After Heathers, will stardom 'devirginize' newcomer Winona Ryder?
Winona Ryder is doing something totally illegal. The sunny, dark-haired actress is blithely motoring around Los Angeles in her friend's rental car - and, at age seventeen, she's too young to drive it. It's early March, only three weeks since Ryder moved out of her parents' house in Petaluma, California, and her own car is still up there, along with her collages, her bible - The Catcher in the Rye - her vast collection of handbags, socks, charm bracelets, Barbie dolls, Twilight Zone and Monty Python tapes. Oh, and the screenplay she wrote and sold. So just by driving to the mall, she's flirting with danger.
As Ryder reaches a major intersection, the traffic light turns yellow. "Should I go? No, better not." But she's already halfway across, so with one hand clutching her head in terror, she glides through, emitting yelps: "Huh! Oh! Uh!"
An oncoming car screeches and honks. "Sorry! I know, I'm sorry! That guy hates me now. Was that my fault?"
Her L.A. driving may be tentative, but otherwise Winona Ryder brims with self-confidence. "Insecure people," she says, wrinkling her nose, "don't fry my burger." Precocious enough to hold her own with adults, she radiates the qualities of a child who has always been encouraged: a chatty, optimistic disposition and an unself-conscious creativity.
"It's amazing," says her friend Robert Downey Jr. "She'll just call me up and say, 'I wrote another script,' like 'I did another load of laundry.' To me, that's like bench-pressing the Sears Tower." While most kids her age are still months away from their high-school graduation, Ryder has already completed her home-study degree ("four point oh," she chirps) as well as six feature films.
From her first moments on screen - in Lucas, filmed the summer after she was in the eighth grade and released in 1986 - Winona Ryder has been someone to watch. In her second film, Square Dance (1987), she had more scenes than co-stars Jason Robards, Jane Alexander and Rob Lowe; in last year's Beetlejuice, she played the character who kept her head while everyone else was losing theirs. Her alert, expressive eyes telegraph a startling combination of intelligence, gravity and self-possession.
Driving down Wilshire Boulevard, Ryder passes a gaggle of elementary schoolers in uniform. "I can't wait until I'm grown-up and have kids," she says, rubbing her tummy. "I want little boys. Want to hear the names I'm gonna name them? I like baseball names. Vida Blue Ryder. Cool Papa Ryder. Unless I marry some guy that has a better last name than me." She says she "worshiped" Dodgers second baseman for years, to the point of writing Winona Sax on her school notebook. But the day he went to the Yankees, she says, "I burst into tears. The f-cking Yankees. I would never do that, if I was a Dodger. It's morally reprehensible." (Besides, she had already "bettered" her own last name, Horowitz, when the titles were being put on Lucas.)
Though she doesn't envision getting married until she's at least twenty, Ryder is perched on the precipice of adulthood, rushed there somewhat by her recent roles. As Veronica Sawyer, the ambivalent high schooler in the daring black comedy Heathers - which Ryder made against the advice of her parents and agents - she deftly vacillates between a vulnerable teen scribbling away in her diary and an action heroine capable of murdering her best friends, all named Heather. And in this summer's Great Balls of Fire, Ryder plays Myra, the child bride of Jerry Lee Lewis (played by Dennis Quaid); the movie includes a wedding-night scene in which, as Ryder guilelessly puts it, "he's devirginizing me."
Ryder's incipient womanhood, however, is not without its headaches. Guys who previously viewed her as "jail bait," she says, are now making advances, and ill-informed gossip is driving her bonkers.
"I can't believe the rumors!" she says, rolling her eyes as she parks in the Beverly Center garage. "I'm going out with Dweezil Zappa. Alec Baldwin and I are getting married. Meg Ryan wants to kill me because Dennis Quaid and I are having an affair. And what's the other one? Oh, yeah, that the 1969 cast, Keifer Sutherland and Robert Downy and I, are having a menage-a-trois affair!" Her active eyebrows wiggle, and she laughs a loud ha-ha!
"The first time I heard thing about myself," she says, "I was really hurt. People say, 'Just ignore it, or laugh it off.' It's hard, because I hear stuff about people and believe it. 'Ooh, really? She's a slut? Hoo!' So people are going to think it's true about me. And I'm sure I'm gonna be getting a lot more of it."
Looking very junior high in a zippered sweat shirt, a white T-shirt and jeans (in contrast with the spandexed and moussed Beverly Hills mall vixens around her), Ryder rides up the escalators to Bullock's department store. "Stores like this totally scare me," she says. "They're so colorful." She zips around making speedy but accurate household purchases - picture frames, towels - using crisp hundred-dollar bills, which she pulls from an envelope in her pocket. "I don't have any checks yet," she explains. "And I'm too young to have credit cards - which is probably a good thing." (She is also shopping for a house in the Hollywood Hills, which she wants to share with two of her friends and which she says will be "very sitcomish.")
Out in the mall, Ryder whizzes by a drugstore, then backtracks and stares at its window display of shaving accessories. "Stuff like this really makes me want to be a boy," she says with a sigh. "It would be so cool to be able to shave. To be able to say, 'Oh! I forgot to shave.' I used to sit and watch my dad shave. I think it's the coolest thing. I tried, but then your hair starts growing back, like, weird? But I would never get the bogus George Michael thing happening. Like, perfect lines? It's so scary."
She pops into a store specializing in designer party dresses, looking for something to wear to the imminent Academy Awards ceremony, her first. A saleswoman in a billowy scarf and green leather pants tells her, "Because you're very tiny, you need something that's not cut to big, so it won't dwarf you." Ryder (who says she's five feet four "when I'm not slouching") grimaces and leaves, muttering, "I hate people like that."
A bookstore is next, where she picks up Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim and Studs Terkel's American Dreams: Lost and Found. Then she pit-stops in a sporting goods store, longingly eyeing a pair of sneakers that don't come in her size. "Mine are too stiff for basketball," she says. "My ankles flop all over the place. In high school, me and my best friend Heather [!] would get up in the middle of the night and raid my parents liquor cabinet and go play basketball at the high school in the dark. It's so much fun - you don't know where the f-cking ball's going! Sometimes we'd get up, watch West Side Story, then scale the school walls, get on top pf the roof and do the Jets dances. We'd change around the letters on the scoreboard. We never had big word selection, but once we got it to say 'slut reek' when everybody showed up Monday morning."
Throughout her mall trek, Ryder is never recognized by passers-by or salespeople. This blessed anonymity, however, is probably not going to last.
"People have been telling me that things might get a little weird," she says, heading back to the rental car. "People who know me know that I would have a difficult time handling fame, because I don't think I would take the precautions, because I have no sense of 'who I am.'
"The only time I ever feel like I'm in the business is when I go somewhere public and there are photographers saying my name; I get a really weird chill. I wish I could sit and think about it, but every time I do I get so nervous that I end up changing the subject. Sometimes I really sort of resent what I've gotten myself into."
"Dinky needs a book bag," Ryder says, picking up an old doctor's satchel and shifting it from hand to hand, considering its heft. She's at the massive Rose Bowl flea market in Pasadena, shopping for Dinky Bossetti, the obsessive outsider Ryder will play in her next movie, Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, which will be directed by Airplanes!'s Jim Abrahams.
Ryder has been attached to the project for two years, and she's already accumulated cratefuls of Dinky's things - old National Geographics, circus posters, et cetera - none of which is mentioned in the script, and none of which is likely to appear onscreen. But this is part of Ryder's "method not done too mad," as Beetlejuice director Tim Burton puts it. The method began when she bought strange, Edward Goery-like dolls for Beetlejuice's dead-pan, death-obsessed Lydia; it includes wearing an I.D. bracelet inscribed with her current character's name.
After scrutinizing the doctor's bag, she puts it back on the vendor's table. "No," she says. "She needs a backpack. This is too uncomfortable to carry, and Dinky's a very practical girl."
As she wends her way around the aisles of bric-a-brac, she loses interest in Dinky and starts spending her C-notes on presents for her Heathers co-workers: a pocket watch for director Michael Lehmann, a silver belt for producer Denise Di Novi and antique fairy-tale books for writer Daniel Waters. She also buys herself a slew of hip, tasteful purchases: a silver bracelet with ceramic hearts painted with yellow roses, a sombrero pin festooned with sandal charms, a blue dress with polka dots, a black-and-white vest, a flowered quilt cover and a pillbox inscribed BERT (for which she concocts a wild history about a fat Mexican immigrant silversmith who changed his name from Jose).
She wears every purchase she can and lugs around the rest in plastic bags; she is shy about negotiating. "Before I started making money," she says, "I was a really good bargainer."
Farther along the aisle, she spies a trapezoidal bookcase, painted a zany aqua-and-black speckle. "This is very cool," she says. "Very Tim Burton."
It's true - the bookcase is right out of Burton's demented vision of Beetlejuice and Pee-wee's Big Adventure; so, in a sense, is Ryder herself. It's no accident that Burton and Lehmann, two of the best new young Hollywood directors, cast her as the voice of reason in the midst of cartoon chaos. She's hip and wacky enough to get the joke of modern life - and savvy enough to be able to play against it.
"Noni was offered 9000 light-comedy, feel-good, hits-of-the-summer movies," says Robert Downey Jr., "..and she chose one where she kills all her friends. She's a pure-at-heart person who knows that the darkness is all around her. She brings to light that there is truth and love even in the darkest impulses."
All this is probably news to Ryder. "I don't think she's into deep self-analysis," says her friend Lisa Falk, who plays the least bratty of the three Heathers. "She doesn't think about it, she just does it."
"I think, I think, that I'm a pretty natural actress," Ryder says. "I try to do things as naturally as possible. I hate rehearsing, because I always like to save everything for when I do it. I just try as much as I can to really be 'in the moment.' I know that sounds corny and everything."
Still cruising the flea market, Ryder mentions that she's planning on getting 'Que Sera, Sera' tattooed on her arm. "I almost got it once, then they asked me my age. It's the greatest saying ever. 'Whatever will be, will be.' I was going to get one that said, Buddy Holly, on my ankle. Then again, I don't know if I'm going to get a tattoo."
The song "Que Sera, Sera" is used in Heathers, and the movie has clearly left its mark on Ryder's personality and lingo. She read the zingy script - "one of the best pieces of literature that I have ever read; it was the closest I've been to anything since The Catcher in the Rye, and that book really changed my life" - and latched on to it like a barnacle. During filming, she applied herself as never before. "I matured a lot," she says. "Before, I'd sometimes try to see how lazy I could get. All my directors had been more or less father figures, and all I'd have to do was be really cute and I could get away with anything. But it didn't work with Michael."
Not to say that she still doesn't have her ways. "She's got me totally bamboozled," Great Balls of Fire director Jim McBride says affectionately. "She's just a kid, but she's been around the pool a couple of times, as we say out here. She's certainly not anywhere near as innocent as she seems. She was real nervous about the love scene for several days before shooting and indicated to me that she was very inexperienced in this area, and I had to sort of fill her in on things - verbally, that is. I took it all very gently and gingerly and tried to lead her there, but when we got to doing the scene, she leapt in with both feet and gave a very convincing performance. I'm not saying she's s-xually experienced, I'm saying she's a good actress!"
The first time Ryder watched the finished scene, she says, "I got really embarrassed. I realized it was going to be in the movie, that it wasn't just what happened one day on the set. No part of my body is exposed, it's just that the camera is on my face a lot, especially during the pain part. And then she starts to enjoy it, and that was the really embarrassing part. The face I chose is really revealing - I couldn't believe it was me. It looks really weird to me: Dennis is so big, and I'm so little, I don't look a day over thirteen, except when I take my shirt off and I have this Fifties bullet bra on. I was just going by what I thought it would feel like. I watch these other people's love scenes, everybody's so s-xy, everyone tries to be really subtle. With me, it's very different. I don't think I was very s-xy."
Winona Ryder is Cooking pancakes. It's a bright Sunday morning, and she's bopping around to a Buddy Holly C.D. in the kitchen of the cheerful, desert-toned two-bedroom apartment she shares with a twenty-six-year-old aspiring actress named Kris Greenberg. Her bobbed brunette hair is up in a clip, and she's wearing a red-and-white gingham jumper, a white T-shirt and stockings and red suede cowboy boots.
