Reese Witherspoon Biography
Of all the new millennium’s young female movie stars, only one has proved herself capable of single-handedly headlining a major box-office hit. Not Julia Stiles, not Kirsten Dunst, not Sarah Michelle Gellar. They are successful, but still mostly team-players in teen fare.
Only Reese Witherspoon has gone beyond that. Breaking through with Legally Blonde and making a $100 million hit of Sweet Home Alabama, then winning a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in Walk The Line, she separated herself entirely from the new Brat Pack. And this was wholly deliberate as Witherspoon could well rival Madonna in terms of blonde ambition.
She was born Laura Jean Reese Witherspoon in New Orleans on the 22nd of March, 1976. She’d spend the first four years of her life in Wiesbaden, Germany where her father, John, was a lieutenant colonel in the US Army reserves, there to fulfil his Vietnam draft obligation. After this, the family – John, wife Betty, first child John Jr and little Laura Jean – would return to America to settle in Nashville.
This was a predictable move for the Witherspoons, being deeply rooted in the South. Their earliest American ancestor, another John, had crossed the pond from Scotland, becoming President of the prestigious Princeton University. Such was his standing that he was asked to sign the original Declaration of Independence. Eventually the family would migrate to the southern states, where they’d be a paragon of the region’s genteel aristocracy.
Many decades later, John, who’d graduate top of his class at Yale, would meet Betty while the pair were studying at the University of Tennessee. They’d marry, but their studies would continue, John becoming a surgeon specialising in the ear, nose and throat, while Betty, who’d earn five separate degrees, would become a Ph.D in pediatric nursing, winding up as a professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University.
Hailing from such stock, Laura Jean was bound to either hit the heights or crash and burn. Sensible from the start, she chose the former. At school, as a self-confessed “huge book dork”, she achieved excellent grades, and would be taken on at the famous Harpeth Hall School For Girls in Nashville (former alumni including the Grand Ole Oprey’s Minnie Pearl and pop singer Amy Grant). She’d be both a cheerleader and a debutante, though in later years she’d complain whenever this was mentioned, clearly believing that it undermined her reputation for intelligence and professionalism (her part in Legally Blonde would be close to her heart). Coming from such an academic family, and never having been considered exceptionally good-looking, she was always driven to achieve. Indeed, her parents nicknamed her Little Miss Type A.
She might easily have followed her parents into medicine. But Nashville being a showbiz city, entertainment was always on the cards, too. Her path was picked early, and as is so often the case, by fluke. When Laura Jean was just 7, the parents of a friend of hers decided to run an ad for their flower shop. Laura Jean was suggested as a model and chosen. Immediately, she was hooked, beginning acting lessons and forming dreams of movie stardom straight away. By 11, she was winning a 10 State Talent Award – she was set fair.
By 13, regular work was coming her way. She won TV ads for Ames and Opryland, and also came to the attention of movie casters. A film was to be shot locally, to be called Man In The Moon and directed by Robert Mulligan, famed helmsman of To Kill A Mockingbird, The Summer Of ’42 and The Other. Laura Jean’s friends were trying out as extras, so she went along, too, was given some lines to read, and so impressed were the casting directors that she was flown instantly to Los Angeles for a screen test. Within a month she was hired as the star of the film, and took her mother’s maiden name to lend weight to her cause. Reese Witherspoon was on her way.
The Fifties-set Man In The Moon was a wonderful debut. In it, Reese played Dani Trant, a 14-year-old country-girl tomboy who falls in love for the first time with her 17-year-old neighbour (her first words on-screen were “I love Elvis so much”). He thinks he’s too old for her, and says so, but gradually begins to fall for her. Meanwhile, she’s discussing love, looks, popularity and other subjects of vital importance to teenagers with her older sister, who at this moment is getting turned over by a local brute. Suffice to say, things get tough when Reese’s lover meets her sister…
Reese’s performance was truly touching, and mature beyond all expectation, causing critic Roger Ebert to gush “Her first kiss is one of the most perfect little scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie”. Tess Harper, who played Dani’s mother, later revealed that the cast had known Reese as Little Meryl. High praise indeed, given that the cast included the likes of the Oscar-nominated Sam Waterston. And it was no accident. Already clear on the kind of career she wanted and the kind of actress she wanted to be, Reese’s influences did include Meryl Streep, along with Susan Sarandon, Frances McDormand and Holly Hunter. This would be made even clearer by Witherspoon’s choice of roles in the future.
