Let me begin with a confession. Winona Ryder once leaned over a table and said to me, ”Did anyone ever tell you that you look just like Steve McQueen?“

In that moment I grasped why Ryder has such a reputation as a man-killer. Not only was she flirtatious, she was shrewd: If you want to win the loyalty of a bookish interviewer, tell him he resembles an actor famed for riding motorcycles into barbed wire and knowing how to hot-wire a car. I’ve been on her side ever since.

Over the last few years, though, Ryder‘s shrewdness has deserted her. She’s gone from being a pop icon — the James Carville figure in Primary Colors dubbed all the interns ”Winonas“ — to being publicly psychoanalyzed alongside Rex Reed. In fact, from the moment she was arrested for shoplifting at Saks Fifth Avenue on December 12, and busted for possession of the pain pill Oxycodone, Ryder became a national punch line. Hip shops instantly began selling T-shirts that cried ”Free Winona!“ and things have gotten no better since. David Letterman gleefully linked her to Yankee outfielder Ruben Rivera, who stole Derek Jeter‘s mitt (”You know what that means? They may have to call up Winona Ryder from Columbus“). Last week on Saturday Night Live, ”TV Funhouse“ pictured her at the Academy Awards swiping an Oscar from the podium — twice.

Such mockery continues even though we don’t really know the full story of her alleged crime. Initial press reports suggested that Ryder had been videotaped stealing clothes and cutting off price tags — our local D.A.s always talk big — but in the March 12 Los Angeles Times, Ann W. O‘Neill reported that the tapes show no such thing. This new information hasn’t stopped the joking, nor diminished the widespread desire to think her guilty. (The opposite is happening with John Nash, where DreamWorks‘ well-orchestrated campaign against a ”conspiracy“ against A Beautiful Mind can’t alter Nash‘s arrest for indecent exposure and relationships with men — however much Sylvia Nasar tries to backpedal from her own book.) Sixty years ago, movie stars were modernity’s answer to the ancient gods and goddesses. Today, they‘re part of the same clownish celebrity stir-fry as Rosie, Bono, Monica and Bill O’Reilly. Audiences now view screen stars with as much schadenfreude as awe: We may want them to seem greater than we are, but we exult each time we discover they‘re actually smaller.

Or at least less attuned to ordinary human reality. A friend was once riding in a famous actress’s car when she saw something crumpled on the floor — a check for $30,000 that had never been cashed and whose absence hadn‘t even been noticed. (”Don’t do that to me!“ my friend yelped in outrage.) I‘ve been with stars who go to restaurants without money (somebody else will pay), expect cappuccinos simply to materialize (an assistant will anticipate every need) or possess a sense of entitlement the size of a Mercedes Humvee — because high-end freebies are lavished upon them. People ask why a ”millionairess“ like Ryder would shoplift, but the real question is why Saks’ staff would make it a news story. Ryder bought thousands of dollars‘ worth of stuff on the day she was arrested, so why call the police instead of her agent or publicist? I would have thought that an old-school store like Saks, especially in Beverly Hills, would know better how to treat a star. Then again, maybe they think Ryder no longer is one. Would they have turned in Gwyneth Paltrow?

Although women do most of the adult shoplifting, studies show that this is because they do most of the shopping — once in the store, men are actually more likely to take a five-finger discount. Still, the psychological dimension of such theft is classically associated with either disaffected teens or unhappy women acting out their loneliness, neglect and feelings of emptiness. It’s easy to believe that Ryder belongs to both camps.

