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#WinonaForever: The Underestimated Comedic Genius of Winona Ryder

Taking place on January 29 at 5pm PST in LA, California, the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Awards boasted its annual get together of talented performers. For the most part, credibility was given where it was most certainly due: best ensemble performance was awarded to the leading cast of Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016), Viola Davis claimed her fifth SAG award - this time for her supporting role as Rose Maxson in Fences (Denzel Washington, 2016), Mahershala Ali triumphed as best supporting male actor in the phenomenal Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), Sarah Paulson took the title of best female actor in a TV film or miniseries for her sublime portrayal of Marcia Clarke in The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, and Ryan Gosling did not win best male actor for one of the most overrated musicals of the 21st century (this award, quite deservedly, went to fifth-time nominated Denzel Washington for his lead role in self-directed Fences). Each award winning speech comprised a delicate fusion of celebration, appreciation and open reference to the political degradation of the USA under Trump’s fascistic administration. Indeed, the superficial, ‘star-studded’ layers that are so often attached to  industry ceremonies like this one, were tainted by the density of a looming, socio-political shadow. It goes without saying that the overbearing weight of the current political climate within which we find ourselves, must not be acknowledged with foolish complacency, but rather met with unwavering resistance. As such, it is important to recognise the collective humour that was ultimately shared between the far-reaching audiences of this year’s SAG awards; a kind of humour that, to quote scholar B. Ruby Rich, ‘should not be overlooked as a weapon of great power’.

It happened when Netflix newcomer Stranger Things (The Duffer Bros, 2016-) won best cast in a TV drama series: the jubilant actors ascended the stage and David Harbour began his impassioned speech:

“In light of everything that’s going on in the world today, it’s difficult to celebrate the already celebrated Stranger Things...”  

At this point, onlookers had already taken to their social media platforms to address the (euphoric) emotional release instigated by the inimitable expressions of someone onstage:    

“But this award from you, who take your craft seriously and earnestly believe - like me - that great acting can change the world, is a call to arms to our fellow craftsmen and women to go deeper...”

 

 “to battle against fear, self-centeredness and exclusivity of our predominantly narcissistic culture, and through our craft, to cultivate a more empathetic and understanding society,”

 “by revealing intimate truths, that serve as a forceful reminder to folks that when they feel broken, and afraid, and tired, that they are not alone…”

“we are united in that we are all human beings and we are all together on this horrible, painful, joyous, exciting and mysterious drive that is being alive…”

“now, as we act in the continuing narrative of Stranger Things, we 1983 mid-westerners will repel bullies, we will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no home…”

“we will get past the lies, we will hunt monsters, and when we are lost amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals and institutions, we will [...] punch some people in the face [...]”

Co-lead cast member and 90s cultural icon, Winona Ryder, crushed it with her facial personification of each lingering word - amplifying the shared, anti-fascistic sentiment from the Shrine auditorium, across a multitude of screens throughout the world. Ryder’s resoundingly comical - yet endearingly sincere - response to Harbour’s speech reached widespread audience attention and has since become a go-to GIF, meme and point of reference for desperate attempts to find a mutually recognised joy in the seemingly most trivial of things. The actor’s characterful image - ever-altering within the brief 2 minute running time of this increasingly famous clip - now comprises a mass, social media ornament. Ryder as comical spectacle is the prime focus of this particular SAG moment: multiplied (not divided) into a spectrum of frames that act to the click of each online search, like a flip book that takes a fearful reality and renders it a spectrum of colours. Her SAG performance provides a short moment of escapism; a 2 minute time lapse, that one could put on loop if needs be.

This is not to turn a blind eye to the horrors unfolding within Trump’s violently encroaching regime, nor does this particular focus on Ryder’s galant humour intend to eschew or overshadow the aforementioned successes of of this year’s SAG Awards, but rather, to celebrate and underline her ‘performance’, ‘for its revolutionary potential as deflator of the patriarchal order.’(1) The politically charged acceptance speech for Stranger Things, may have been penned and (out)spoken by Harbour - but its enduring presence and expansive viewership, is undoubtedly tethered to the comedic genius of Winona Ryder. The actor is no stranger to broad public scrutiny: the fact that she was revered throughout the late 80s and 90s as a significant cultural icon, only to be literally judged for her ongoing mental health struggles, paints her onstage comedy prowess with even more rebellious energy. Counteracting an onscreen dry-spell, following her intimate portrayal of Susanna Kaysen in Girl Interrupted (1999), and unnecessarily, prolonged court hearing in 2001/2002 for a knowingly futile (and mental illness induced) attempt at shoplifting in a SAKS Fifth store, she was onstage, with middle fingers up at a patriarchal judgement she knows only too well. Bringing humour back, Ryder’s comical presence was - and continues to be - a laughing refusal to submit to a conservative etiquette and order. Onlookers may have been confused, given her previously assumed ‘timid’ demeanour, but it only takes a brief overview of her work to remind ourselves that this is the same actor who brought us the radically valid, melancholic angst of characters such as: supernatural-inspired goth, Lydia in Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988), complex, high-school social-climber, Veronica in Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1989), pseudo-puritanical hypocrite and comedically confused teenager, Charlotte in Mermaids (Richard Benjamin, 1990), enigmatic and exhaustively cool, gender-queer cab driver, Corky in Night on Earth (Jim Jarmusch, 1991), and astute and disillusioned (as well as sexuality-inspiring - red, sleeveless t-shirt and denim jean wearing…) Lelaina Pierce in Reality Bites (Ben Stiller, 1994).

This woman is hella funny and smart; I, for one, wasn’t surprised at the ingenious gestures she made on the SAG award stage just a few nights ago. Rather than viewing badass “come at me motherfucker” Joyce Byers in Stranger Things as a post-millennial ‘comeback’ role for Ryder, perhaps we need to recognise that Ryder-as-rad-comedian and enigmatic actor, was never really gone. Maybe we just got too lost in our millennial kool aid to actually appreciate that a female, 90s, GenX icon is still working the disruptive humour that lightened the darkest days of recent decades.

 

(1) B. Ruby Rich, 'In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism' in Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, ed. Patricia Erens, Indiana University Press: 1990. P282.

 

Words by Laura Nicholson

 

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