What happened next was good, but it could have been even better. Word of Reese’s talents spread quickly and she was invited to meet up with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, then casting for Cape Fear. Still very young, of course, she didn’t know anything about them, but on the plane to her audition, having told the person in the next seat where she was going, she heard ALL about them, particularly the obsessive, brooding, brilliant De Niro. The experience made her so nervous she fluffed the audition, the part of Nick Nolte’s sexually awakening daughter going to Juliette Lewis and launching her as one of the top new actresses of the Nineties.
Nominated for a Young Artist Award, Reese did not want for alternative roles. Now faxing in her homework from her movie sets, she moved on to Wildflower, directed by Diane “Annie Hall” Keaton. Set in the Depression-era south, this saw Patricia Arquette as Alice, a 17-year-old who suffers from epilepsy and a hearing impairment. Believed by her stepfather to be possessed, she’s locked in a cage out in the barn, only to be saved from this grim fate by two sympathetic youngsters (one being Reese) who help her back into society.
Once again, Reese was impressive, the film leading on to the TV movie Desperate Choices: To Save My Child, directed by Andy Tennant (later to direct her first headlining smash hit Sweet Home Alabama). Here Reese played a youngster with leukaemia and in severe need of a bone marrow transplant. Her half-brother seems a likely donor, but his mother (Reese’s stepmother), fearing for his life, refuses permission, sending the whole family into turmoil. It was heavy stuff, and all the more so for not being a major Hollywood production. Once more Reese was nominated for a Young Artist Award.
On she went, continuing to vary her roles as wildly as she could. Next she was off to Africa (now, who opened a movie with the line “I had a farm in Ah-frica”?) for Disney’s A Far Off Place. This saw her as a smart little South African who spends a night out in the local caves with a snooty US city kid holidaying on her parents’ farm. They emerge the next day to discover everyone’s been slaughtered by ivory poachers and so, accompanied by a young bushman, they must cross 2000 kilometers of the Kalahari to reach safety.
Next up was the charming but strange Jack The Bear. This saw Danny De Vito as a Seventies horror show host, mortally depressed and driven to alcoholism by the death of his wife. Things get worse when he discovers that neighbour Gary Sinise is a neo-Nazi and denounces him on TV – a brave but dangerous move. The best part of the movie, though, was the kids – Reese would finally win that Young Artist Award for her part. The older of De Vito’s sons (the Jack of the title) is the one who holds the household together. When he falls hard for a young hippy chick (Reese) and offers to cook dinner for her, the sweetness and drama hit especially high levels.
Kids aside, the film was pretty miserable, and Reese moved rapidly on to Return To Lonesome Dove, a sequel to the classic miniseries Lonesome Dove. Here Jon Voight replaced Tommy Lee Jones as Captain Woodrow Call, burying his pal Gus and deciding to run a herd of mustangs back up to Montana. Naturally, there’s much trouble on the way from injuns and such, with Reese being rescued from rustlers by Call’s young sidekicks, Newt and Jasper (Ricky Schroder and Barry Tubb), who themselves are saved from a lynch mob by her father (Oliver Reed).
Freeway was not a big box-office hit. It did, however, score record ratings when screened on HBO. Now Witherspoon’s career began to go into overdrive – though she continued to vary her roles with great care. She also found love and marriage. At her 21st birthday party she met actor Ryan Phillippe, who’d just broken through with Ridley Scott’s White Squall. Phillippe wasn’t sure if he’d been invited, but went along anyway for the free beer. He and Reese talked deep into the night and the next morning he left Los Angeles to shoot the teen thriller I Know What You Did Last Summer. That could have been it, just a brief and happy evening together. But the couple kept in contact, calling and writing. He sent her his favourite book, she returned the compliment by sending hers – Graham Greene’s The End Of The Affair. At the end of the shoot, she flew over to North Carolina to see him, panicked briefly over the speed of it all, then took off with him on a road trip. They’d marry in June 1999, beside a river on a farm in Charleston, South Carolina, producing a daughter, Ava Elizabeth, three months later.
1998 was a big year. First she worked alongside some real filmic heavyweights in Twilight. This saw Paul Newman as a downbeat detective and handyman, who works for wealthy couple Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon and is inadvertently drawn into the mystery of what happened to Sarandon’s first husband. Reese appeared briefly as the couple’s randy daughter – going topless on film for the first time.
Next came Overnight Delivery where a jealous student, convinced that his girlfriend is cheating on him, sends her a vicious Dear Joan letter, a used condom and a picture of himself with a semi-clad woman (Reese, a local stripper). Almost immediately, though, he discovers that no cheating has taken place and so he takes off across country to intercept the letter, accompanied by Reese, who he doesn’t know or like but needs to prove his own fidelity. Can he stop the Terminator-like postman from delivering the fatal epistle, or will he make the scene in the photograph a reality by falling for Reese?
