t 31, and seeming younger, Reese Witherspoon is Hollywood’s most successful actress younger than Julia Roberts. Few other movie stars have her verve and effervescence: traits she heavily relied on during her early career. Almost too eager to please, she sometimes seemed like she’d never fulfill her creative potential.
From her first breakthrough in Freeway
, where her remedial schoolgirl seemed harmless despite her history of arson, Witherspoon specialized in characters who aren’t quite what they seem—that is, roles that require acting. Sure, she enlivens straightforward good-girl roles, as in Cruel Intentions
; but she’s better when playing a character with a secret, as in Sweet Home Alabama
(sadly, a worse movie). And she’s best when called upon to exercise a determination that old sexists like me don’t expect in someone who looks like her, as in Legally Blonde
. This is not to say her range is complete: she’s best as a good person, regardless of how many bad things she does. When playing a nasty girl—such as her celebrated role in Election
—she’s not quite convincing, despite the energy she brings. This shortcoming is unattractively underlined in her disastrous performance in Vanity Fair
as a toothless Becky Sharp—more sinned against than sinning.
In all this, she resembles the slightly older Kate Winslet. The difference between them is that, while Winslet is known for playing classy (which in Hollywood nearly means English) women, Witherspoon almost always plays lowborn (which only sometimes means Southern) women. Even rich Elle Woods of Legally Blonde
doesn’t have the bloodlines of her Harvard classmates. Witherspoon is always easy to like because her wit and constancy shines through; she doesn’t dumb down when playing an Alabaman or flake out when playing a blonde. As she moves on to serious roles—the upcoming thriller Rendition
alludes to Guantanamo Bay—let’s hope this knack isn’t lost.
Counselor Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland) invites the trust of Vanessa Lutz (Witherspoon) as the two ride up the freeway. The disgust on her face as she mentions her stepfather’s “you-know-what” says everything you need to know about this shamed character. Then when she realizes Wolverton’s a pervert, she roars at him; you can almost feel the spittle flying from her mouth as she declares him a “piece of shit.” Threatening her with a razor and promising to kill and rap her, he makes her cower. As soon as she gets the chance, however, she grabs her gun and pistol-whips him a bit. There’s a moment where she temporarily shuts him up, and she shakes her head, lowering it slightly, eyes closed. This is just the latest escalation of the kind of shit she’s had to put up with all her life.
Shaken by the student body cheering an anarchic rival Student Council presidential candidate, Tracy Flick (Witherspoon) grumpily tries to re-hang her “WHO CARES? I DO!” banner while standing on an upturned bin, only to slip and tear her sign. Maddened, she rips down the posters of the other candidates, until she lays panting on the floor in shock. Witherspoon isn’t convincing here; that would require a malicious streak she’s never quite mastered. She knows what to do technically: when to pout and when to scrunch up her face, but she can’t quite get it right. She’s too broad, and Alexander Payne—not yet an outstanding director of actors—only makes this flaw worse.
Legally Blonde (2001)
Making pampered, occasionally hideously dressed Elle Woods into a sympathetic character would be a task too great for normal actresses, but it’s a power walk in the park for Witherspoon. Elle puts her Harvard Law School classes to use on behalf of her beautician Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge). They head to Paulette’s ex-husband’s trailer to reclaim her dog. After Elle dazes the deadbeat with jargon (subject-matter jurisdiction! equitable division of assets!), they succeed. The rapport of Witherspoon and Coolidge makes Elle seem like a working-class girl at heart; and so, by Hollywood logic, she’s free to flaunt her wealth.
Sweet Home Alabama (2002)
Melanie Carmichael (Witherspoon) returns to Alabama to get a divorce, but her husband refuses to sign the papers. Cut ahead a few drinks: her accent’s crossed back over the Mason-Dixon line, and she takes the banter too far, expressing her disgust at the smallness of her old friends’ lives, which distastefully reveals shame of her roots. This is subtle stuff, and it’s the only time she’s been convincingly bad (with the exception of early scenes in Pleasantville
; unfortunately, the scene wrecks the movie. The townspeople forgive her almost immediately; the viewer may not, no matter how cute she acts.
Vanity Fair (2004)
The grandest of balls is interrupted when the soldiers are sent to Waterloo. Whereas author William Thackeray tells us Rebecca “wisely determined not to give way to unavailing sentimentality on her husband’s departure,” the movie unleashes a gushing, tear-stained, erotic farewell. It’s a betrayal of the text, but it’s the most powerful scene of the movie. Here is more passion than Witherspoon’s ever given before. This moment bodes well for her move two grown-up roles; the rest of her performance does not.
Walk the Line (2005)
Finally in Walk the Line
, her finest role, Witherspoon married her vivaciousness with a technique honed over the years—and was justly celebrated. In most of her on-stage performance as June Carter, she plays her normal role: appealing in her enthusiasm, with fine comic timing. (It helps that she’s in the same ballpark as Cater as a singer, which is more than poor Joaquin Phoenix can claim in relation to Johnny Cash). But when Johnny invites June on stage and insists on singing “Time’s A-Wastin’,” Witherspoon is outstanding. June is uncomfortable, but since her protests don’t move Johnny, she goes along with it, at least until he kisses her. Witherspoon’s expressions are brilliant here—she moves from discomfort to forced smile to genuine smile to shame to anger, showing the shame a divorce brings to a woman of Carter’s Christianity. She knows it’s not in either of their interests to give in to each other at this particular moment. Hopefully Witherspoon knows the same about her audience.