"We need something more inspiring," she declares, replacing Holly with A.C./D.C.'s Hells Bells. But after a few chords she decides that's not right either, and switches to the light-pop group Fairground Attraction, singing along: "It's got to be-e-e-e-e per-fect!" "I like their songs.." she says. "They're romantic, but not depressing." But she prefers Fifties music. "It leaves more to my imagination, because I don't see the groups everywhere." Still, she does watch M.T.V. with a passion, using videos as a sort of horoscope: "Okay," she'll say, "the next one is going to be a message to me about guys." If it turns out to be a poser group like Warrant, she gets depressed.
Pancakes are the full extent of Ryder's culinary abilities, but she is taking cooking lessons - as well as guitar, voice and fencing lessons. As somebody recently told Ryder, she is "one diverse babe." She's constantly turning her memorably bizarre dreams (like the one about being dragged around Mad Max-style by a truck in the desert, then suddenly sitting next to Melanie Griffith at the Oscars) into short stories and scripts. The script she's sold, written with Beetlejuice screenwriter Michael McDowell, is "corny romantic, almost a satire, about a girl who works in a bobbypin factory whose dreams come true." Her other hobbies include seeking out and breaking into abandoned houses in the hills - to "tell ghost stories, be mischevious and freak people out" - and driving around with girlfriends, spying on guys they have crushes on, using walkie-talkies.
Though Ryder says she's going to eat only one pancake, she downs two, then grabs her waist and grimaces, saying, "I'm soooo full." She skips into her cluttered room and rummages through a disarray of clothing, photos, and books for some show and tell. "This is one of my favorite books," she says, waving Colette's Claudine. "It's really cheeseball and good."
Then she pulls out an old class picture, dated 1977-78. "Look at that outfit!" Ryder says. "I was such a weirdo, wasn't I?" Second grader Winona Horowitz has long, dirty-blond hair and is wearing a baggy dress over pants, a strange frilly-collared shirt - and a bemused smile.
"Noni wore the most inconsistent get-ups, yet on her they looked great," says her mother, Cindy Horowitz. "She had her own style, which she had no intention of altering." As a kid, she'd go to San Francisco Giants baseball games wearing a cap of the arch-rival Dodgers and be quite surprised when rabid fans doused her with beer. "She has a sense of identity that's pure and more self-confident than anyone else in the family, including her father and myself," say Cindy. "I realized it when she was three or four. She went through materials so fast - drawing supplies, toys, books - you had to keep giving her stuff to keep her interested. She'd just consume them."
Ryder's personality is the product of a sort of alternative childhood, similar to the ones enjoyed by such young celebrities as Uma Thurman, River Phoenix and Chynna Phillips. "I see Noni as one of the first members of a new generation.." - says her godfather, Timothy Leary - "..the Kids of the 'Summer of Love'."
Her parents, Leary says, are "hippie intellectuals and psychedelic scholars." Cindy went to San Francisco in 1965 with her first husband and participated in the first be-in, then discovered Buddhism, macrobiotics and Aldous Huxley's utopian ideals. (Winona has two half siblings from that marriage: a sister, Sunyata, 21, whose name comes from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and a brother Jubal, 19. whose name came to Cindy in a dream. She also has a thirteen-year-old brother, Uri.) In 1970, Cindy married Michael Horowitz, a book antiquarian who was Leary's archivist.
In October 1971, Winona was born near Winona, Minnesota. Soon after, the family returned to San Francisco, sharing a house in the Haight with Cindy's ex and his second wife. Winona toddled around the Zen preschool or hung around while her father drank coffee at the Cafe Trieste with Allen Ginsberg. During these years, her parents were editing books: Moksha, about the psychedelic, visionary experiences of Aldous Huxley, and Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady, about the spiritual discoveries of women from Cleopatra to Patti Smith. (Today, in addition to managing Winona's career, Cindy runs a video-production company; Michael runs Flashback Books specializing in counter-culture writings.)
"My parents know what it's like to, like, take a drug and go out in public and flip out," says Winona. "They always said, 'If you ever want to do anything, you just have to tell us about it, and you have to go through with us.'"
As a result, Ryder seems unlikely to be a young Hollywood casualty: "Noni's never gonna end up with a cocaine habit!" says Leary. "These kids who've grown up in houses where marijuana was smoked are not going to go berserk the first time a guy in a raincoat offers 'em something in an alley."
When Winona was seven, the Horowitzes left the Haight for a 300-acre Northern California enclave of seven families, which Leary term "one of the most successful, upscale hippie communes in the country."
"It wasn't as hippie-do as it sounds," says Ryder. "A lot of people, when they hear the word commune, connect it with, like, everyone's on acid and running around naked. This was like this weird suburb, if suburbs were really cool. It was just a bunch of houses on this chunk of land; we had horses and gardens. You have so much freedom, you can go roaming anywhere. We didn't have electricity; which was weird, but it was great to grow up that way. We didn't have T.V., so you'd have to do stuff. My friends' names were Tatonka, Gulliver and Rio. We'd have hammock contests, sit around and make up stories, make up weird games. I don't know - it was a weird, weird childhood. I mean, it was great."
It was the less than idyllic aspect of her childhood that propelled Ryder into acting. Because Michael's city job and the older kids' school were too far away, in 1981 the Horowitzes went nuclear, leaving the commune for Petaluma. Winona soon discovered her close-cropped hair, tomboyish clothes and offbeat interests (she would join Amnesty International at twelve) made her a suburban reject. On her third day at her new junior high, she was standing at her locker when she heard someone say, "Hey, faggot." She turned around and, mistaken for an effeminate boy, was beaten up. Not wanting to return to school, she was put on home study; this quickly bored her, so her parents suggested she take an acting class at San Francisco's prestigious American Conservatory Theater.
"We weren't thinking of her being professional," says her mother. "We just wanted her to be happy, to be around more imaginative peers."
At A.C.T., says Ryder, "they'd give us these weirdo plays like The Glass Menagerie and there were always these twelve-year-old girls playing these women. So I asked if I could find my own monologue to perform. I read from J.D. Salinger's Franny & Zooey. I made it like she was sitting, talking to her boyfriend. I had a connection with Salinger-speak; the way she talked made sense. It was the first time that I felt that feeling you get when you're acting - that sort of yeah! feeling."