After this came the weird and wonderful Pleasantville. This saw Reese getting down and dirty once more, as the sex-obsessed sister of Tobey Maguire, a boy so unhappy with his life he becomes fixated on a black and white Fifties sit-com set in a small town where everything is, well, pleasant.
Via some freaky chicanery with a magic remote-control, the pair suddenly find themselves in Pleasantville where Maguire, who knows all the scripts inside-out, is able to quickly adapt to a new, goody-goody lifestyle. Reese, on the other hand, is not so keen to give up her habitual shenanigans, and after a liaison with a young local on Lovers Lane causes colour to infect this black and white landscape, as Pleasantville’s culture of decency begins to disintegrate.
Like most of Reese’s movies, Pleasantville was a hit with the critics. Her next effort, though, would be pointedly populist. Cruel Intentions, a teenie adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, had Sarah Michelle Gellar in the Glenn Close role, betting Ryan Phillippe that he can’t seduce prim and virginal Reese. If he can’t, she gets his flash motor. If he can, he gets her.
This movie – slick, sexy and well produced – was different for Reese. Not only was it a mainstream hit, but it also had her working with husband-to-be Phillippe for the first time. It proved a fraught experience. Filming the scene where Phillippe dumps her, Ryan was off-camera, feeding her lines. Tired after numerous takes, he began to ad-lib, shouting stuff like “I never loved you! You’re not attractive!” It was a little too much for his fiancee to bear. She freaked out, punched him in the face and screamed at him to get out, the fracas leaving her in tears and him out in the stairwell, vomiting uncontrollably. Naturally, director Roger Kumble loved it and asked them to do it again.
Now came perhaps the most important film of her career – Election. This saw her as the central character in a major movie for the first time, carrying it with a superb performance as Tracy Flick, a high school princess determined to dominate the student council. She’s so unbearably (and hilariously) straight, controlling and manipulative, you have great sympathy when teacher Matthew Broderick decides to foil her plans by persuading jock Chris Klein to run against her. It was a brilliant political satire, with absolutely everyone’s position undermined by the grossest hypocrisy. It was no surprise when Reese was nominated for a Golden Globe.
Witherspoon’s youthful looks helped out once again with Best Laid Plans. This was another involved and involving thriller, where Josh Brolin, out for a drink with Alessandro Nivola, a buddy he hasn’t seen in years, picks Reese up and takes her back to the house he’s looking after. Later that night, he calls Nivola in a right old state. Things were going very well, he says, until Reese told him she was underage and accused him of rape and assault. All in a spin, he chained her to the pool-table, so now he’s going down for kidnapping, too. What’s a boy to do? Nivola promises to come straight over, and gradually we discover that things are not remotely as they seem.
Best Laid Plans was gritty fun, but nowhere near as out-there as Reese’s next appearance, as Evelyn Williams, Christian Bale’s materialistic, superficial fiancee in American Psycho. All she wants is to get married and own things. All he wants is to sleep with her best friend and cut people up with chainsaws. Really, they deserve each other.
Despite American Psycho’s notoriety and body count, it was a sharp feminist movie and extremely funny, to boot. Reese was proving herself to be a gifted comedienne, and continued the process with a cameo in Adam Sandler’s Little Nicky. Here Sandler played one of the Devil’s three sons, a kid who simply can’t be wicked and faces huge problems when he must leave Hell to track down and capture his two eminently evil brothers.
Along the way, he meets Reese, an angel of dubious genetic origin who, having slept with the Devil, turns out to be his mother (hence his niceness). Once more, Witherspoon was highly amusing, giving the angel a painful Valley Girl accent perfect for such lines “He’s (God’s) so smart. Like, Jeopardy smart”. She continue the comedy with a recurring role as Jennifer Aniston’s little sister in Friends.
Now came the first out-and-out headliner, Legally Blonde. A sorority queen, she’s dumped by an East Coast snob for being too blonde – that is, not smart or sophisticated enough. He goes off to study Law at Harvard, and desperate to win him back, she follows, embarking on legal studies that see her face all manner of ridicule. Until, that is, she reveals the power of her mighty brain. Former debutante Reese was evidently making a point.
