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Before ‘Wild,’ Five Essential Reese Witherspoon Performances

Before 'Wild,' Five Essential Reese Witherspoon Performances

Consider that country legend June Carter Cash’s own life story could have made an equally if even more compelling big-screen saga than that of husband Johnny Cash – one that was eventually told in a not-bad TV movie starring singer Jewel. But for every “Coal Miner’s Daughter” that made it to the big screen, Hollywood has optioned countless true-life accounts of great men that went on to compete in the Academy Award race – including “Walk the Line.”

At least Witherspoon’s co-lead status opposite Joaquin Phoenix as the iconic Man in Black was acknowledged, unlike supporting winners such as Jennifer Connelly in “A Beautiful Mind” and Marcia Gay Harden in “Pollock,” who clearly were the main female stars of their films.
Then again, Witherspoon’s gold trophy appears to have done more harm than good as far as post-Oscar opportunities go.

Much like previous best-actress winners Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman and Hilary Swank, Witherspoon’s rise in status and, presumably, asking price provided more of a road block than a gateway to challenging roles in award-worthy movies by top directors. Instead, a string of stinkers — including the likes of “Four Christmases,” “How Do You Know,” “Rendition,” Water for Elephants” and “This Means War” — did her few favors and let down her fans.

A sure sign that an intervention is needed: You draw more eyeballs for your Instagram account and a video clip of an encounter with the police (that led to a disorderly conduct charge) than your movies.

Happily, this whip-smart, driven Southern gal is now on the comeback trail. She did it by taking control of her projects –and not relying on the studios for her bread-and-butter. A Reese-aissance (or Reese-surgence, if you prefer) is clearly under way. She’s a likely lead-actress contender for “Wild,” a rare female biopic this year that opens Wednesday that recounts the travails and triumphs of long-distance hiker Cheryl Strayed. Witherspoon is also a producer on fall smash hit “Gone Girl,” a possible best picture candidate.

It’s easy to forget that this petite powerhouse has already delivered at least five other award-worthy performances before “Walk the Line,” many of which have proven to be hugely influential in the culture. Remember: Witherspoon excels at comedy – often treated as a second-class genre by Academy voters. And since becoming a household name, she has rarely explored her equally strong dramatic side. Besides heading to theaters to check out “Wild,” why not seek out these choice Reese’s pieces from the past and see if you don’t agree that Witherspoon was in tip-top form in these parts:

“The Man in the Moon” (1991)
Witherspoon made her film debut at age 14 in this coming-of-age tale that takes place in rural Louisiana in 1957. Luckily her director was Robert Mulligan, the seasoned filmmaker behind some of the best child performances ever captured on film in 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In this — his final film — Mulligan summons the wistful yearning of tomboy Scout from his earlier classic and combines it with the girlish flush of a first crush as Witherspoon’s Dani falls for the 17-year-old boy next door. They quaintly court at a swimming hole, but there is an frankness to the dialogue that eschews mush.

As Dani asks her older and prettier sister, “Have you ever liked somebody so much that it almost made you sick?” some might feel manipulated by the tragic turns late in the film, but the drama’s novice star never falters in her realistic, unaffected portrayal in this tender fable about the joy and pain of young love. As critic Janet Maslin wrote in “The New York Times”: “Mr. Mulligan also gets an outstandingly natural performance out of Miss Witherspoon, who has no trouble carrying a lot of the film single-handedly. It falls to her to remind the audience that this story is at heart about a family, and she does.” She would be nominated for Best Leading Young Actress by the Young Artists Awards.

“Freeway” (1996)
Turns out Witherspoon can handle dark and nasty just as well as sweet and homespun in a part that could be a precursor to the sisterhood of cell mates found on the web series “Orange Is the New Black.” Those unfamiliar with this cult curiosity — a twisted update on “Little Red Riding Hood” — might be taken aback by her teen runaway’s ear-piercing Texas twang, hooker garb and frequent deployment of F-bombs as she hitches her way to granny’s house and is picked up by a wolfish serial killer (Kiefer Sutherland) . But the actress’s comedic commitment to this violent descent into black humor elevates what could have been a grotesque charade into an entertaining if sick romp. Margaret A. McGurk of “The Cincinnati Enquirer” was among those who singled out the actress as a standout: “Her lost little girl is whip-smart, romantic, vicious, loyal, dangerous and thoroughly winning. You may not want to ride cross-country with her, but as long as she’s up on a screen, you won’t mind meeting her in the dark.”

“Pleasantville” (1998)
Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire are twin siblings and children of divorce who are magically transported into the black-and-white world of a 1950’s TV sitcom and become members of the show’s central family. While Maguire’s timid David tries to adapt to his wholesome surroundings, Witherspoon’s outgoing Jennifer begins to disrupt the routine of the community by having sex with her character’s boyfriend – an act that was previously unknown by the citizens of Pleasantville. Suddenly, color begins to creep into the repressed monochrome existence. Witherspoon, who at first protests that they are stuck in “Nerdville,” is a sassy delight as she blossoms from a boy-crazy Miss Popularity to book-loving intellectual.

 Or as she tells her brother, “I did the slut thing, David. It got kind of old.” Director/writer Gary Ross saw enormous potential in his leading lady. As he told The New York Times, ”She commits to a character so completely. And she understands comedy. I think she’s going to be an enormous movie star, in the way that Carole Lombard was an enormous movie star.” Witherspoon was nominated for best female breakthrough performance by the Young Hollywood Awards.

“Election” (1999)
If Witherspoon did nothing else besides embody the ultimate high-school overachiever Tracy Flick in director Alexander Payne’s caustic political satire, she would still be remembered for her impact on how ambitious females who pursue a seat of power are perceived by society. The actress so vividly brought to life a type that is recognizable to anyone who suffered through agonies of adolescence — a perfectionist monster in peppy preppy attire who will do anything to make sure she succeeds — that real-life politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren have been compared to this cutthroat candidate for student body president. As Variety’s Todd McCarthy noted, “Witherspoon nails Tracy in a nifty performance that rings true: there’s one of her ilk in every school and office.” Desson Howe of The Washington Post confessed, “Witherspoon plays Tracy so convincingly, I’m not sure I can look at her without a shudder again.” She would be nominated for her first of three Golden Globes as well as her only Independent Spirit Award. 

“Legally Blonde” (2001)
Witherspoon finally secured her spot on Hollywood’s A-list by capitalizing on her own blonde ambition as Elle Woods, a Chihuahua-toting sorority queen with a passion for pink who gets into Harvard Law School just to win back her wannabe politico ex-beau. His parting shot to her: “I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” Despite the open disdain of her classmates, who look down their noses at her perfectly coiffed hair, Beverly Hills fashion sense and chirpy demeanor, Elle eventually proves both to herself and others that she has more than enough smarts to rise through the ranks of law students. Although A.O. Scott of “The New York Times” was not a fan of the comedy hit, he felt compelled to offer Witherspoon kudos: “Ms. Witherspoon has the reflexes to make Elle both appealing and ridiculous. It’s funny — in that slightly queasy, un-P.C. Doris Day kind of way — to watch her suffer tearful humiliations, and also funny to watch her recover her dignity and tell off the snobs and hypocrites who have underestimated or maligned her.” The role would bring her a second Golden Globe nomination.

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