Talent scout Deborah Lucchesi noticed, and she submitted a screen test of Ryder for the movie Desert Bloom; Triad Artists saw the videotape and signed Ryder without even meeting her. Director David Seltzer saw the tape when he was casting Lucas; after watching seven actresses do the same scene, he suddenly sat up and stared at the screen. "There was Winona," he recalls, "this little frail bird. She had the kind of presence I had never seen - an inner life. Whatever message was being said by her mouth was being contradicted by the eyes."
Meanwhile, Ryder had re-enrolled in public school at Petaluma's other junior high. One day, she remembers, she walked home "like a hundred miles, the longest walk. And I always carried my book bag with the strap around my head. So I walk in the house - I practically had whiplash - and my sister goes, 'Oh, you got the part in that movie.' It was really cool."
It's a few weeks before Heathers opens (to mostly rave reviews), and Ryder and co-star Christian Slater, 19, are about to appear at a promotional screening at a New York adult-school film class. The mostly suburban, middle-aged audience is clearly troubled by the movie's lighthearted treatment of diabolical themes, and many stalk out midway, muttering epithets like "awful" and "lousy."
Backstage, Ryder is worried - will the audience hate her, too? She gets an idea and whispers it to Slater. When the screening ends, the two actors come out from behind the curtain and sit in chairs onstage, holding hands.
"What, are you nervous?" teacher Ralph Appelbaum asks. They look at each other.
"We just got married," says Slater, grinning.
"Last week," Ryder says, "in Vegas."
Some class members applaud, others look befuddled. Slater and Ryder never drop the conceit, calling each other "honey," and their charm overpowers their critics.
A few days later Ryder is striding briskly through Central Park wearing Slater's leather biker jacket; the zipper won't zip, so her hands clasp it shut against the chilly spring breeze. She laughingly recalls the idea of marrying Slater. "We talked about how we were going to do all the Hollywood marriage things," she says, "like stage fights in restaurants, be really reclusive but then leak out everything; he'd cover my face when photographers came, like Sean and Madonna."
But after Slater went on a T.V. talk show and proposed to her on the air, Ryder suddenly tired of the joke. "People have been calling me about it," she says. "It doesn't sound too good. Marriage would be fun, but I don't think I'm ready for it yet."
The funny thing is, Slater did fall in love with Ryder. He and the actress playing the lead Heather, Kim Walker, had been dating for a couple of years when Heathers started shooting. "We never fooled around or anything during the movie," Ryder says. But after the filming, Slater broke up with Walker and started dating Ryder.
"It was only for a couple of weeks," says Ryder. "It was too weird. You know, when you're really good friends with somebody? It's hard when you try to make something work. It's bogus. It should just happen naturally."
She plays idly with a silver ring on her middle finger. She says that it's Irish, signifying love, friendship and loyalty; wearing it with its small crown pointing up means she's "taken." Currently, she's wearing the crown down. The longest relationship she's had, six months, ended because she was away on movie shoots all the time.
"I don't have a lot of time for that kind of stuff," she says, "which is a drag, but it's almost a blessing in disguise." She does note that since she finished Heathers, "I'm taking more of an interest in the way I look. I actually became a little more feminine. Before, I just dressed however. I'd go to the set in my pajamas."
Heathers had another effect. "It taught me a lot about what I want to do with my life, my career," Ryder says. "Which is never do anything I don't feel 100 percent about. I don't have any big floor plan, put I wouldn't do a movie where I thought I'd influence anybody in a bad way.
"Having people look up to me freaks me out," she says. "It's actually motivating, because it makes me want to do a really good job. But what if I do something really stupid? That could, like, shatter somebody's image of me. So I don't have the freedom to do really stupid things." She realizes what she's saying and cackles. "Which is what I'm striving for!"
Ryder takes a seat on a park bench and stares out at the rowing pond. She suddenly looks tired. She's been doing Heathers promotions for a few weeks running - this morning waking up at dawn to do the Today show - and her fame seems finally to be taking its toll. "I haven't been remembering my dreams," she says, "because I'm so stressed and not sleeping at all. It's awful. I always feel like if I ever stop writing, I might stop for good."
The filming of Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael will be starting soon - she's already wearing Dinky's I.D. bracelet - and she will have to postpone the road trip she'd been planning with her friend Heather. "We were gonna do a Jack Kerouac On the Road thing," Ryder says, "go across the country in a big boat, write really bad poetry. I want to get all that stuff out of the way so I won't resent college at all, like it's stealing my life away." (She says she wants to go somewhere "mellow" on the East Coast with Heather, who today is off modeling in Japan; neither of them has been in a formal classroom since midway through tenth grade.)
"A lot of people ask me if I'm missing out on anything," she says. "I don't think so. Sometimes I'll be talking to Helene, this friend back in Petaluma who's still in high school, and I'll think, 'God, it would be fun to be like Helene, being on the track team and going to the Valentine's dance and stuff like that.' But then I realize that I don't really have it in me to enjoy the social thing. I was always one of the geeks."
The shadows grow longer as the afternoon winds down, and feeling chilled, Ryder gets up from the bench to head back to her hotel. "I was going to fly out or here on the nineteenth," she says, "but that was the day Randy Rhodes [Ozzy Osbourne's guitarist] died in a plane crash. I try to avoid flying then. I know someday I'll have to, and it'll flip me out."
The cold air has gotten to her, and her nose has begun to run. "Do you have a handkerchief I could borrow?" she asks. "It's okay - it's just little-girl snot."
"Last night I decided," Winona Ryder says. "I'm moving. Getting out of L.A." Her phone voice is frazzled, but her resolve sounds firm. It's the night of the Academy Awards, and she's in her apartment waiting for Slater to pick her up in a limo.
The source of her new vexation is, again, gossip. "Last night this friend called me on the phone and told me there were these other rumors about me and I flipped out," she says. "I hate it when you can't clear something up. I must be such a wimp. I think I'm gonna find a cottage somewhere. Maybe New Orleans. Or I'm going to go to college, like, soon. Of course, you have to apply, don't you."
