It's hard to believe that Winona Ryder is 38-years-old. It seems like just a short time ago that she was playing a high school girl in Heathers or Edward Scissorhands. From there, Ryder's career seemed to take off -- she landed memorable parts as Mina Harker in Francis Ford Coppola's lush but narratively flawed Dracula, won a Golden Globe for another costume drama in The Age of Innocence, and got a Best Actress nod for her work in Little Women. Ryder's resume is filled with memorable roles, but unfortunately it was overshadowed at least to some degree by her arrest in 2001 for shoplifting over $5,000 worth of items from a Beverly Hills Saks Fifth Avenue. After that public humiliation, the actress essentially disappeared for four years. We're hearing more from her now, though -- with roles in several upcoming films including Ron Howard's comedy The Dilemma and Darren Aronofsky's highly anticipated thriller Black Swan. With that in mind, it seemed like a perfect time to take a look back at Ryder's body of work and choose her best role to date.
The easy and obvious choices would be The Age of Innocence or Little Women. Ryder received critical acclaim and prestigious award nominations for both portrayals. However, neither is a part I think of when the actress is mentioned. For me, Winona will always be synonymous with some of her early roles -- rebellious Veronica in Heathers, Kim Boggs in Edward Scissorhands, and Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice. Of the three roles, I think her turn as the gothy teenager in Burton's Beetlejuice is her finest.
It may seem strange to choose a supporting part as a star's best, but I've always felt that Ryder turns in her best work when she's playing off the strengths of her directors and cast members. This isn't to say that she's incapable of being a leading lady, but that I simply feel she works better when she's not called upon to heft the entire weight of a production by herself. Even in her Academy Award nominated roles she was working alongside Daniel Day-Lewis and Susan Sarandon amongst others. Beetlejuice finds the young actress working not only with Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, and Catherine O'Hara, but also under the direction of a young Tim Burton.
Lydia is not only a great performance from Ryder, but a character who became synonymous with Burton's aesthetics as a filmmaker. She's a bewitching character who bridges the gap between Burton's animated projects and his live action films quite nicely. Ryder's gothy teenager is transformed into something almost animated. How can it be helped with her wide eyes and uber cute features, which play nicely off the surreal and expressionistic sets Burton has crafted for his film? His distinctive visual style is the perfect place for Lydia to thrive, and foreshadows what was to come in later titles like The Nightmare Before Christmas (which Burton produced and co-wrote).
Ryder takes Lydia's expressionistic style and sensibilities (Goth meets The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meets Grand Guignol) and makes her darkness palatable for the audience as their guide through the film's world. Baldwin and Davis are easy to relate to, but they're ghosts. The rest of the Deetz family and their friends are stranger still. So, Lydia -- no stranger to the strange herself -- becomes our representative in the film, particularly the early stages. Her Lydia is just bizarre enough to intrigue us, but not so freakish as to scare us off. This is the best part of the whole performance. The audience may not subscribe to the character's life philosophy, but they like her anyway.
The actress has received the most accolades for her dramatic work, but this film proves that Ryder is perfectly capable of doing comedy as well. Her deadpan line delivery and the character's sarcastic sense of humor allow her to hold her own in a film filled with some genuinely funny performers.
At only 38 years old, it's probably too soon to pick Winona Ryder's best role -- particularly since she's returned to acting after her self-imposed hiatus -- but even when her career is finally over I'm positive that her portrayal of Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice will still number amongst her most memorable performances.