nominated that year to Anna Paquin.

Ryder did not dwell on the defeat. In October of that year, she was spurred into action by the kidnap of 12-year-old Polly Klaas from the actress’s hometown. Ryder offered a $200,000 reward for Polly’s safe return, a move which proved futile as she would later attend the child’s funeral. Polly’s story led the actress to vow to pay tribute to a life cut so tragically short.

In 1994, she resolved to involve herself in a project which did not “contribute to the misery of the world” in her next incarnation as the irrepressible Josephine March in ‘Little Women’ (1994), an adaptation of the Louisa M Alcott novel which had been Polly's favourite novel. Her performance as the eldest daughter of the March family prompted the New York Times’ reviewer to proclaim that Ryder’s “spirited presence” surpassed Katharine Hepburn’s 1933 attempt at the part and gained her a further Oscar nomination. Ryder dedicated the film to Polly’s memory.

With a cameo in ‘The Simpsons’ (1989) as well as a leading role in Ben Stiller’s directorial debut, ‘Reality Bites’ (1994), 1994 proved to be a year of affirmation for the actress. Ryder’s star continued to rise with eclectic roles in ‘How to Make an American Quilt’ (1995), and ‘Boys’ (1996). However it was her role alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘The Crucible’ (1996) - based on the Arthur Miller play about the Salem witch trials - which was her favourite of that period, the star calling the film “a masterpiece”.

Ryder’s next step was one few would have anticipated. Whilst not a stranger to the dark side of science fiction, joining the cast of ‘Alien: Resurrection’ (1997) was a significant departure for the award winner and led one New York Times reporter to comment on her “genre-hopping”. Reviews of Ryder’s performance were mixed, with the Chicago Sun Times claiming that, whilst she was one of the most gifted actresses of her generation, she lacked the “heft and presence” to stand alongside Sigourney Weaver’s long-standing character, Ripley.

Like Weaver before her, Ryder went on to appear in a Woody Allen film. She participated in the pop-culture parody, ‘Celebrity’ (1998) at around the same time that she started dating heartthrob Matt Damon. The relationship progressed as Ryder developed her presence in Hollywood. In 1999, the former psychiatric unit resident starred and executive produced the critically acclaimed ‘Girl, Interrupted’, drawing on her own experiences to play a girl forcibly sent to a mental asylum. This was one of her finest roles yet, opposite a similarly troubled and disturbed Angelina Jolie.

Ryder’s teenage troubles seemed far behind her as she was awarded a Hollywood Star on the Walk of Fame, a week before the release of her next film, ‘Lost Souls’ (2000). Literally cementing her fame, the accolade proved “monumental” for the actress. However, following her co-starring role with Richard Gere in ‘Autumn in New York’ (2000) and comedic cameos in ‘Zoolander’ (2001) and the series ‘Friends’ (1994) in 2001, Ryder’s world began to unravel.

It was a trip to the Saks Fifth Avenue department store on 12th December 2001 that would dramatically change the actress’s course. In a move that threatened to topple her from famous to infamous, Ryder was accused and subsequently convicted of shoplifting $5,500 worth of designer merchandise. The former personification of purity was sentenced to probation and community service together with a fine. The experience marked the beginning of a hiatus for Ryder, who moved to San Francisco in "a very conscious decision not to work."

Her defence lawyer referred to the actress's work for the Polly Klaus Foundation and other charities to get her sentence reduced.

She was also accused of using drugs without a valid prescription and was convicted of grand theft, shoplifting and vandalism but was acquitted of burglary.

It was only in 2002 that the actress returned to her beloved profession. Embracing a variety of genres, she played a small yet pivotal role in Al Pacino's science fiction drama, 'S1m0ne' (2002) before beating a lighter tack in comedies such as Adam Sandler's 'Mr. Deeds' (2002) and 'The Darwin Awards' (2006).

Following her Rolling Stone-acclaimed "great performance" in Richard Linklater's 2006 alternative drugs animation, 'A Scanner Darkly', Ryder's return from public purgatory seemed imminent, as she was featured on the cover of Vogue. In what was billed as "Starting Over at 35", the actress revisited what she did best, representing women of her generation and promoting her 2007 comedies, 'The Ten', 'Sex and Death 101' and 'The Last Word'.

On 9 February 2009, the actress told Entertainment Weekly that a sequel to 'Heathers' is in the pipeline as Christian Slater has agreed to appear in it.

She has since starred in a number of small, independent films including 'The Private Lives of Pippa Lee' (2009), 'Stay Cool' and 'When Love is not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story' which was a TV movie in 2010.

The actress has also reappeared in blockbusters following her fall in grace including the Hollywood version of 'Star Trek' in 2009 in which she played Spock's human mother.

Ryder also made a splash in 2010 when she appeared in the Oscar-winning 'Black Swan', directed by Darren Aronofsky. In the thriller, Ryder plays aging ballerina Beth McIntyre, who is replaced as the lead dancer in the company by a younger model, played by Natalie Portman.

The world watched as Winona Ryder grew into the icon of a generation and continued its voyeuristic documentation of a life which took a turn into darkness. Only time will tell if the public will forgive the actress for tainting her clean image. However, for those who grew up with the likes of Lydia Deitz and Veronica Sawyer, she is likely to forever remain the porcelain-faced personification of her time.

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