Starlet O'Hara

The Peter J. Owens Gala: Where does Winona Ryder, this year's honoree, fit?

In a calculated gambit to lure movie stars (and San Francisco's social elite) to its unrepentantly un-Hollywood event, the film festival began giving an award to actors several years ago. Some-times the tributee was saluted for using his or her popularity to get worthy but noncommercial films made (Gerard Depardieu, Harvey Keitel); sometimes the trophy was a smiling reminder to local successes not to rest on their laurels (Annette Bening, Sean Penn). Where does Winona Ryder, this year's honoree, fit?

To put it bluntly, she doesn't. Once you get past the local connection (she hails from Petaluma), that singular first name, and a remarkably photogenic countenance, Ryder's contribution to American film -- as opposed to her status as a pop culture icon -- has been ephemeral, to say the least. With few exceptions, her movies evaporate from our collective consciousness the minute they're over. Perhaps a casualty of bad career advice, Winona has spent the last few years misapplying her talent in a desperate bid to expand her persona; now it may be too late (even at the age of 28) to hope for anything beyond fame, wealth, and a parade of vapid movie-star vehicles.

It's a shame, because Winona winged onto the screen as a teenager nearly 15 years ago with a freshness and intelligence that famously evoked Audrey Hepburn. In those late-'80s touchstones Beetlejuice and Heathers, she brimmed with subversive potential. She promised more than the libidinous lasciviousness Hollywood requires of its (usually blond) starlets; that short black hair proclaimed "I am woman" in a postmodern, post-Jean Seberg way. In the '90s, Ryder had it both ways: When Tim Burton shot her like a princess in Edward Scissorhands, People magazine swooned as though she were American royalty.

Then came her embarrassing turn as an L.A. cab driver opposite Gena Rowlands in Jarmusch's Night on Earth, followed by Coppola's overblown Bram Stoker's Dracula, unmistakable evidence that Winona was altogether too contemporary to play period. However, an Oscar nomination for Scorsese's tedious still life, The Age of Innocence, convinced Ryder she should make prestige pictures, and we were handed the shrill and forgettable The Crucible. Little Women and How to Make an American Quilt were well-received ensemble pictures, and arguably Winona's best work, but they did zip to build her appeal with post-adolescent males. So, unsure how to navigate the transition from waifdom to womanhood, Winona bet on Ripley's game (aka Alien: Resurrection) -- alas, to no discernible effect.

So where does Winona go from here? Independent films would be a step down; Ryder needs to regain her popular appeal, not her street cred. A box-office hit -- her upcoming romance with Richard Gere in the April-September weepie Autumn in New York smells like money -- would save her career, although it's hardly a guarantee she'd choose better films. Believe it or not, I'm rooting for Winona to make a comeback. If Ally Sheedy can do it, why not Winona?

The Peter J. Owens Gala takes place Thursday, April 27 ($225-500);The Age of Innocence (U.S.A.,1993) screens, with an onstage interview, Friday, April 28, at 7 p.m. at the AMC Kabuki ($13-15).

 
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