After all, her life‘s been surreal ever since the mid-’80s, when she rocketed to fame as the post–Molly Ringwald teen darling, whose allure was inseparable from her inner conflicts. In a sense, she updated the Natalie Wood role in Rebel Without a Cause for a less tragic era, playing the nice, brainy gamine who‘s drawn to rebels and outsiders, be it Edward Scissorhands or murderous Christian Slater in Heathers. It’s this persona that made her iconic — disaffected girls wanted to be her, geeks and troublemakers wanted to date her, Johnny Depp (briefly) wore a tattoo proclaiming ”Winona Forever.“

But in Hollywood, time is the enemy of actresses, who resist growing older, often with sad results: Even smart, talented Madeline Stowe recently turned up in We Were Soldiers with collagened, Daisy Duck lips, as if hoping to reclaim a beauty she has never lost. Few roles wear a bolder expiration date than the alienated teenage heroine, and just as Ryder took the mantle from Ringwald, she herself was surpassed by Christina Ricci, who used fleshiness as her badge of unconventionality. Today‘s fave is Ghost World’s ostrich-necked Thora Birch, who, like her predecessors, inspires a deep, slightly weird affection. Consider Esquire‘s grizzled critic Tom Carson: ”She can play my bongos anytime.“

Perhaps nostalgic for the normal girlhood she never really had, Ryder clung to the waif role far too long, in good movies like Little Women, inept ones like Boys and snoozers like How To Make an American Quilt, whose title must’ve turned off every viewer younger than Strom Thurmond. At 25, when she should have been braving the full-bodied adult roles taken by Charlize Theron or Renee Zellweger, she was a teenage hysteric in The Crucible. The desolate payoff of all this was the reception given her pet project, Girl, Interrupted, in which she starred as a teenager committed to a mental institution. After giving easily her richest dramatic performance, Ryder had to watch hammy Angelina Jolie win the Oscar for swaggering through the asylum like Mick Jagger visiting a home for retired groupies.

Worse still, Jolie‘s award underscored a change in pop taste. Ryder was suddenly caught being a dark, neurotic Jewish woman in a era wild about high-spirited shiksas — Jolie, Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon — who make romps like Charlie’s Angels or Legally Blonde. Today‘s audience likes its actresses to be game and a bit wild, to flash their breasts on Letterman, climb into a fat suit or boast about their fart-noise device (as does Diaz). In contrast, Ryder’s artistic earnestness betrays no discernible instinct for tomfoolery (Woody Allen got her exactly right in Celebrity). She‘s happiest in high-toned adaptations like The Age of Innocence and The Crucible, and I suspect that some of the chortling that greeted her arrest had to do with her changed image. She’d gone from being a teen outsider flipping the bird at authority — you didn‘t imagine the young Winona shopping, let alone at Saks — to becoming an establishment beauty who flaunted designer clothes on the cover of fashion magazines.

Yet such stylishness didn’t ferry her into adulthood. When she tried to break out of her teenage persona, Ryder wound up making bad choices: She was an implausible action heroine in Alien Resurrection, in which her teeny-tiny voice was unintentionally comic, and was buried by hokum in Lost Souls. I can only imagine the career desperation that led her to sign on to her next movie, Mr. Deeds, in which she has the joyless task of supporting Adam Sandler, a man who‘s built a career playing the perpetual adolescent. It’s a touching measure of how she‘s fallen that she appears only briefly in the trailer — sporting long blond hair! — and it doesn’t even bother to mention her name. This is a million miles from her dream role, Jean Seberg, though Ryder reminds me of that badly used actress more than ever.

Of course, one feels slightly foolish dwelling on the unhappiness of a movie star in a world where millions know true suffering; from my encounters with Ryder, I know that she herself would feel the same way. Like nearly everyone who turned on the TV or opened a paper last week, I was stunned by the heartbreaking Before-and-After photos of Sharbat Gula, the beautiful, green-eyed Afghan girl who was on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, almost exactly when Ryder was shooting her film debut. The two are contemporaries, perhaps alter egos. For in our world of almost psychotic extremes, it‘s hard to imagine two girls living out realities more opposed — one ceaselessly battered by violence and deprivation and fear, the other swathed in Prada and fame. Where Gula at 29 has the face of a woman of 50 and eyes that look a thousand years old, the 30-year-old Ryder looks largely untouched by the last 17 years — more elegant, yes, but still a fresh-faced college freshman. If Gula embodies the tragedy of a girl plunged into instant, painful adulthood, Ryder gives us a glimpse of something less cruel but far more complicated — the poignancy of being a girl uninterrupted.

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