The film was a money-maker, proof that she was one of the very few actresses who could lead a movie into profit. It also earned her a second Golden Globe nomination. But she wouldn’t settle on her laurels. She took off for London and another challenge, playing the ever-so-proper Cecily in an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s feast of wit The Importance Of Being Earnest. It was a daring move. Not only would she be verbally jousting with the thoroughly English Rupert Everett and Colin Firth, but there’d also be brilliant newcomer Frances O’Connor as Gwendolyn AND the looming shadow of Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell. It was very Reese-like to take it on, though the choice was perhaps influenced by the fact that Phillippe was also in London, filming Robert Altman’s Gosford Park.
Having chosen her scripts well, concentrated mostly on smaller, classier pictures, and successfully avoided publicity overkill, Witherspoon had become a big star by stealth. It took everyone by surprise when her next headlining vehicle took over $35 million in its opening weekend, crushing the record for September set by Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour AND beating Julia Roberts’ Runaway Bride for the most successful rom-com opening ever.
The first movie shot in New York City after the September 11th attacks, Sweet Home Alabama saw her as a country girl who’s become a famous fashion designer in the Big Apple. Romanced by the city’s most eligible bachelor, Patrick Dempsey, son of mayor Candice Bergen, she’s got it all going on. Apart from one small detail – she’s already married to a redneck back in Alabama, and he refuses to divorce her. Of course, she returns to the South to sort it out and, oh go on, guess the rest.
It was a classy rom-com, and a deserved breakthrough for Reese. But, as is so often the case in Hollywood, it might never have happened. The role of Melanie Smooter had originally been offered to Charlize Theron who, fearing an imminent actors’ strike, went for the ready-to-go Trapped instead.
Reese was cast the same weekend that Legally Blonde opened and proved to be well worth her $5 million paycheck. $5 million – a paltry amount beside the $15 million she’d receive for reprising her role as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White And Blonde, this time setting off for Washington DC to force through a bill banning animal testing, doorman Bob Newhart advising her on the ways of the capital city.
It was a far cry from her following project, Mira Nair’s take on Thackery’s classic novel Vanity Fair, which saw Reese as the scheming Becky Sharp, a penniless orphan trying to find true love and a rich husband in the years before and after Waterloo. Earning her $15 million, the movie also saw her rise close to the top of the Hollywood tree, her pay cheque placing her behind only Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz.
So, by her mid-twenties, Little Miss Type A (her production company, set up with Debra Siegal, is named Type A Films, and a deal signed with Universal) had made it big-time. Worldwide fame, a celebrity husband (she’d borne a second child, Deacon, in 2003) and serious Hollywood weight. And she was something of a sex symbol – not bad for a girl dumped in 5th Grade by one Graham Locke for having no breasts, and later forced to take a junior to the senior prom. Naturally, being of genteel Southern stock, she would feel obliged to give something back, setting up scholarships for the underprivileged back in Nashville. But it wasn’t all wonderful. Her brother John, employed by Reese as a chauffeur and all-round help, would be arrested and charged with a sex attack.
Come 2005 she’d also be heavily involved in a campaign against intrusive paparazzi who’d taken to blocking celebrities in with their cars and screaming abuse at them to gain a reaction. Witherspoon naturally objected to this, particularly when her children were involved, and resolved to highlight a problem that had caused serious problems for peers like Diaz, Lindsay Lohan and Scarlett Johansson, by bringing photographers to court. It was not easy, but with police help the resourceful and relentless Reese would eventually be successful.
Aside from the war with the paparazzi, 2005 would see Witherspoon back onscreen in two very different movies. First would come Just Like Heaven where she played a young doctor in San Francisco who, after a car crash, becomes a spirit and returns to her old apartment, now occupied by a bereaved and drunk Mark Ruffalo. Only he can see her and they gradually fall for each other as she tries to mend his life and he seeks a way to bring her back to corporeal form before it’s too late.
Naturally, there would be sizeable plot-holes, but with Reese and Ruffalo together it couldn’t fail to be vastly charming. Walk The Line, James Mangold’s biopic of Johnny Cash would be far more serious fare.
Following Joaquin Phoenix’s Cash from Arkansas cotton farm to worldwide fame, it would explore all his traumas with death and drugs, Witherspoon preventing it all from slipping into darkness with her scene-stealing performance as Cash’s wife June, member of the legendary Carter family and a true professional, employing a cheery facade to ease Cash’s pain and mask her own. Her efforts would win her a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and, a couple of weeks before her thirtieth birthday, that Best Actress Oscar.
Reese Witherspoon’s hard work and a hypercritical nature that had often made her a challenging workmate had finally paid off. Little Meryl could at last be fairly described as the Streep of her generation.~ Dominic WillsRelated Information: