On the new Netflix series Stranger Things, created and directed by the Duffer brothers, the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy sends his friends on a quest for his recovery through an increasingly tangled web of aliens, telekenetics, government experiments, and other assorted sci-fi mysteries. The series is anchored by its cast of adolescent unknowns, but for fans of the many 1980s movies Stranger Things references, there’s the always welcome presence of Gen X superstar Winona Ryder keeping the series true to its roots.
In a way, Stranger Things is a pastiche of the ’80s movies Winona Ryder didn’t have time to star in when she was busy conquering all the other classics of ‘80s Hollywood. The show is two parts Spielberg, one part Carpenter, one part Stand By Me, with a dash of Predator. It’s the gentle dorks of Ryder’s screen debut in Lucas if they were tossed into a sci-fi thriller. Ryder plays a mom whose starter mullet and lumpy sweaters are somehow the least of her problems, since her son has gone missing and her Christmas lights have started sending her messages. It’s still sometimes surprising to remember that Winona Ryder didn’t actually freeze in time in 1994, and that it’s not out of the question that she could play a mom to the kind of troubled adolescents that were once her métier. But Stranger Things gives Ryder a chance to show what she can do when she focuses her on adult roles — what was once barely contained teen angst becomes barely contained maternal anxiety, and the result is a delight.
It’s a pivotal role in a major series that Ryder anchors with ease. It could easily be called a comeback role — but for Winona Ryder, comebacks are nothing new.
This isn’t Ryder’s first brush with prestige television. Just last year she joined Oscar Isaac on David Simon’s miniseries Show Me a Hero, about Yonkers’s housing integration project in the late 1980s. She was as good on that series as she is in Stranger Things, yet when Emmy nominations came out last week, she and her costar were nowhere to be found. Simon’s series have never fared well with the Emmy nominating committees, but her snub last week was just one of a long series of rejections over the last five years.
Show Me a Hero wasn’t Ryder’s only project in 2015 — she also played Stanley Milgrim’s wife in the film Experimenter. In its New York Film Festival description, Ryder’s part was cited — they called it “a wonderfully grounded performance.” Ryder probably had 20 minutes of shared screen time max, all of which was focused on her (admittedly great) costar, Peter Sarsgaard.
Last year, she landed a major campaign with her longtime friend Marc Jacobs (when Ryder famously shoplifted $5,500 worth of merchandise in 2001, a cashmere Marc Jacobs sweater was among the goods; Jacobs then dressed Ryder for her court appearances). In 2014, she was the face of Rag & Bone. Despite having no films debut in wide release in 2013 — aside from a part in Homefront — she still managed to cover both Interview and V, complete with dishy profiles to rival the halcyon days of declaring Christianity to be a death cult and confirming that she lost her virginity to Johnny Depp. It’s understandable why the fashion industry should long for the return of Winona Ryder: As film studios increasingly trust characters to sell movies over stars — Superman, not Henry Cavill — Winona belongs to the lost class of film stars whose only superpower was an ability to personify universal ideas and ideals. Her disappearance from the Hollywood scene has made her a rare commodity — she was a brand before personal brands. The time she spent publicly fighting to maintain her authenticity as a young adult has made her into an oddly modern icon for a star so completely associated with a particular period in time. Yet despite Ryder’s continued relevance as one of the defining stars of her generation, the film industry hasn’t gotten on board with her revival. Wither Winona’s Dallas Buyers Club, oh fickle Hollywood?
Like many in the Free Winona camp, I have been ready for a Winona Ryder comeback since the day they released her from her metaphorical prison. I saw the first Star Trek reboot in theaters and literally shouted when Winona showed up as Spock’s mom. I have gotten into arguments about how stealing from Saks barely even constitutes a criminal act. I watched the movie where Winona plays the wife of a psychiatric researcher, I watched the movie where Winona played the wife of a contract killer, I watched the movie where Winona played the wife of Kevin James. I am here for the Winona comeback, however it comes. But please. If you want to solve the Winona drought, don’t come to her with more magazine covers — come to Winona with roles.