She never did find an Oscar dress, so she's ended up wearing her roommate's black sequined miniskirt, black high heels and red lipstick. "I look very Sixties," she says. "I'm wearing, like, eight pairs of stockings 'cause I don't want to get a run."
She cheers up when she remembers the review of Heathers in this week's Village Voice "This is going to sound really obnoxious," she says. "But listen to what it says: 'Winona Ryder plays the conflicted Veronica with deeper-than-method conviction.' That's good, isn't it?"
The limo honks outside. "Oh, wait!" she cries. "Should I bring a jacket? Oh-migod, should I bring a purse? What will I keep my lipstick in?" She hangs up mid-crisis. Que sera, sera.
Winona Ryder's refreshing blend of precocity and innocence is hard to maintain under Hollywood's bright lights.
The Great Balls of Fire set sits in the Cook Convention Center in Memphis like a giant, 50s-style doll's house waiting foe Barbie and Ken to arrive. Everything in it, from the rugs to the curtains to the wallpaper to the upholstery to the tschotchkes (which in this part of the world are probably called gewgaws), is water-melon pink or mint-julep green or covered with pictures of poodles. We're talking serious retro; this is the stuff 1980s diners and M.T.V. videos are made of. This is the house where Jerry Lee Lewis and Myra, his 13-year-old child bride, live.
The crew is setting up. Myra's pet poodle, Peaches, bedecked in pink ribbons, is curled obediently in a basket. A prop guy carries Myra's miniature dollhouse into her house; a neat visual pun. "I want people on the set, there's a wedding about to happen." bellows co-writer and associate producer Jack Baran. Winona Ryder materializes on the threshold between the living room and a room where a baby grand dominates the black-and-white checkered floor. She has black hair, porcelain skin, and wide-set eyes so large they almost look kitsch. Decked out in pearled white - a short brocade dress, a pillbox hat, and gloves - she resembles a tiny Jackie Kennedy. Dennis "the Killer" Quaid, resplendent in a jacket with leopard collar and cuffs, his hair marcelled until it looks like gold lame, sidles up to her; she barely reaches his shoulder. The two stars rub noses.
"Da ring, please." Hams Quaid. "With this ring, I thee wed and my worldly goods I do endow," he pronounces.
"Fat chance," says director Jim McBride, and the crew cracks up.
That's exactly what people might have said about 17-year-old Ryder landing this role. It's a part to kill for; a rock 'n' roll Lolita to Quaid's piano-pumping Humbert Humbert in the tale of a real-life scandalous romance. "Emily Lloyd was originally a consideration, but she wasn't available," says McBride. "I'd never seen Winona's work. But then she walked in the door, and we all just sort of fell down. She was perfectly Myra."
Ryder has received consistently good reviews since her debut as the girl Corey Haim doesn't fall in love with in the 1986 film Lucas. She's practically the only thing to watch in Square Dance, as she comes of age under the eyes of her crotchety grandpa, Jason Robards, her wanton mama, Jane Alexander, and her retarded boyfriend, Rob Lowe. Then came Beetlejuice, in which she plays a nubile, Morticia-like character with a penchant for black veils and a perfect deadpan. She was also in the short-lived 1969, with Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Downey, Jr. Most recently, Ryder starred with Christian Slater in Heathers the latest of the child-of-Blue-Velvet films to surrealize the suburbs.
"I've heard people say it's The Breakfast Club meets Blue Velvet," says Ryder, "but I describe it as a movie about teen angst bullshit that has a body count - which is a line in the movie." Ryder plays Veronica, a pretty, popular member of a high school clique that includes three rich bitches all named Heather. But when J.D. (Slater) enters the scene, with his motorcycle, pierced ear, far-out dad, and Jack Nicholson persona, their teenage fantasies take on a lethal edge, and soon the cute, coiffed corpses start piling up, murders masquerading as suicides. In this movie, dead meat is just a study-hall day-dream away. In a last blast of satirical violence, Veronica, puffing on a cigarette Bogart-style and covered with blood and soot (she looks like a member of a punk-rock band that got carried away with special effects), triumphs over darkness, sort of.
"Her character in Heathers has a moral ambiguity," says director Michael Lehmann, "and she played it both smart enough and naive enough. She got the subtext right."
"We weren't parodying suicide at all," says Ryder somewhat defensively.
"We were parodying what society makes of issues like that. It's like we're winking at you with everything we're saying. Believe me, I've had friends who have killed themselves, and it's nothing to be made fun of. I consider (Heathers) the best thing I've ever done. I really love Veronica. She's one of my role models."
Ryder's next project is called Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael. It's another dark comedy, directed by Jim Abrahams (Airplane!). Ryder plays Dinky Bossetti, who, she says, "is sort of a lot like me. She's like no other character I've come across in my life. She's very cool."
Winona Ryder, the third of four children, was never exactly your normal, everyday kid. When she was four and her family was living in San Francisco, she says, she was hooked on chewable vitamin C tablets - and on lying. When her parents yelled at her for devouring too many vitamins, she told them a burglar had stolen them. "They started hiding my vitamin bottles on the top shelf, which is like the Alps to me." One day, Ryder was climbing up to get them when a big earthquake hit. "I thought it was God punishing me," she says. She quickly kicked the vitamin C habit and "stopped lying for about four years."
When she was around eleven, she fought her way onto the stage at a Pretenders concert; a security guy lunged for her, but Chrissie Hynde took the little girl by the hand and serenaded her with "2000 Miles." She liked to dress up in little boys' clothes when she was in the seventh grade. "I was a really weird kid. I'm a huge old-movie buff, and I was sort of transfixed by these old gangster films, and I would go these vintage clothes shops and get these little suits - green tweed knickers with a little double-breasted jacket, and a green tweed tie and argyle socks and loafers. I had very short hair, and I did look sort of androgynous, and I'd just pretend I was an a movie all the time. We moved to Petaluma (California), and on the third day in this new school I was at my locker, and I heard somebody say, 'Hey, faggot,' and all of a sudden I'm getting clobbered. It was sort of great. I felt like a real gangster or something." After that, Ryder's parents put her in independent-study program. With the help of a tutor, she graduated (with a 4.0 average) last December.
