Winona Ryder's Second Act: Lessons From 'Little Women'

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It took six years off, presumable prescription drug treatment, and a lot of community service for Winona Ryder to make it back. And it's a testament to the enduring appeal of her early work that three appropriately quirky supporting parts—as Commander Spock's artificially-aged mother in Star Trek, as a deranged ballerina in Black Swan, and as Kevin James' cheating wife upgrading to Channing Tatum in The Dilemma, in theaters on Friday—was all it took to resurrect a certain kind of American's crush on Ryder, for GQ to declare as Johnny Depp once did, that it's Winona Forever all over again.

This Ryder revival's based on nostalgia for her indie roles as a popular girl seduced into murder in Heathers and a suburban girl who falls for an artificial boy in Edward Scissorhands, her position as a kind of Golden Age forerunner to the Manic Pixie Dream Girls. But Winona worshippers might do well to revisit the 1994 adaptation of Little Women, the movie that garnered Ryder a Best Actress Academy Award nomination. Some purists might conclude that the fact that Ryder's nods come for that, and for her supporting role in another period piece, The Age of Innocence, proves that the Academy was too timid to recognize Ryder's edgier work in dark comedies like Heathers, or that Ryder was eclipsed by actresses better able to tap an undercurrent of wildness, like Angelina Jolie, who starred in Girl, Interrupted, with Ryder. But Little Women is a terrific movie in its own right, one of the best adaptations of a literary classic, and Ryder is tremendously good in it.

Little Women is a powerful, totemic novel for those who love it. It's regularly adapted into other forms and reinterpreted by other novelists who have sought to bring the story of four sisters into the present day—as Katharine Weber did in The Little Women—or give an inner life to the main characters' largely absent father—as Geraldine Brooks did to far better effect in March. But it's not the easiest sell to skeptics, or to boys. Little Women is a decidedly female novel, and a decidedly Christian one, following as it does four very different women's routes through a literalized Pilgrim's Progress. The novel meanders, as life tends to. And the main character turns down a marriage proposal that seems perfect for her, only to wed a man Louisa May Alcott conjured up both to satisfy and provoke readers who demanded that she find a match for Jo.

The movie makes no radical changes to Alcott's novel (though it does jettison the Pilgrim's Progress frame device). Instead, Gillian Armstrong succeeds by playing to both Ryder's and Alcott's talents, embracing Jo March's radicalism and directing it, rather than sublimating it. In the novel, Jo's temper is a nigh-fatal flaw: she's punished for it by the near-death of one of her sisters, and turns away from her great love out of fear of it. The movie lets Ryder crackle with black-eyed rage when one of her sisters burns the only manuscript of her novel and the agony of confusion after she refuses the marriage proposal. But it gives her joy greater heights, too, letting her quote Whitman with a fellow boarding-house resident Friedrich Bhaer, and giving her the challenge of talking women's suffrage with young men in New York. While in the novel that same boarding-house resident tames her, he seduces her in the movie, telling her, "I think we are all hopelessly flawed."

It helps that Anderson transformed that fellow border from a cheerful, disheveled, innocent German into something infinitely sexier simply by casting Gabriel Byrne to play him. Byrne preserves the essence of Bhaer, even as he elevates the character as a worthy partner for Jo--even when he's taking her hand back stage at an opera house, he's casting a quick glance to the side to make sure his gesture of affection is all right. In the novel, Jo's marriage to Friedrich is something of a compromise. But in the movie it's maturation, an arrival at a true partnership. Anderson may give viewers a happier ending than Alcott gave her readers, but the movie also gives them a more complex, passionate woman than Alcott's experimental educator and model Christian mother.

Winona Ryder became an icon by playing girls who were weird and, as Alex Pappademas put it in GQ, "overly dramatic." And as she's found her way back to the screen, she's built on that reputation. At 39, Ryder's odd-young-girl days are, and probably should be, behind her. But she proved at 23 that she could expertly embody one of the complete women in American literature. Growing up was good for Jo March on the page. If Ryder wants to follow that path, her second act could be great on screen.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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