By the time Winona Ryder could vote, she had six feature films to her credit.
Her first film, “Lucas,” made in 1986 while she was an eighth-grader, presaged her appeal. Her turn as the level-headed Lydia in “Beetlejuice” established it. By the time her take-note performance as a homicidal teen in 1989’s dark comedy “Heathers” hit the screen, movie audiences agreed — Winona Ryder was someone to watch.
She still is. Ryder will join the exclusive ranks of female action heroes this year as Annalee Call in the sequel “Alien Resurrection.” This after captivating filmgoers in roles as diverse as virginal May Welland in the 1993 costume drama “The Age of Innocence” and Gen-X poster girl Lelaina Pierce, who gave slackers a good name in 1994’s “Reality Bites.”
“Her appeal isn’t hard to figure out — she’s a brilliant actress,” says Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox domestic films.
“She’s had an incredible career, and she’s just a young person,” he added. “When she does a role, she’s brilliant. Audiences love to watch her.”
As a distributor, Sherak can quantify the dollars and cents of Ryder’s allure. As a moviegoer, however, he’s just another fan.
“I went to see ‘Little Women’ twice, and I took the kids to see it once,” he confesses.
Co-produced by Ryder in 1994, when she was 23, the film’s solid box office startled the Hollywood pundits who had scoffed gleefully at the salability of a remake of Louisa May Alcott’s simple story.
“Yeah, that film surprised a lot of people,” Sherak says. “You never would have known early on it would be so suc-cessful, but it was brilliant.”
While brilliant is good, studio executives need ticket sales to stay happy. Although Ryder gave a great performance in the 1990 Cher vehicle “Mermaids,” the film did poorly at the box office. “How to Make an American Quilt” shared a similar fate. Yet such missteps don’t ruin a career, according to Bob McCormick, head film buyer for United Artists.
“Everyone makes a bad movie now and then,” McCormick says. “You look at someone’s overall track record before drawing any conclusions. With Winona Ryder, bad film or not, there’s still a lot of star quality there.”
Ryder is an especially strong draw in cosmopolitan markets, says Marc Pascucci, vice president of advertising and publicity for Sony/Loews Theaters.
“‘Heathers’ was a great example of that,” he says. “It was dark and funny, and she can really make the most of a role like that. It played very well in New York, which is a sophisticated market.”
Ryder benefits from her own instincts in choosing scripts, directors and co-stars.
“When you’ve got Winona Ryder making a movie, you know you’re going to get a something special,” Pascucci says. “Her name alone can give a film a boost. It’s about quality, and audiences want that.”
President of AMC film marketing Richie Fay calls a Winona Ryder film “money in the bank. With someone like Winona Ryder, you know you’ll be getting a high-quality film,” he says.
Ryder’s taste in projects has proven largely reliable, and Fay also counts himself among Ryder’s fans.
“One of my favorite pictures — and sleepers — of all time is a little movie called ‘Heathers,’ ” he says. “That film did so well because of her.”
Fay has worked as both exhibitor and distributor, and Ryder’s films have made both jobs easier.
“I have a particular fondness for Winona Ryder movies,” he says. “She’s been my good-luck charm.”
Like Denzel Washington, also an honoree at ShoWest, Ryder manages to appeal to a broad spectrum of the movie-going public.
“Men find her sexy — she really hot in ‘Dracula’ — and women can relate to her,” Fay says.
Her wild-eyed portrayal of lust-besotted Abigail in “The Crucible” gave audiences a peek at a rougher side of her nature.
Fay says, “She’ll surprise you. She also has a real toughness. I look forward to seeing her in the ‘Alien’ sequel. I think that in the sequel, she’ll show a side that we haven’t seen before. It’s something she’s got, that she’s hinted at in the past, and this will reveal it, I think.
“There’s a lot more to come.”