Clearly Ryder comes by her eccentricities naturally. Her father, Michael Horowitz (who helped Winona come up with her stage name), runs a rare-book business, and he and his wife, Cindy, who are also Winona's managers, have written a book on shamanism and compiled a collection of essays by their friend Aldous Huxley. Winona was named after the town in Minnesota where she was born (it's also the name of an Indian s-x goddess, she says). Her middle name is Laura, after Huxley's wife. Her godfather is Timothy Leary.
Nothing about Ryder is routine: even her break into movies was remarkable. At 12 she auditioned for her first movie, Desert Bloom, and though she didn't get the part, a talent agent was so impressed with her screen test that he suggested her for Lucas only four months later.
Right now she's sitting behind Jim McBride, her hands on his shoulder, watching rushes. Dennis Quaid slips into the chair behind her, easing her onto his lap. In her Brady boys T-shirt and jeans, she's more schoolgirl than femme fatale, but this plays up her seductiveness. Whether she can't keep her hands off the guys or they can't keep theirs off her, she and her director and co-star remain pretty constant physical contact whenever they're in the same room. Now they're a human sandwich watching Myra and Jerry Lee on the screen.
They look terrific; tiny, saucy Myra is cruising with Jerry Lee in a vintage Cadillac when he shows her a marriage license he's hidden in the glove compartment and pops the question. Ponytail bobbing, she says, in her sensible southern twang, "But you're as old as my daddy."
"It's amazing that Winona can be so sophisticated yet so unaffected," says McBride. "She's just so charming and seductive, she's impossible to resist. What can you say about someone you've fallen for? In a totally sanitary way. She's very s-xy without seeming to be somebody who has a lot of s-xual experience." By now Ryder has wrapped her arms around McBride's neck. "But it's not as though she doesn't understand the kind of effect she has on a guy," say McBride, smiling.
"They are so protective toward me," says Ryder. "I feel like a little doll in a doll's house."
An archaic blend of precocity and innocence, Ryder is a throwback to an earlier kind of kid. This is no Brat Packer; she's like an old fashioned child star, a Margaret O'Brien or a Jean Simmons: a bona fide Wise Child. She's more interested in whatever book she's devouring than in partying with her peers. "None of that is romantic or cool or appealing to me at all. I've gone to a couple of parties in LA to try to enjoy them. But it really scared me and grossed me out. I see star f-ckers and people who do stuff to be seen. It's kind of ugly. There are so many jaded kids now. I hate to see fourteen-year-olds with drinks in their hands, chain-smoking just to be trendy. It's like kids don't know what to do with all this money they suddenly have. It's really sick, and the industry feeds it."
But Ryder is not really a snob or a prude, she's just refreshingly different. Says Robert Downey, Jr., "Winona's got a well-informed innocence. She hasn't let all the shit get to her yet. She's really aware of what this business can do to you in spite of yourself, and I think that will keep her from making other people's mistakes."
"This role is a big challenge," says Ryder over dinner at the Peabody Hotel in Memhis. "Not only do I have to play a part, but I have an obligation to the real Myra. I can't let her down, or else I'll really feel like shit. She's already invented; I can't create anything." While Quaid and Jerry Lee Lewis became pals, Ryder spent less time with the real Myra. "It's great to have her as a source, but I wanted to just sort of play the Myra that I see. I picture her as a real bobbysocker, you know, with bobbysocks, and she knew everything that was happening because she read all those articles in Dig! Magazine. But I didn't want to copy her. It's great when Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro become exactly like the person they are playing. But I think you can immerse yourself without doing the exact same physical thing.
There was one scene that did cause Ryder some tribulation, the one she refers to, with clinical humor, as the "insertion scene." After all, she was playing this sultry little thing to a lady-killer like Quaid/Lewis under the direction of McBride, and she wasn't so sure it was going to be as easy as it looked, say, in The Big Easy. "Even in real life, I'm not exactly a veteran," says Ryder with a disarming giggle. So she rented The Big Easy. "I rewound and fast-forwarded a bunch of times," she says. "I wanted to see how Dennis and Jim handled it. I got a little scared because I'm thinking they're dealing with Ellen Barkin here, and she's, like, s-x personified - and I'm not exactly like that. But they're not doing the typical insertion thing."
Ryder, McBride, and Quaid discussed the scene, with McBride opting for it to be shot above the covers and Ryder and Quaid insisting that the action take place under them. Ultimately, the less explicit scene was shot - thanks in part to stormy weather in Memphis. "We hadn't really agreed," says Ryder, "and it was kind of uncomfortable, and then all of a sudden there was a tornado watch, and we all had to go down to the basement for half an hour, and it gave us a bit of time to cool off and relax. And then everything was in sync again."
"The scene is really, really s-xy," Ryder adds. "I have, like, a bra on and he pulls up my skirt, and we're under the blanket and stuff. It's really scary because it's like, like, the deflowering of Myra, and she starts out sort of meek and demure and then she starts to get into it and starts to, like, lose control, and there's music, and she starts to really move and stuff, and he stops her and says, 'Where d'you learn to move like that?' And I say, 'It's the music,' and he gets out of bed and storms away, leaving me thinking I did something wrong. It goes through a whole range, from being sort of a game to being painful to feeling really good, and then he freaks out, and I start to cry."
As far as her real life goes Ryder has successfully warded off advances from people in the business. "I've had a lot of propositions in the last year," she says. "A seventeen-year-old girl can easily be taken advantage of. But you know, to them seventeen isn't that young. It's just sort of, you know, ripe for the picking. I'm really naive about stuff like that, and it's sort of creepy."
The next day on the set, there's a tempest in the dollhouse. Jerry Lee lurches over the piano, pumping out a tidal wave of arpeggios. A sleepy Myra, lip still swollen from Jerry Lee punching her the night before, emerges from the bedroom in childish pink pajamas. "Do you believe I'm sorry?" he says.
"You can't hit me no more, Jerry," she says.
"I told you I was sorry."
"No, that ain't what I mean..."
"Oh, yes it is. You think you're the only one ever got hit. You think I don't get hit?"
