Top 10 Performances Of Winona Ryder

Winona Ryder has a knack of making every role seem as if it were written especially for her. But this is not the case; with her unusual and melodious voice and unending capacity for expression, she just happens to be made from talent.

10. The Age Of Innocence (Scorsese, 1993)

best winona ryder performancesMs Ryder is surprisingly conventional and naive as May in Edith Wharton’s tale of 19th century New York society, hence its presence on this list but bringing up the rear at number 10. For an actress who is in touch with her inner goth and general wackiness, this part must have been a challenge, but she rises to it admirably. Picture perfect and with an engaging smile to match, she adorns every one of her scenes with natural loveliness, which is just as well, seeing as her character is not blessed with the best lines.

9. Night On Earth (Jarmusch, 1991)

best winona ryder performancesWith her shiny hair and carefully placed streak of oil on her cheek, Winona Ryder looks far too delectable as Corky the cabbie. But she imparts a sort of weariness, in keeping with her character which is of someone who has found herself driving cabs in L.A. en route to fulfilling her dream. Again, a fairly mundane role for a young Winona, but all the more testing because of it. Hats off to her for setting aside her huge talent and being suitably understated as the cabbie who plays a part for her customers.
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8. Little Women (Armstrong, 1994)

best winona ryder performancesThere is a hint of Esther (Judy Garland) from Meet Me in St Louis about Winona Ryder’s performance as Jo in this movie. But then, the whole movie is reminiscent of the popular MGM musical, in story and presentation. Ryder plays Jo as the charismatic centrepiece of the March family and emerges as the wild (by 1860s standards), creative daughter from whom you expect the unexpected. With apple-pie niceness you can almost smell baking, you want the best for her; but Ryder manages to sneak in a little petulance, lest you get a sugar-rush from her sweetness.

7. Girl, Interrupted (Mangold, 1999)

best winona ryder performancesIt’s always tough playing the straight guy, especially when you are required to work alongside the absolute antithesis of the straight guy. You would expect Ryder’s character, Susannah, to be the crazy sociopath, as she is the main protagonist, but that part went to the supporting role of Lisa. Set in a mental health institution in the 1960s, this is a true reflection of one woman’s experiences and the credibility Ryder imparts to the role of a girl who has temporarily lost her way earns her a place in the top 10.

6. Edward Scissorhands (Burton, 1990)

best winona ryder performancesFew could fail to be enchanted by this gothic fairytale and Ryder has the pleasure of playing the part of the unofficial princess, Kim, which she does to royal perfection. She succumbs to true love during a moment that can only be described as an epiphany, when she catches sight of the unique Edward Scissorhands on TV. The unwavering gaze she affords Edward through the screen is nothing short of magical and for romantic value she scores a clear 10/10, along with her carefree dance in the snow whilst Edward carves an ice-statue.
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5. The Crucible (Hytner, 1996)

best winona ryder performancesRyder is rarely the bad guy and so her portrayal of the cheating, lying and spiteful Abigail in this true story of the Salem witch trials, earns her performance a secure place on this list. With many a close-angle lens practically touching her nose, there is no rest for Ryder, clearly manifested in the full range of facial expressions she uses, from seduction, to mock horror and scorn. With a tendency to collect either alternative or magnanimous roles, this role is proof of her incredibly wide-ranging talent.

4. Beetlejuice (Burton, 1988)

best winona ryder performancesThe role of Lydia in Beetlejuice is quintessential Winona Ryder. Gothic, alternative and reflective, it is little wonder that she can see the ghosts in her house that others cannot. Only a teenager at the time of the movie’s release, she plays the part so beautifully that one imagines the young Winona was a rather atypical teenager herself in many respects.
“I, myself, am strange and unusual …” she states to the resident spirits in her parents’ newly acquired mansion, with the look of a child, yet the natural ease of someone more mature in years.
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3. Heathers (Lehmann, 1988)

best winona ryder performancesDirectors do well to give Winona Ryder a diary-writing facet to her roles. She does ‘thoughtful and reflective’ well; and she has one of the most listenable voices for narration ever. As Veronica in Heathers, she keeps a diary which she scribbles in a highly-strung state of teenage anxiety, giving rise to some quotable lines, delivered with memorable melodrama, such as: “My teen angst bullshit has a body count,” and “Are we going to Hell or prom?” A great satire on high school dynamics, make this the Winona Ryder movie you watch.
See Also: Top 10 American High School Films From The 1980s Excluding John Hughes | Top 10 Teenage Rebellion Films

2. Reality Bites (Stiller, 1994)

best winona ryder performancesAlthough Ryder does ‘quirky’ brilliantly, this rather regular role is one of her finest performances. I guarantee that you will struggle to top this naturalness in an actor elsewhere. Playing a post-uni twenty-something trying to make her mark, Ryder plays the nice, normal, funny and sometimes lazy Lelaina, who does not always make good choices. In short, she is very real and I doubt that there isn’t at least one part of her persona to which you cannot relate. Filming must be a breeze where Ryder is the protagonist as her every expression tells a story.
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1. Mermaids (Benjamin, 1990)

best winona ryder performancesOne of her earliest movies, Ryder shines as Charlotte, the adolescent teenage daughter of the flighty Mrs Flax, who spends her life running from her problems, taking Charlotte and her younger sister with her. Ryder gives a faultless performance as a child who thinks far too much and sets herself impossible standards, whilst trying to deal with surging hormones and a very unconventional homelife. The contrasts within her character are presented so clearly by Ryder: innocence and sexual awakening; desire for convention and quirkiness; maturity and childishness. A clear winner, all the more laudable given her youth.

