Heathers, the '80s cult classic starring Winona Ryder that set the mold for twisted teen satires, celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. Ryder's performance as Veronica Sawyer, the one-time popular girl who falls in with Christian Slater’s rebellious (and psychotic) J.D., remains one of the defining works of teenage girlhood, beautifully balancing angst and sarcasm. Although the film was not a huge commercial success when it came out, Heathers did gather a dedicated following in the years after its release, and has since influenced other teen comedies and even spawned an off-Broadway musical adaptation.
Ryder ended up being the kind of movie star that would define young womanhood for multiple generations. Before Heathers, she gave goth teens an instant icon as Lydia Deetz in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, and later nailed her role as another conflicted and confused budding young woman in Mermaids, alongside Cher and Christina Ricci.
As her career continued, she grew right along with her audience, portraying women struggling with adulthood, particularly in Ben Stiller's time capsule movie which captured Gen X in the '90s, Reality Bites, and the adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir, Girl, Interrupted. Ryder was also the go-to young actress for some of the period dramas made in the '90s, starring in Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Age of Innocence, and Little Women, the latter two earning her Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Actress in a Leading Role, respectively.
In the aughts, among other roles, Ryder delivered performances in Richard Linklater's animated sci-fi thriller, A Scanner Darkly, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, and Rebecca Miller's romantic comedy-drama, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Then, to kick off the 2010s, Ryder worked with director Darren Aronofsky, playing Beth, the "Dying Swan," in the psychological thriller, Black Swan. She continued to excel in films like the crime thriller, The Iceman, and the stop-motion animated feature, Frankenweenie, for which she reunited with Burton.
On television, Ryder was a breakout favorite on Netflix’s Stranger Things as Joyce Byers, the loving mom dedicated to rescuing her abducted son in the first season of the sci-fi throwback series. Ryder has since played Joyce Byers in three more seasons of the popular series, with the fifth and final season arriving in 2025.
Ryder's latest role is in Disney’s The Haunted Mansion, available to stream on Disney+. In celebration of her birthday on Oct. 29, A.frame presents 10 essential films in Ryder’s filmography that showcase her limitless range.
Ryder was just 15 years old when she played Lydia Deetz, the self-described "strange and unusual" teenager who, along with her dad and stepmom, moves into a country residence haunted by its previous inhabitants. Lydia is a goth teen and feels disconnected from her dad and stepmom, played by Jeffrey Jones and the delightfully eccentric Catherine O’Hara, respectively. She ends up befriending Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin’s friendly spirits before being tricked by Michael Keaton’s titular ghost with the most into pulling him out of the world of the dead.
Beetlejuice, Ryder's first collaboration with Burton, won the Oscar for Best Makeup for the title character's instantly iconic look, among other great effects. A sequel, also directed by Burton and starring Ryder as a grown-up Lydia with a daughter (played by Jenna Ortega) is scheduled to be released in 2024.
Heathers defined a generation with its dark comedy and unique slang, and it gave Ryder a different shade of disaffected teen to play as Veronica Sawyer. Veronica is friends with the popular Heathers, Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk), and Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), but when bad boy J.D. (Christian Slater), arrives to shake up her perspective, things quickly get hilariously morbid as teens start dropping dead at the hands of the couple. Heathers is a sharp take on the ebbs and flows of teen popularity, with its darker elements perfectly balanced by its biting jokes, many expertly delivered by Ryder.
Edward Scissorhands was Ryder's second collaboration with Burton, this time playing popular girl Kim who falls for lonely, misunderstood outsider Edward Scissorhands (frequent Burton collaborator Johnny Depp). It’s a sweet, sad romance as well as a gentle satire on suburbia and conformity, with Edward’s physical condition of having scissors for hands treated first as a novelty, and then as a threat once the neighborhood turns on him.
The movie's stylized gothic design and the love story between Kim and Edward remain indelible, with the film's influence enduring in pop culture.
Francis Ford Coppola redefined the age-old story of the Transylvanian vampire Dracula with his bold horror film, Bram Stoker's Dracula. This adaptation is relatively faithful to the novel, starring Gary Oldman as Count Dracula, Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker, Sir Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, and Ryder as Mina Harker, Jonathan's fiancé and eventual wife. The film adds a tragic romance between Dracula and Mina, the reincarnation of his lost love, making her more central than she was in the novel. Ryder nails Mina's Victorian primness and romantic longing for both her husband and the vampire who has "crossed oceans of time" for her, becoming the key figure to stopping Dracula's rampage.
Bram Stoker's Dracula received four Oscar nominations and went on to win three Oscars: Best Makeup, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Costume Design for Eiko Ishioka's stunning costumes that drew inspiration from all around the world.
After directing Goodfellas and Cape Fear, Martin Scorsese took a trip to the past with the romantic drama, The Age of Innocence, set in the Gilded Age in late 19th-century New York. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Newland Archer, a wealthy New York society attorney. Even though Newland is married to Ryder's May Welland, he ends up falling for Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). As the betrayed May, Ryder more than holds her own against Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer. For her impressive work in the film, Ryder received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Based on Edith Wharton's novel of the same name, this exquisite drama, which remains underseen on its 30th anniversary, received four other Oscar nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay for Scorsese and Jay Cocks, and went on to win the Oscar for Best Costume Design for Gabriella Pescucci.
Reality Bites was the feature directorial debut of Ben Stiller. The 1994 film is a romantic comedy-drama about Gen X college grads in the early '90s balancing love, friendships, and personal principles while navigating early adulthood. Ryder stars as Lelaina, who falls for both Stiller's tightly-wound yuppie Michael and Ethan Hawke's guitar-playing slacker Troy. Ryder nails the conflict between wanting to grow up and coming to terms with the fact that the adult world isn't all that it's cracked up to be. In other words, Ryder delivers yet another relatable performance for young women everywhere.
Almost every young woman wants to be Jo March, perhaps even more so after Ryder's leading performance in the 1994 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel, Little Women. Ryder's Jo is headstrong, creative and dedicated to her family. Additionally, Jo is unwilling to be constrained by the femininity of the era and the love of Laurie (a young Christian Bale). The rest of the March women are played by Trini Alvarado, who plays Meg; Claire Danes, who plays Beth; and Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis, who play younger and older Amy, respectively. Rounding out the cast are Susan Sarandon as the loving Marmee and Gabriel Byrne as Friedrich Bhaer.
Ryder received her second Oscar nomination for her performance as Jo, this time for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Directed by Gillian Armstrong, the coming-of-age drama also received nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Original Score.
Based on Susanna Kaysen's memoir of the same name, Girl, Interrupted stars Ryder as Susanna, a young woman who overdoses on aspirin and alcohol and spends two years in a psychiatric hospital. There, she comes to understand her own mental health as she befriends her fellow patients, including Angelina Jolie's rebellious sociopath Lisa. Jolie and Ryder are excellent playing off of each other in the film, their friendship central to both journeys. For her performance in the film, Jolie won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Black Swan stars Natalie Portman in her Oscar-winning performance as Nina, a ballerina attempting to master the dual role of White Swan/Black Swan in the classic Tchaikovsky ballet, Swan Lake. Nina is plagued by her obsession with perfection and begins to completely lose her grip on reality. Ryder plays Beth, the company's former prima ballerina, who lashes out at Nina and resents her taking her place. With very limited screen time, Ryder manages to be truly memorable with her tragic and bitter performance. It's the kind of character that audiences have rarely seen Ryder tackle, making her impact all the more unforgettable as a result.