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Will Conviction Tarnish or Burnish Image?

Hollywood experts say outcome of the case will have a negligible effect on the actress' career.

November 07, 2002|Dana Calvo | Times Staff Writer

Longevity in Hollywood demands great looks and good connections, and any handler worth his 10% commission knows it also calls for a tight hold around the sharp corners of a comeback.

Actress Winona Ryder may be in for a white-knuckle ride over the next few months, but experts across Hollywood said Wednesday morning's conviction for grand theft and vandalism will not have a long-lasting impact on her career.

Ryder, 31, was arrested last December at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills with more than $5,500 of goods in her possession. She was charged with felony grand theft, burglary and vandalism. For the last week she sat in court but did not testify on her own behalf.

For an actress who established her screen presence more than a decade ago with offbeat, cynical flicks like "Heathers" (1989) and "Edward Scissorhands" (1990), daily trial coverage has been a jolt of unwanted, unmanaged Jerry Springer-esque exposure. At one point, she injured her arm in the crush of media following her into the courthouse.

Alan Meyer of Sitrick & Co., one of the biggest crisis management firms in the country, said the "injury day" was emblematic of how poorly Ryder's ordeal has been handled from the beginning.

"She was only charged with shoplifting, not felony hit-and-run or child molestation. It should have been a 48-hour story, not a six-month story. Why this wasn't resolved very quickly, I don't understand," Meyer said, adding that the pair of convictions were "a real blow."

"The easiest way out of something like this is to acknowledge you did it and throw yourself on the public's mercy. Show remorse. Be contrite. People love that," he said.

Ryder's sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 6, and while prosecutors in the case say they will not ask that the Academy Award-nominated siren serve time, the trial and its preparation cut into time she spent on developing film projects.

Her publicist, Mara Buxbaum, insists business is booming, but the claim that Ryder was approached this year to star in at least one film could not be independently confirmed.

Buxbaum said Ryder will "definitely not be doing the talk show circuit" after the trial, although the actress probably will sit down at some point for the obligatory tell-all interview.

One publicist, whose roster of clients includes big movie stars and producers, said Ryder should lie low for several months and turn down all requests for tell-all TV shows and books.

"She will be offered scripts and roles. She will not be shut out," the publicist predicted. "There are certain crimes people look past. Spousal abuse or child abuse, you don't get a lot of sympathy. Drugs and shoplifting, people look past it. They're not going to oust her."

Another agent, who also agreed to talk only on condition of anonymity, said difficult actors are not uncommon. The agent said producers and studios need to be gently reassured that Ryder remains stable.

"The fact is that instead of being No. 2 on the list, she might be No. 3. It won't make a difference about her career," the agent said, emphasizing that Ryder should look for high-profile, creative scripts, and she should stay away from smaller projects or projects whose only appeal is another A-list star.

"If I were Winona's agent today, I would be much more interested in an Eric Roth [screenwriter of "The Insider," "Forrest Gump"] script than I would be in her playing against Edward Norton. I would be much more interested in her doing a picture with [director] Peter Weir ["Dead Poets Society," "The Truman Show"] than a picture with Matt Damon."

But Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman Tom Rothman, whose company made "Alien Resurrection" (1997) and "The Crucible" (1996) with Ryder, said observers are over-thinking her next big move. Ryder's reputation, Rothman said, is so solid that the convictions cannot tarnish it.

"I'm not in any active discussions with her, but I certainly would hire her again in a minute," Rothman said. "She's reliable, committed, disciplined."

Last spring, during the legal maelstrom, she stuck with her commitment to promote the film, "Mr. Deeds," in which she co-starred with Adam Sandler. She hosted NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and during the opening monologue poked fun at her legal troubles, pretending to swipe things from the set.

It was at about the same time that she posed for the cover of W magazine wearing a T-shirt with her picture and the words "Free Winona."

Those appearances left many Hollywood image crafters scratching their heads. They thought her humorous approach to the charges only added to negative buzz.

But Lorne Michaels, executive producer of "Saturday Night Live," said his show has always been a good place for celebrities and politicians to confront gossip.

"When something from your personal life is a big part of the public's perception of you, you have to deal with it," Michaels said. "You have to be topical."

Richard Walter, a professor in the screenwriting program at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television, said Ryder's career was already losing steam -- but because of her age, not because of the trial. At 31, she has spent nearly half her life in the spotlight, robbing her of the coveted titles of either "ingenue" or "newcomer." So, while some advisors-for-hire winced at the daily trial coverage, Walter thought it offered a nice bump to a career that had reached a plateau.

"Remember Robert Mitchum and his marijuana bust? The man went to prison for that for several months," Walter said. "He waltzed right out of jail."

Mitchum was arrested in 1948 after authorities caught him toking up with an actress in an L.A. apartment. He served two months on a prison honor farm, but in 1951 an appeals court overturned the guilty verdict. Still, the original conviction, in the words of the New York Times, "enhanced his image as a rebel."

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