Over to you: what are the best performances of Winona Ryder?

Written and Compiled by Lisa O’Connor

About the Author
English teacher/writer/private tutor. Occasionally tread those boards ... sometimes with a microphone | Follow Lisa on Twitter @LisaOConnor4

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  1. CineGirl Reply

    Wonderful piece on a wonderful actress. I’m not sure Ryder gets the credit she deserves but as these films highlight – what a brilliant array of characters. Not many actresses could pull off her versatility or genuine authenticity.

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      Thank you CineGirl! She is indeed versatile and remains one of my favourite actors 🙂

  2. Dan Grant Reply

    I just fainted. There’s someone else here who likes Mermaids as much as I do! Fantastic piece. Ryder is very talented and she is a beautiful woman as well. I’ve enjoyed her work over the years but especially in Mermaids. I’m sure you are expecting this….but I’m quite surprised you do not have Heathers on here. I thought she was terrific in that.

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      Hey Dan! Likewise! Not enough people have seen Mermaids. Thanks for the feedback although have another read – Heathers is very much on there!

      • Dan Grant Reply

        I swear I read it twice, or glanced through it twice and didn’t see it……so sorry. Glad it’s there. 🙂

        • Lisa O'Connor Reply

          Ha ha – no worries Dan – maybe you’d like to check out my review of ‘Heathers’.

    • Dan Reply

      Terrific piece, Lisa. It’s great to see how diverse Winona’s career has been over what extends to more than two decades. What’s also interesting to see is that she’s managed to enjoy fame as a young actress and unlike so many others turned early promise into a career as an adult. How many child stars have disappeared after “growing up”!

      One that doesn’t make the list is Lucas; she’s terrific in that too (it was her first feature film when she was about 15).

      I think my favourite films featuring her include the aforementioned Lucas, Beetlejuice, Heathers and Girl, Interrupted. She’s great in Alien Resurrection too but that film borders on an abomination (I’m saying that BECAUSE I’m a huge fan of Alien/Aliens/Alien 3). I do think her performance in Black Swan would rank as one of her best as well.

      • Lisa O'Connor Reply

        Hey Dan! Yes – wonderful that she is a ‘child-to-adult’ success story in showbiz. Haven’t seen Lucas in a while and it was difficult to whittle it down to 10 but I agree, another great performance. Also agree with your comments on the Alien franchise! Black Swan is one of my favourite movies and again, it was difficult striking some off the list but I had a blast rewatching some of those I hadn’t seen in a while. Check out my review of Heathers.

  3. Callum Reply

    She’s disappeared off my radar of late but I like her. She’s great in Mr Deeds, the Adam Sandler film. Reality Bites is class. I haven;t seen Mermaids so will check that out. I also need to see The Crucible, Little Women and Night on earth.

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      Yes – Mr Deeds almost made it on the list! Love Reality Bites and surprised myself with that one but after rewatching it, had a renewed respect for her performance. Happy viewing – especially Mermaids ?

  4. Rory Fish Reply

    Mermaids is a perfect number one. Any of the top 3 would be good for the gold medal position! 🙂

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      Thanks Rory – I think she is something really special in that movie. Before rewatching it, I had Heathers pencilled in … you might like to check out my review.

  5. Courtney Reply

    Listing Mermaids as your #1 is such a solid choice. She had such great chemistry with that entire cast. Now, I need to go re-watch it…it’s one of my favorites 🙂

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      Thanks Courtney ? Yes – I feel Mermaids deserves more credit – a beautiful, beautiful movie.

  6. Mark Fraser Reply

    I’m not sure the writers of Family Guy would agree with your number 10….

    Strong list, nevertheless. One interesting aspect of it is the fact that it features nothing post 2000, which is now over 16 years ago. Which begs the question – are we going to see a big comeback at some point? I remember thinking she was kind of functional in the Superman reboot a few years back (no surprises there really given she plays an outer space queen who is about to die); ditto with The Iceman, where her character deserved some beefier lines.

    I probably would have preferred Night On Earth to be a little higher up – I think part of the problem most of the actors in the first four vignettes in that movie faced is the fact number five (in Helsinki) is so damn good it floors the rest of the film.

