When Winona Ryder first met Tim Burton, they talked like old friends about movies and music for over half an hour before realising that it was him she’d come to audition for. She lived in the Bay Area at the time; her parents had driven her six hours to LA because she was so desperate for the role. She recalls the occasion fondly. “I had no idea at that age that a director could be, like, someone I could sort of hang out with,” she says. They were both wearing black, had black hair (Ryder had dyed hers for one of her first film roles and didn’t look back – except for another Burton movie, Edward Scissorhands – until the noughties) and Ryder saw him as a kindred spirit. Burton, for his part, saw her as the perfect Lydia Deetz.
It was the start of not only a lifelong friendship but also two stratospheric careers. Beetlejuice is possibly Burton’s most enduring classic, while Ryder herself ascribes the fact that she has a career at all to him and this movie. Decades later, lines like “my whole life is a darkroom” and “I myself am strange and unusual” still resonate, and the film has attained cult status. It established Ryder’s image as a witchy, alternative it-girl, the Winona to the world’s Gwyneths. The queen of the 90s cult film, she went on to star in classics like Heathers (1988), Reality Bites, (1994) and Girl, Interrupted (1999) – and two more Burton films, Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Frankenweenie (2012). Coincidentally, both films are inspired by Burton’s own life. Less coincidentally, they are two of his warmest, most heartfelt projects.
There is something that makes Burton films Burton films, it’s true. An extravagant fantasy style, Danny Elfman, the strange and unusual, Johnny Depp. Helena Bonham Carter, in later years, who became his muse in a literal sense when they dated from 2001 to 2014. Depp credits Burton with rescuing him from the inanity of his prior heartthrob status; Burton altered the trajectory of his career, just as with Ryder. Burton is well known for collecting actors as muses. Both Bonham Carter and Depp are more prolific than Ryder in Burton’s filmography: Bonham Carter has starred in seven of his movies, Depp eight. However, is there a certain point after which quality surrenders to quantity?
It is generally accepted that Tim Burton movies used to be better. His latest Alice in Wonderland movie was received with critical derision, as was his live-action remake of Dumbo. He’s treading and retreading old ground, with the plot of 2012’s Dark Shadows eerily reminiscent of 1990’s Edward Scissorhands, even down to casting the same star, Johnny Depp, in pale makeup and an unappealing black wig. But where Edward Scissorhands is heartfelt, tender, and one of Burton’s most artistically cohesive works, Dark Shadows is just a bit… meh.
There are many factors that play into this, of course. His movies celebrated the odd, the unusual, that which society rejects. But frankly, that isn’t the case anymore. The Burton whose tendency to the weird and scary got him politely fired from Disney in 1984 is the same Burton who in 2019 created a saccharine reworking of Dumbo, one of Disney’s classics. In the Alice movies his signature style parodies itself; they are overblown and overworked. Burton is no longer weird – but mainstream. (Cue a shudder from every hipster/goth/e-girl in the area). His quirky edge has gone full-on acid trip in some cases, and watered-down fizzy drink in others.
No doubt this is due to pressure to produce original work that still has the Burton flavour. But this is difficult when he’s recycling actors like Bags For Life and using the same composer for every score. Enduring partnerships can be endearing, but not if they’re eternal. We’ve seen Johnny Depp in every iteration of the creepy/sad/stalker loner in an eccentric wig there is; now he just looks like Johnny Depp.
Overusing your muse can suck the heart out of your work. Using an actor like Winona Ryder, with whom he’s only worked twice before, for a passion project is an artistic choice. It does indeed lend that extra element of nostalgia, especially since Ryder had been keeping a relatively low profile since the 90s and so her image was still that of a retro icon, as opposed to the continued casting of mainstream actors, which seems more a habit than anything else. Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Frankenweenie are passion projects, close to Burton’s heart; Alice in Wonderland: Into the Looking Glass (2016) feels like a step too far into milking it.
Being attached to certain actors is no bad thing. It helps them, in terms of defining their image with projects they’re actually interested in, and it helps the creator, if nothing else with ease of casting. But recycling talent over and over again can be damaging. Burton’s latest movies lack freshness. It’s no coincidence that he has come under fire for lack of diversity in his films; he is so attached to both an image and a set cast that he struggles to move beyond it and cast anyone new. Is putting a Black actor in a movie really that difficult? It would be a step towards innovation, to say nothing of urgently needed representation.
But Burton, it seems, is stuck in the past. The partnership of director and muse can be a valuable one, especially in the cause of nostalgia. But it can become a toxic addiction.