Born October 29, 1971 as Winona Laura Horowitz in Winona, Minnesota, the actress chose her professional last name of Ryder while listening to an album by Mitch Ryder. Her mother is an author, video producer and editor, and her father an author, editor, publisher and antiquarian bookseller. He also worked as an archivist for psychedelic guru Timothy Leary who was Ryder’s godfather.
When she was seven years old, Ryder’s family including two older half-siblings and a younger brother moved to a commune outside Elk in Mendocino County, California. They lived with seven other families on a remote property without electricity or television. She developed an interest in acting after watching a few movies her mother showed her in the family barn. When she was ten, the family moved to Petaluma, outside of San Francisco. At ten, she enrolled in the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. She made her film debut at 14 in 1986’s Lucas. While still in high school, she won acclaim for her performances in 1987’s Square Dance opposite Rob Lowe and 1988’s Beetlejuice opposite Michael Keaton and Heathers opposite Christian Slater.
After graduating Petaluma High School with a 4.0 grade average in 1989, she starred in three films in 1990, Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael opposite Jeff Daniels, Edward Scissorhands opposite Johnny Depp, to whom she was linked romantically, and Mermaids as Cher’s eldest daughter. She won the National Board of Review award and a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actress in the latter.
Following the success of 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula opposite Gary Oldman, she co-starred with Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis in 1993’s The Age of Innocence for which she received her first Oscar nomination. Her performance as Jo in 1994’s Little Women earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. 1995’s all-star How to Make an American Quilt earned her a SAG nomination as part of the ensemble. She earned kudos for 1996’s The Crucible again opposite Day-Lewis but was found wanting by the critics in 1997’s Alien: Resurrection in support of Sigourney Weaver.
After several more supporting turns, Ryder hoped to regain her star power with 1999’s Girl, Interrupted but instead the film was stolen by supporting actress Angelina Jolie who won an Oscar for her performance. In 2001, while suffering from depression and the overuse of prescription drugs, she was arrested for shoplifting in Beverly Hills. She was tried and convicted and sentenced to community service with the conviction later changed from a felony to a misdemeanor after her doctor lost his medical license.
Ryder continued to work but didn’t achieve anything close to her former status until her portrayal of Spock’s mother in the 2009 relaunch of Star Trek. The following year she received her second SAG ensemble nod for Black Swan in which she played an aging ballerina. That same year she earned a SAG nomination for Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film for Love Is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story in which she played the founder of Al-Anon. She subsequently won a SAG award for Best Actress in a Drama Series for Stranger Things, a role she continues to play.
At 47, Winona Ryder remains one of our most intriguing actresses.
HEATHERS (1988), directed by Michael Lehmann
Following the success of Beetlejuice earlier in the year, Ryder again played gothic chic in this very dark comedy as an intelligent high school student who teams up with a sociopath, played by Christian Slater, in order to get out of the snobby clique that is destroying her good-girl reputation. One of the most controversial movies ever made about the high school experience, detractors at the time of its release thought it was making fun of suicide. Now it’s even more uncomfortably compared to the all too frequent school shootings in today’s world. Despite all that, Ryder considers this cult classic her favorite among her films.
MERMAIDS (1990), directed by Richard Benjamin
Ryder won the National Board of Review award and a Golden Globe nomination for this film in which does the impossible in stealing it from Cher who has the starring role of the real-life unconventional mother of two impressionable daughters. Ryder plays the older girl, a high-schooler who despite being Jewish, wants to become a nun. That all changes when she falls for Michael Schoeffling, a 27-year-old handyman who works for the local convent. Christina Ricci, in her film debut, plays Ryder’s younger sister, whose near fatal drowning causes a rift between Ryder and Cher. Bob Hoskins co-stars as Cher’s latest paramour.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993), directed by Martin Scorsese
Scorsese’s gorgeously filmed version of Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer prizewinning novel of 1920 was nominated for five Oscars and won for Best Costume Design with Ryder the only cast member to be nominated for her portrayal of Daniel Day-Lewis’ young wife. Day-Lewis himself was nominated for In the Name of the Father instead while Michelle Pfeiffer as her cousin (Day-Lewis’ true love) and Miriam Margolyes as her grandmother were ignored, the latter blaming category fraud for her omission as Ryder received equal over-the-title billing with Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer.
LITTLE WOMEN (1994), directed by Gillian Armstrong
Ryder as Jo, the role previously played by Katharine Hepburn and June Allyson in the 1933 and 1949 versions respectively, was the only one nominated for an Oscar for her performance although Susan Sarandon who plays Marmee was nominated against Ryder for her performance in The Client. Kirsten Dunst won several awards for her portrayal of the younger Amy in conjunction with her performance in Interview with the Vampire as did Claire Danes for her portrayal of Beth. Others singled out included Christian Bale as Laurie, Eric Stoltz as John Brooke and Gabriel Byrne as Mr. Bhaer.
BLACK SWAN (2010), directed by Darren Aronofsky
After her comeback performance as the human mother of Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) in the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, Ryder had two standout roles in 2010, first as the neglected wife of the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous who later co-founds Al-Anon for the wives of reformed alcoholics in the TV movie, When Love Is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story for which she won a SAG award. At year’s end, she was back on the big screen as the aging ballerina and dying swan in the Natalie Portman film for she also received a SAG nomination as part of the film’s ensemble.
WINONA RYDER AND OSCAR
- The Age of Innocence (1990) – nominated – Best Supporting Actress
- Little Women (1994) – nominated – Best Actress