    Also,for what its worth, I would have succumbed to Alien IV at some point – it was a well handled role in a movie that, as far as I’m concerned, wasn’t too much of an aberration for the franchise.

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      Hey Mark. I agree – I was so aware of the time frame of the range of movies and I’d have loved it if I could have put something from the 21st century on there. I see your point about Night on Earth – I agonised over its position and as for Alien IV – indeed. But then, I thought she did a good job in Dracula which was questionable as a whole in many respects. Thanks for the feedback – love to hear people’s thoughts on such matters.

    • Dan Reply

      The post-2000 “slump” coincidentally coincides with her 2001 arrest for shoplifting. That hasn’t stopped her giving us some excellent performances (Black Swan) but seems to have curbed the big lead roles. That said, her “comeback” might well prove to be TV’s Stranger Things.

      I agree about her performance in Alien 4; indeed, the performances aren’t the problem with that film. I just felt it was a terrible addition (despite a few terrific sequences – the underwater sequence was superb) to the franchise, particularly how it left it (with nowhere to go). A reboot was a necessity to keep it going. I’m saying that as a BIG fan of the divisive Alien 3.

      • Lisa O'Connor Reply

        Yes – clearly she had some issues at that time but I feel her fan base has always been very supportive. I think Stranger Things has pushed her into the spotlight once more although it’s weird seeing her as the mum of a teenager when she seemed to bypass young mum roles completely! Agreed re:Alien. It was time for another but everyone was a little disappointed.

  7. Huckerby Reply

    My favourite Ryder performance is from Edward Scissorhands. I haven’t seen Mermaids, will check it out.

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      She is adorable in Scissorhands but yes – do check out Mermaids – a lovely movie aside from the great performance by Ms Ryder.

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      P.S. You might like to check out my review of Edward Scissorhands

  8. Rachel Reply

    Almost completely agree with this list apart from adding Lucas to the top 10 and maybe taking out The Age of Innocence. But I’d pretty much include all these in my top 10 with Heathers being number one. Edward Scissorhands is my favourite movie of hers with Girl Interrupted a close second. Beetlejuice is also so much fun. She’s a wonderful actress who deserves more credit. I love the fact she doesn’t chase the commercial, easy box office role; remaining true to her quirky, offbeat roots that began with the likes of Beetlejuice and Heathers.

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      Thanks for the feedback Rachel! A lot of people have mentioned Lucas … almost regretting not including it! Age of Innocence isn’t a favourite movie of mine but I thought she did a great job with her rather different sort of role … I see Beetlejuice, Heathers and Scissorhands as typical Winona and before writing the article I had them earmarked as the top 3. But after rewatching several movies, developed renewed affection for Mermaids and Reality Bites. It was pretty close though – could easily have been so different!

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      P.S. You might like to check out my reviews of Heathers and Edward Scissorhands.

  9. Dan Grant Reply

    I’d like to mention her in Lucas also. She, as Dan Stephens mentioned, was terrific in that one too.

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      Yes – not enough people have seen Lucas. I thought it would be easy to settle on 10 performances but it was really difficult. Feeling bad for the ones I missed off the list!

      • Dan Reply

        That’s sometimes the hardest thing when making a “top 10” list as opposed to the quite popular “[insert random number here] lists like “Top 27 Valentine’s Day Movies” etc. Sometimes you need to cut a much-loved film. It’s the same with the order; I often argue with myself over which films should be where within the top 10.

        • Lisa O'Connor Reply

          Absolutely Dan! So hard not to be swayed by the movie as a whole … I had to keep telling myself that it was all about Winona. I think some are surprised by The Crucible because it doesn’t have the same popularity as some of the others on the list, but I thought she was pretty damn good in that.

  10. Greg S Reply

    best film: Heathers
    best performance: Girl interrupted.
    Good list.

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      Hey Greg – ‘Heathers’ is a pretty awesome movie! I think it might be everyone’s favourite (possibly mine, if I was rating movies rather than performances) which is why I added the last sentence about making sure you watch it!

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      P.S. You might like to check out my review of Heathers.

  11. Rita Reply

    Has anyone seen Welcome Home, Rocky Carmichael? She’s great in that.

  12. ArchE Reply

    There’s something different about her that other actresses don’t have. I’m talking about Hollywood actresses when I say that. I think Angelina Jolie has it too … whatever “it” is and that’s why Girl, Interrupted is my favourite film of hers.

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      I agree – she has a certain quality – I can’t see the same quality in Angelina although she is very talented of course. I find her voice (WR’s) very distinctive and different which is why I love the movies where she has a lot of narration.

  13. Neal Damiano Reply

    Nice to see Heathers so high up at #3. Phenomenal performance in such a satirical film! A versatile actress, indeed.

    • Lisa O'Connor Reply

      Thank you Neal! I love Heathers for its exposure of the rather sinister side of high school (extreme of course – thankfully most people’s experiences of high school are less dramatic)!

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