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Winona Ryder: With Smaller Roles, A Welcome Return From Exile

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This summer, NPR has been looking at comebacks — from politicians reinventing themselves to the recovery of once-endangered species.

And there's a special place in comeback heaven for disgraced movie stars — like Winona Ryder, who more or less made everyone forget about her 2001 shoplifting arrest with her role in the movie Black Swan, where she played an aging ballerina in a jealous frenzy.

But then people root for Winona Ryder. Film critic Wesley Morris has, ever since the 1988 movie Beetlejuice, where she played the ultimate depressive goth chick.

"I really related to how she didn't feel like she belonged anywhere," Morris says.

She brought a kind of in-the-joke sincerity to that role, and to her parts in the other Tim Burton pictures she turned up in.

'A Generational Voice,' But One Eventually Muffled

Ryder was dark yet beguiling, with an elfin edge. That distinguished her from the wholesome prettiness of earlier teen queens. Morris says it was easy for Gen-X kids to identify with her.

"It didn't matter what gender you were, what race you were," he says. "She captured something essential about being young and curious and kind of insecure, but also confident at the same time."

Remember Heathers? Or Reality Bites?

"She was a kind of generational voice," Morris says, a performer who captured the rhythms and attitudes of contemporary life. But then came what Morris calls "the costume thing" — a string of period movies including The Crucible, Little Women and The Age of Innocence, in which Ryder acquitted herself well enough, but seemed somehow buried in all those petticoats.

As high drama as some of those films were, though, none were as tragically overwrought as Bram Stoker's Dracula.

"That," says Verge magazine editor James Patrick Herman, "was a disaster."

Herman says Ryder's next mistake was supporting the casting of a then little-known Angelina Jolie in 1999's Girl Interrupted. It's about a group of young women in a mental institution, and what was supposed to be a showcase movie for Ryder turned, says Herman, into a Bette Davis-Joan Crawford-style smackdown.

"You can see the horror in Winona's eyes as Angelina Jolie steals the movie," Herman says.

Sure enough, Jolie's performance won her an Oscar.

The Misstep, And The Slow Return To 'Special Things'

And then, two years later, came Ryder's shoplifting arrest — a mundane crime by Hollywood standards, says Morris, but one that tarred Ryder with a good deal of tabloid ink.

Still, Morris says, "she's not like a lot of stars where, like, you just want them to go away and don't want to see them again."

And that's why the "news of Ryder's comeback" has been celebrated in practically every film she's done since, Morris says. Sure, the roles have been smaller, but they've steadily rebuilt her reputation.

She played Spock's mom in the Star Trek reboot and the wife of a contract killer opposite Michael Shannon in 2012's The Iceman. She's in an upcoming movie with James Franco, and a British prestige project written and directed by David Hare. Her representatives ignored our requests for interviews, but in a 2012 chat on the website Hitfix, Ryder suggested she no longer feels the need to carry a movie.

"They say if you have three years you're lucky," she said. "I'm just grateful I'm still asked to do these special things."

But Ryder shouldn't just settle for "special things" — stunt casting — or even supporting roles, says Morris.

"She needs a show," he argues. "She needs a TV show. I hope her agent is listening."

Morris says he'd love to see Ryder star in something like Orange Is the New Black. Something to showcase her humor as well as her vulnerability.

And, he adds — no costume dramas. Nothing set any earlier than, say, the 1990s.

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