Actors aren't indie bands

Poor Winona. Not because I believe she's innocent: there's no obvious reason to think that she was set up, or has been unfairly treated by the California courts (it's perfect that the jury of her peers did include heavyweight movie industry figure Peter Guber). And not because multi-millionaire movie stars generally merit our pity. No, the reason I feel sorry for her is that the verdict has prompted another round of 'whatever happened to our Winona?' articles.

Mostly these say 'remember Winona? Remember how cool she was in Heathers? Remember how she was the post-Brat Pack teen movie star, one who seemed more interested in beat writing rather taking coke and hanging out with Charlie Sheen? Remember how great and non-plastic she looked and swoon and etc...' These pieces first turned up a couple of years ago when Ryder had the disastrous one-two of Lost Souls (ropey, pretentious - and, incidentally, tiresomely pro-Catholic - horror movie) and Autumn In New York (dreadful Love Story-ish weepie in which Ryder hooks up with Richard Gere and dies).

For most actors, that evidence of lousy judgment would have lead to press advice to sack their agent, but since it was Winona, she ended up being accused of betraying her generation. Maybe the problem was that people were doing a not unusual thing: mistaking Ryder for two of her characters, the gothy girl in Beetlejuice and Veronica from Heathers. But I think what was actually happening is that Winona Ryder was being confused with an indie band.

Oh, she's been out with (far) more than her fair share of ever so loosely alternative musicians. And she appeared in a lousy Jon Spencer Blues Explosion video once. But what I mean is this: people were treating her career as if should be conducted within the logic of a band's: sticking within a certain set of genre rules, existing within the same market segment. But actors - and Hollywood actors most of all -aren't pop groups.

An oft-overlooked commonsense point: actors do what other people tell them. This is why interviewing actors is often a staggeringly dull business: once their 'people' have warned you off bringing up their private life, and once you've established they aren't going to slag off the turgid film they've been flown in to promote, you're stuck with asking them about a movie in which they spoke the words someone else wrote, and which they pulled the facial expressions the director suggested, and in which all the moments they felt they had really found the character were left on the cutting room. The only film Winona Ryder can really be held responsible for is Girl, Interrupted, which she nurtured through development and executive produced. It's not a good movie, and Winona should not have been playing a teenager when she was entering her thirties. (In fact, its only really interesting as evidence of Hollywood moving away from its One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest/cod-RD Laing approach to mental illness. But that's another story...)

Something else: actors are in for life. Indie bands don't tend to be, or not if they've got any sense, anyway. Acting is a job, and one where you can never guarantee where the next paycheck is coming from. Which is not to excuse people whose careers consist of nothing but shit, or those who act in dubious, distorting nonsense such as The Patriot, but rather to say that if you look at the filmography of anyone who has managed to get noticed at all (it's very easy not to sell out when no-one's buying) and you'll find a lousy action movie or two, or a deadly made-for-TV-disease-of-the-week-based-on-a-true-story item or five.

Writing this, I tried to think of an actor who was vocally anti-Hollywood, not just someone who had never appeared in a mainstream picture. And I thought of Christopher Eccleston, sour-faced star of Our Friends In The North and assorted Jimmy McGovern things. In a 1998 interview Eccleston described how 'filthy' he felt reading Hollywood scripts. But, well, yes, Christopher Eccleston is a working actor and yes, Christopher Eccleston appeared in Gone In 60 Seconds, a particularly witless offering from dominant action producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun, Pearl Harbor etc). Eccleston was overshadowed in the film by that other British import, Vinnie Jones.

On the other hand, if you are an actor what you do have is the freedom to switch between big budget paydays and adorable little indie flicks. Julianne Moore gets to do Hannibal and then star in Todd Haynes's by-all-accounts terrific Douglas Sirk-tribute Far From Heaven. Whereas if you are an indie band - for example the Boo Radleys - you can find that there's no way back from that summer hit.

Sure, some actors - Bogart, Mitchum - manage what seems at least on the surface a reasonable match between screen image and life. But that can be evidence of acting limits, too. And a lot of the time, the distance between the professional image and real life is all too apparent: perennial screen warriors Sylvester Stallone and John Wayne never fought in a war; foppish English gent David Niven was in the commandos, pretty boy Tony Curtis was wounded at Guam. Cary Grant was desperately insecure, lots of macho leading men were gay and the laconic action hero of some right-wing films of recent times owes his slow delivery to a massive cannabis habit. That's fine: actors are people who pretend for a living. I don't think we should expect them - as opposed to the characters they play - to stand for everything.

Rock bands and rappers and folk duos, on the other hand, represent themselves. Now, I don't think it's worth your while getting upset if your favourite band signs to EMI, or they've let Starbucks sponsor their tour, or they've decided Elton John is just great. But I do think you have every right to, because that's how we treat pop, that's the contract that exists between acts and audience, that's why we get so intense about pop, and that's why your choice of favourite band is a mark of identity for teenagers in a way that your favourite film isn't.

And Winona Ryder, well, she was just a girl who liked the Replacements; she wasn't the Replacements. So there's no need to get quite so hurt at the fact that she got done nicking $80 socks and $100 hairclips when the Winona you believed in should have been shopping in a charity shop. And anyway, what the cult of Winona endeavoured to obscure should be hidden no longer: she's a terrible actress. Heathers was a brilliant bizarre accident in the mediocre careers of all concerned (actors, writer, director); she's awful in everything else. I mean, have you seen Night On Earth?

© 2002 Mark Morris