"Jerry, I gotta tell you something..." By now he's cornered her, and his arm is raised to smack her. "Jerry," she blurts out, "we're having a baby!" Quaid's face goes through a series of contortions - first shock, then laughter, then sobs. He lunges forward, and she pulls back, scared. Then he buries his head in her lap, and she rocks him in her arms. She does a half dozen takes, each dramatically different. Ryder plays Myra as a wounded innocent, as a resigned rock 'n' roll wife, as someone hurt, as someone angry. She transforms the action with small gestures. In one take she pats Quaid's back with tender forgiveness. In another, she slaps her hands down on it, feels her bruised lip, then slowly strokes his hair. Her line readings change too. "We're having a baby," she pronounces almost proudly. "We're are having a baby," she whispers when the camera rolls again, as if each word hurt.
Wearing black leggings and a white blouse over a lacy white chemise, the actress is curled up on her bed after a long day on the set. Ryder, who is obsessed with J.D. Salinger and has two copies of The Catcher in the Rye with her, flips through a dog-eared paperback. "You know how some people rub crystal when they get paranoid?" she says. "This is my crystal. Me and Holden are, like, this team." She shows me one of the many quotes she's underlined in the book. "The goddam movies," Holden says. "They can ruin you. I'm not kidding."
The set is dominated by a New England house, surrounded by a complicated ersatz-nature arrangement that enables the house photogenic inhabitants to enjoy autumn from the kitchen window, winter from the parlor, and summer from around the corner. Sarandon is playing Marmee, the matriarch of Little Women's fictional March family. Ryder, naturally, is playing Jo - the coolest March sister, the tomboy, the heroine.
Denise De Novi, Little Women's producer, loves to talk about Ryder and how fabulous she is in the movie. "Did you see Reality Bites?" Di Novi asks. "I think that's the first film where you really see how adorable Winona is. She's the most charming, funny, sweet person." Charming, funny, sweet - and cute as a bunny too. Not exactly the obvious choice to play Jo, who's prickly, awkward, antisocial, and one of fiction's few pointedly unbeautiful heroines. Well, this is, after all, a Christmas movie. And Ryder is, after all, an actress.
Di Novi swears Ryder can handle the part. "She's actually more like Jo in real life than any other character she's played," she claims. "Winona may be little, but her personality is big." Ryder herself is positive she doesn't look too pretty. "I hardly wore any makeup at all!" she says earnestly. "And with my hair pulled back in a braid, I look very plain." Besides, Ryder's brand of sweetness is also Little Women's: She's got a childlike, just-milked-the-cows lilt that's perfect for the movie, if not for the part of Jo. The occasional "f-ck" notwithstanding, Ryder usually talks like Cindy Brady, or the original Tiny Tim. "I've just had one of the greatest times I've ever had making a movie," she says with a happy sigh, "because I really truly love everybody so much. I know it sounds cliche, but the girls really do feel like my sisters, you know?"
There are four sisters in Little Women, plus one mother and a (mostly absent) father. The six Marches are modeled on Louisa May Alcott's own family - a fractious, eccentric, impoverished, pious group who lived in a number of places up and down the Eastern seaboard during the middle of the 19th century. Alcott's mother, Abby, came from an upper-class Boston family with a history of involvement in the antislavery movement. Louisa's father, Bronson, was part of the Emerson-Thoreau-Margaret Fuller transcendentalist circle in the 1830's and '40s. He became famous for his Socratic teaching method, which aimed to draw knowledge out of small children rather than put it in. Bronson's obsession with child development led him to do some dubious things in the service of truth. He allowed his daughter, Anna, when she was only a few months old, to twice put her hand in the flame of an oil lamp: the first time to show her it would hurt, the second to make sure she wouldn't forget. Later on, he convinced her that she should love him all the more for punishing her since punishment made her good, and he was so convincing that Anna took to begging him "Father, punish! Father, punish!"
Louisa, the second Alcott daughter, wrote Little Women in 1868 under pressure from her publisher, who thought it would sell. "Mr N. wants a girls' story... so I plod away, though I don't enjoy this sort of thing," she wrote in her journal at the time. "Never liked girls or knew many except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it." In the novel, Jo, based on Louisa herself, changes from an evil-tempered, bookish, loud, unladylike fifteen-year-old who wants desperately to be a famous author, to a gentle, happy, married mother of two who still wants to write but has realized that love is more important than ambition. The script brings the story up to date by highlighting its PC elements and, when these do not exist, by borrowing from the lives of the Alcotts. Robin Swicord, author of the screenplay, certainly didn't want to reproduce the medieval politics of the 1933 George Cukor Little Women (Katherine Hepburn's Jo is great, but she ends up ironing) or the glorifious Technicolor banality of the 1949 version (June Allyson, all smiles, plays Jo as Pollyanna). To Swicord's way of thinking, Little Women is about successful single motherhood and female artists coming of age, and so provides the ideal vehicle for a little covert validation. "I hope that young girls emerge from the movie feeling stronger and less like they live in a male-dominated world," she says. Not surprisingly, Swicord has jettisoned the book's Christian ambivalence toward artistic achievement: In the film, Jo's writing becomes central. (Swicord thinks the novel's ambivalence is Louisa May Alcotts's unconscious apology for her father, widely considered a failure and crackpot despite his famous friends.) And Swicord has thrown in many of the Alcott causes, absent from the book, for good political measure: the temperance and women's movements; the thwarted attempt to desegregate Bronson's school; even transcedentalism.
This last item is noteworthy because it is the utopian connection that makes Ryder not quite so unlikely a choice to play Jo as she would seem. As a kid, Ryder spent four years living on an electricity-free commune in Northern California that was in some respects a hippie version of Brook Farm, the transcendentalist settlement that Bronson Alcott helped found. She was raised, Alcott-style, to be free from convention and to believe, as Ryder puts it, that "whatever you do is okay unless you hurt somebody else." Ryder herself is unsure whether this or any other real-life likeness to Alcott or Jo helped her with the part. Mimesis is, of course, such a complicated business. "I've tried to have this conversation with other actors," she says. "Are we adding our own personalities to the characters or are we creating different personalities? Acting is so strange."
