Monday, July 20, 2009

The Hype Report: The X File on Winona Ryder

[Being the latest in an infrequent series devoted to movie-related puff pieces so over the top that they're a show all by themselves..]

So it turns out that Winona Ryder is in the new Star Trek movie, where she plays the Vulcan ambassador Sarek's baby mama, and Vanessa Thorpe's profile of Ryder and the current state of her career has kind of science-fiction vibe to it itself. Did you know that Ryder was once "acclaimed as the most promising, most beautiful and most fashionable star of her generation - the generation, that is, that had become known as 'X'?" It's news to me, and I think I'm of the generation that had become known as 'X' myself, so long as we're all committed to writing in the style that has become known as "funny-looking'." Thorpe must have worried that we'd think it was just her, so she cites a back-up source: Ryder's father, who says that twenty or so years ago, his daughter and Johnny Depp were "the hottest couple in the United States." All together now--ewwwwww!! Is it possible that when all those folks at the red carpet premieres leaned across the police barricades and screamed, "You're the most promising, most beautiful, and most fashionable star of your generation," they were talking to Johnny? Thorpe herself undercuts her argument by describing Ryder's features as "elfin", a term I've always associated more with the likes of Michael J. Pollard or the guy on Two and a Half Men who isn't Charlie Sheen than anyone who might qualify as the most beautiful anything. It's possible that Cate Blanchett and Orlando Bloom in The Lord of the Rings have forever rewritten the rule book on this one, but not in my apartment.

The thing is, I've always thought that Ryder was beautiful, and that's why I never tortured myself a lot--a little, but not a lot--wondering why she had a career. It was easy for men, including men as smart and weird as Depp and Tim Burton, to have high hopes for her in her Beetlejuice days: she was, one more time, a very beautiful, very young girl who liked to tell interviewers that was reading Ian McEwan and do guest spots in Mojo Nixon videos. You could probably hear the puddles forming from all those geeks' hearts melting across the country. Thorpe seems to take it on faith that there's a general agreement that she was just dazzling in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence--where, to show her commitment to her craft, she allowed the makeup people to do her best to homely her up--and in the Gillian Armstrong production of Little Woman, which is indeed probably the best movie that has her close to its center. But it's also true that in both these movies, which we made when she was in her early twenties, she comes across as, emotionally, about twelve years old. When she was engaged in real life to Johnny Depp, who was eight years her senior, it was reported that no less an expert on grown-up behavior than Cher had warned her that she wasn't ready for such a leap. in the movies, seeing her married off to either Daniel Day Lewis or Gabriel Byrne was creepy, in ways the filmmakers could not have intended.

Ryder's last big-deal role was probably in 1999's Girl, Interrupted, a movie that wound up belonging her co-star, Angelina Jolie (who won an Oscar for it), and with good reason. Thorpe does her best to characterize Ryder's fallen star sound the result of some combination of a conspiracy and a perfect storm of "bad creative decisions, or perhaps just bad luck, which gradually began to edge Ryder deeper into a kind of Hollywood twilight." Yes, there was the shoplifting incident, which fed into other stories, like the one about her flaking out on the set of The Godfather III, gave her a reputation for being a troublesome fruitcake. But the fact is that Ryder's demons are small-time compared to those of Robert Downey, Jr., and there was always somebody willing to work with him while waiting for him to prove himself insurable again. Ryder was much in demand when she was barely an adult because she was beautiful and unusual and willing to work, and a number of people who got their foot in the door of the industry that way learned to act as they went along. Ryder never did. A lot of these people were discarded by the industry as their looks faded; what's most special about Ryder, who at 37 is still very easy on the eyes, is that her looks held up just fine and still Hollywood was eager to discard her, because she showed no sign of ever learning to act a lick. She and Downey were both in Richard Linklater's rotoscoped A Scanner Darkly, and the amazing thing was how much of him came through even as a cartoon, while her improved-upon screen image had the same hollow shell behind it that it always had.

Maybe Ryder will get her comeback: stranger things have happened, and if it does, good for her. But it's annoying to see writers present her career as a story of a major talent that's been neglected or gone to waste, because such talk amounts to a slight of other, genuine talents. So many really gifted actresses have to fight harder for parts as they grow older, and some of them never really win a round. Given that, how is it anything but simple justice that Ryder should have trouble getting good roles when the salient fact of her career has been her failure to seem to grow up? All she had to offer the camera was her face, and if the general feeling in Hollywood is that that's not enough to compensate for the trouble she's apt to cause, keep in mind that she's less trouble than a lot of people who manage to keep themselves in work. And then there's the wildy gifted people who don't stay in the race at all. "If Ryder's artistic rehabilitation works out over the summer," Thorpe writes breathlessly, "she will have re-emerged at the age of 37 as one of the most impressive veterans of a 1980s Hollywood bratpack scene that has seen many casualties. An emblem of troubled, talented youth, Ryder was a sort of female equivalent to River Phoenix, but unlike him she has survived." If I read this correctly, in the comparison between Phoenix, whose career included some indelible performances before it was cut short, and Ryder, whose career doesn't and wasn't, Ryder wins because, for reasons connected to a fluke of mortality and blind luck, she's the one who's still employable. Seriously, does anyone really want to go there?

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