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Winona Ryder 80s: Fabulous Photos of the Star Who Defined Gen-X Cool

From 'Beetlejuice' to 'Heathers' and beyond, Winona can do it all!


If you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and ever felt like you didn’t quite fit in, chances are good you looked up to Winona Ryder. The actress, who starred in cult-favorite movies like Beetlejuice, Heathers and Edward Scissorhands, excelled in playing offbeat characters who captured the restless spirit of young people dissatisfied with the cliche mainstream teen movies that dominated the culture.

With her doe eyes, dark hair and plainspoken delivery, Ryder cut a distinctive onscreen presence, and over three decades after she first rose to prominence she remains one of the most popular stars of the ’80s. The fandom around her early roles has only grown more devoted over the years, with millennials and Gen Z coming to appreciate her unique brand of artsy cool, while her role in the ultra-popular Netflix series Stranger Things has introduced her to a new audience and given her a full-circle moment: Once known for playing ’80s teens, she’s now playing a mom in a show set in the ’80s.

Later this year, Ryder will reprise one of her most popular roles in the long-anticipated sequel to the 1988 horror-comedy classic Beetlejuice. Ryder will forever be associated with Gen-X ennui, but it’s safe to say that her quirky appeal is capable of uniting generations. Here’s a look back at her early days.

Winona Ryder’s bohemian beginnings

It’s no surprise that Ryder has an unconventional origin story. Born Winona Horowitz in 1971, her parents were bohemian writers who moved to a California commune when Winona was a child. The infamous psychologist and LSD advocate Timothy Leary was her godfather, and the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was a family friend. With this hippie background, she had an appreciation for the arts from a young age, and soon began taking acting classes.

Ryder had real-life experience to draw on for her outcast roles. In junior high, she was mercilessly bullied for her tomboy style, and even once she became famous with Beetlejuice she struggled socially, recalling, “I remember thinking, ‘Ooh, it’s like the number-one movie. This is going to make things great at school.’ But it made things worse. They called me a witch.”

Clearly, Ryder’s mocking peers were on the wrong side of history, and the star would have the last laugh as she became the face of a generation.

Portrait of Winona Ryder 80s before she was famous
Winona Ryder 80s tomboy style in her yearbook portrait@timeneverlieschico/Instagram

Winona Ryder’s early roles

Ryder made her debut at 15, in the 1986 coming-of-age film Lucas, playing a friend of Corey Haim‘s title character. While the film wasn’t a big hit, she earned praise for her performance and would soon be cast in higher-profile roles.

Winona Ryder in 1986
Winona Ryder in 1986Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty

In Ryder’s next film, Square Dance, released in 1987, she played a girl who moves from the country to the city and learns life lessons along the way. Like Lucas, the film wasn’t a hit, but her performance was singled out as one of the strongest elements.

Winona Ryder in 'Square Dance,' 1987
Winona Ryder in Square Dance (1987)Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Winona Ryder 80s: Becoming a teen star

When it came to being a star, the third time was the charm. Ryder’s third role, in the creepy and creative Beetlejuice, drew the biggest audience of her career to that point, and the fact that she played a goth girl prone to dramatic pronouncements like “My whole life is a dark room” and “I, myself, am strange and unusual” resonated with angsty teen viewers.

Related: Kirsten Dunst Movies, Ranked: 10 of the Luminous Star’s Greatest Roles

Winona Ryder in 'Beetlejuice,' 1988
Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice (1988)@thiswashollywood/Instagram

Ryder has credited Beetlejuice director Tim Burton with kickstarting her career and said “if I hadn’t done that role, I don’t think I would have ended up an actress.”

Two years later, in 1990, Burton and Ryder teamed up again for Edward Scissorhands, a dark, poignant fable in which she sported uncharacteristic blonde hair as the love interest of Johnny Depp‘s kindhearted misfit title character. At the time, Depp and Ryder were a couple, and their engagement, which lasted from 1990 to 1993, made the shy, private actress into a tabloid fixture.

Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder in 'Edward Scissorhands,' 1990
Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands (1990)Twentieth Century Fox Film Corpo/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty

Between Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, Ryder acted in two period pieces, 1969, an exploration of the tensions that arose in the US during the Vietnam War, and Great Balls of Fire!, a biopic of ’50s musical icon Jerry Lee Lewis, in which she played his 13-year-old cousin-turned-child bride.

Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis and Winona Ryder as his underage wife Myra Gale Brown in the film 'Great Balls of Fire!', 1989
Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder in Great Balls of Fire! (1989)Keith Hamshere/Getty

1969 and Great Balls of Fire! didn’t develop the following of some of Ryder’s other ’80s work. Her role in the twisted 1988 teen movie Heathers, however, would be one of her most memorable.

In Heathers, Ryder played a sarcastic rebel scheming against the trio of mean girls (all named Heather, natch) who rule the school. The movie’s humor is pitch black and increasingly violent, but Ryder, as the ultimate high-school antiheroine, is the grounding force.

From left to right, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker and Winona Ryder on set of the film 'Heathers', 1988
Left to right: Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker and Winona Ryder in Heathers (1988)New World Pictures/Getty

Ryder has cited Heathers as one of her favorite movies she’s been in, telling Entertainment Weekly I looove this movie — to the point where I talk about it like I’m not even in it… If it’s on TV, I watch it. I’ve probably seen it 50 times. Like, I can do it by heart,” and saying, “I’ve always held the original script of Heathers among the great literature that I’ve ever read.”

Winona Ryder is about to chew on a candy in a scene from the film 'Heathers', 1988
Winona Ryder in Heathers (1988)New World Pictures/Getty

Heathers didn’t perform well at the box office, but over the years its come to be regarded as one of the greatest teen movies of all time, and it’s won over a new following thanks to Ryder’s off-the-charts charisma.

Winona Ryder in 1989
Winona Ryder in 1989Bonnie Schiffman/Getty

Winona Ryder after the ’80s

Growing up on camera isn’t easy, and many teen stars find that their work dries up once they become adults. Not so for Winona! She started the ’90s off strong with Edward Scissorhands and Mermaids, in which she played Cher’s daughter, in 1990.

Winona Ryder, Cher, Christina Ricci in publicity portrait for the film 'Mermaids', 1990
Winona Ryder, Cher and Christina Ricci in Mermaids (1990)Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty

She then starred in two sumptuous period pieces from acclaimed directors: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, from Francis Ford Coppola, and The Age of Innocence (which earned her her first Oscar nomination), from Martin Scorsese. While Ryder will always be known as the most Gen-X of actresses, her beauty and intelligence translated seamlessly to any era.

Winona Ryder in 'The Age of Innocence,' 1993
Winona Ryder in The Age of Innocence (1993)Columbia Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty

In 1994, Ryder starred as the headstrong Jo March in Little Women (which earned her second Oscar nomination) and the hip recent college grad Lelaina Pierce in the slacker rom-com Reality Bites. Who else could be equally convincing as an iconic literary character and a totally of-the-moment ’90s archetype in the same year? It’s a trick only Ryder could pull off.

Winona Ryder in publicity portrait for the film 'Reality Bites', 1994
Winona Ryder in a publicity portrait for Reality Bites (1994)Universal/Getty

As the ’90s went on, Ryder continued to show her range, with roles in adaptations of famous plays (The Crucible), sci-fi franchises (Alien: Resurrection) and psychological dramas (Girl, Interrupted).

Winona Ryder in 1994
Winona Ryder in 1994Joe McNally/Getty

In 2001, Ryder’s career was put on hold when she was arrested for shoplifting, the ensuing trial created a media frenzy. The scandal nearly ended her career, but she returned later in the decade with roles as Spock’s mom in Star Trek and a bitter retired ballerina in Black Swan.

Being cast in Stranger Things in 2016 boosted Ryder’s career even more, bringing her to a massive audience of young viewers eager to immerse themselves in the ’80s nostalgia of their parents’ generation. Since Stranger Things debuted, we’ve decidedly been in the Winonaissance, and we couldn’t be more pleased.

Winona Ryder in 2022
Winona Ryder in 2022Amy Sussman/Getty for Deadline Hollywood

While the Beetlejuice sequel won’t be released until later this year, and the fifth and final season of Stranger Things likely won’t be available to stream until 2025, we think it’s never too early for a Winona Ryder 80s film festival, and can’t wait to enjoy her continued comeback.

Read on for more about your favorite ’80s actresses!

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