The commune experience has come in handy, though, in scenes involving candles. Ryder is accustomed to them, but noncommunnard Claire Danes was not, and managed to set her hair on fire. The crew, used to girly high spirits on the set, thought Danes's screams weren't serious and did nothing. Eventually Ryder leaped on top of the actress and put the fire out. "I guess Claire didn't realize that you have to hold candles away from your head," Ryder says.
Ryder was snagged for Little Women by Denise Di Novi; the two worked together on Heathers and Edward Scissorhands. Di Novi got involved with the movie at the behest of Amy Pascal, then an executive vice-president of production at Columbia. Pascal rang up Di Novi and asked if she'd be interested in working on the project; Di Novi said she would die to. "And I called Winona." Di Novi recalls, "because we had talked about how much we both loved the book on the set of Heathers, and I said, 'You won't believe this but we can do Little Women!' And of course she jumped and said she'd love to do it."
Di Novi is sitting in the sparsely furnished office from which she is running the movie. The room's only design element is a shelf-long row of Evian bottles. As she talks, Di Novi reaches for one of these and, Player-like, uses it to water a bunch of flowers. "I found Little Women a very comforting book as a kid," Di Novi says, "because Jo wasn't like all those other girl heroines - really pretty and popular and everything. I didn't feel inadequate when I read about Jo. I feel bad for teenagers nowadays, reading Danielle Steele and Judth Krantz novels - I've read a couple of them and they make me feel like a shlump."
Di Novi is anxious to convey that Little Women is still rather radical, even in the '90s. "It's so important that Jo doesn't marry Laurie, the beautiful rich guy," she says. "I don't want to sound like a spoilsport, but I do think on a deep psychic level it's very harmful for both men and women to think there's this perfect 10 out there for them." No, she concedes, Gabriel Byrne, who plays Professor Bhaer - the plain, donnish, German whom Jo does marry - is not exactly Frankenstein's monster. "I don't think you have to marry an ugly guy to be a feminist or something," she begins slowly, venturing with care into this potential contradiction. "But Jo chooses her soul mate based on an intellectual, emotional, connection, not superficial, romantic, love-at-first-sight things or s-xual chemistry. Anyway, Gabriel Byrne is handsome, but he's not Richard Gere. He's older, and kind of slobby - not your traditional hero."
Looking for an actress to play Marmee, Di Novi decided she wanted someone "earthy and warm and sensual" - and who better than Susan Sarandon? Like Ryder, Sarandon can identify with an aspect of the Alcott family: not the commune aspect, but the religious-ethical one. Sarandon grew up in a strict Catholic family, the eldest of nine, and as a child aspired to a career as a saint. She is famously political, and at the 1993 Academy Awards she took the opportunity to make a speech about the plight of AIDS-infected Haitian refugees that was a real downer and annoyed a lot of people and was exactly what Marmee or Bronson Alcott would have said under similar circumstances. Sarandon is quick to point out, however, that there is all the difference in the world between Catholics and transcendentalists. "The Catholic Church is so misogynist, and about punishing yourself and original sin and all those doctrines that make you apologize from the day you're born," she says. "The Alcotts were closer to being Quakers, and the Quaker philosophy is community service and being a good person."
Sarandon just can't get over how great Marmee is, and what a wonderful model she makes for mothers today. So is Marmee perfect? This stops Sarandon for a second, presumably because she knows perfect is bad. "I hope she's not perfect, or she would be so unreal," she says. "I'm sure there's lots of things wrong with her. She's a woman in struggle, as every real person is." Is there anything about Marmee she does not identify with? "The corset and the buttpad and the hairdo I definitely don't," Sarandon says grimly. "And I don't think Marmee cared what people thought of her. Also, she put up with a lot more from her husband than I would have. Under a philosophical banner, he was pretty abusive. He practically starved and froze those girls to death."
Corsets, buttpads, abusive husbands... Little Women - as-feminist-morality-tale was definitely there to be made, but Gillian Armstrong, the movie's director, didn't want to make it. Unexpectedly, the Australian director of My Brilliant Career (the story of a woman who flees romance to follow her muse) and the Smokes and Lollies documentary series (which follows a group of girls through adolescence and early adulthood) hates the idea that she might be thought of as a woman film-maker. "I consider myself a film director and an artist," Armstrong says, annoyed by the suggestion that Little Women might be a feminist movie. "Of course I believe in women's rights, and of course I wouldn't do a film that was s-xist, but that doesn't mean I want to make commercials for the women's movement. Besides, I've always taught that the best way to carry a message is with a bit of entertainment."
The bit of entertainment Armstrong has been trying for is comedy. "The thing we're stressing is the humor," she says. "I hope it's not hokey." This is a tall order. Little Women, the Christmas movies... well, one can only imagine. "I don't think there are a lot of belly laughs," Sarandon says diplomatically, "but Marmee has a certain sense of irony."
"The humor is more in the expressions on our faces," Ryder explains when asked the same question. "The movie is not that kind of roll-around-laughing funny, but it's really real."
Making Little Women has been something pf an experiment for Armstrong - the last time she worked in Hollywood the experience was a disaster: Her film, Fires Within was recut by M.G.M. despite her protests, to the point at which she no longer felt any connection to it, and then was barely released. But Armstrong seems to be ready to forgive and get paid American wages again. "It's the old Hollywood story," she says philosophically. "It's part of the game: They put up the money and then they tell the director who's made them a $100 million success that she doesn't have the final cut. It's the luck of the draw, really."
This time, just to be safe, Armstrong took the footage home and edited it in Australia. And, according to Ryder at least, it shows. "Gillian is such a great director," Ryder says. "She's got a real point of view; I think Little Women is going to be a classic movie because it's really heavy and really intelligent and in a way it's a real art movie too - like it'll appeal to the people who drink cappuccinos in the lobby, you know?"
And if it doesn't, and the My Brilliant Career crowd decides to snub Armstrong's latest progeny, there's still the sentimental masses, in search of warmed cockles and jerked tears, to make the movie a success. "In these times," Ryder says, "when everything's so hip, this movie is so pure. It's beautiful. It's inspiring. It's about people, it's about individuals, it's about women's rights, it's a great love story - all the things we label corny, but they're really not." Ryder pauses, and sighs at the very thought of it. "It's the kind of movie," she says finally, "that makes you want to call your mom."