“The truth is I grew up on back lots and movie locations and I’ve had my entire childhood on film. I went through puberty on film, which is something I don’t feel totally great about it, but I don’t regret it at all. It’s all preserved forever,” said Witherspoon.
The actress-producer was honored at the 2015 American Cinematheque Gala for her significant contributions and continuing influence in film. She was present in Los Angeles on October 30 at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza to receive the mid-career achievement award, where she was recognized as a role model by the likes of Alexander Payne, Jennifer Garner, Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey to name a few.
Below are some highlights of the special evening.
1. Robert Mulligan’s “The Man in the Moon” was more than just her first lead role.
“I was 14 when I got my first call back for a movie. It was called “The Man in the Moon,” and on that movie I had my first kiss — in life, my first nudity clause, my first crying scene, my first lead role and I was hooked. It’s a wonderful and rare blessing in this world to know that you love something so much and that it’s going to be the passion of your life.”
2. She was terrified of her second audition with Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese.
“My second audition was actually in New York City. I was 14 and I was flying alone with one of those passes on my neck because my mom had a job and she was like, ‘You go do that [alone] cause I got a job.’ So I put on my best Laura Ashley dress and it had a big sailor collar. I got on the plane and I was really excited about this incredible adventure that I was about to have, but I had no idea what I was auditioning for and the man next to me — I was reading the script and he said, ‘Hi, little girl. So what are you going to New York for by yourself?’ and I said, ‘Oh I’m going to audition for a movie with some guy name Robert De Niro and a guy name Martin Scor-scheska-scheskaznee or something like that.’ His eyes got huge and I said, ‘What? Oh do you know them?’ and he said, ‘Umm yes, they’re the two most important filmmakers of our time. That’s insane! Are you prepared? Have you studied? Do you know the lines? Do you know what you’re doing?’ That moment terrified me so bad I started shaking and I shook [throughout] the entire plane ride… I was literally sweating through my Peter Pan collar. I walked into the audition room and there was Mr. De Niro and Mr. Scorsese — see I know how to pronounce it now — and they were waiting so pleasantly and I couldn’t even say a word. I was so nervous I couldn’t even get the sentence out of my mouth… We tried to run the lines and Robert De Niro had to finish all of my lines for me,” remembered Witherspoon. “So I take that one and if anybody here knows Martin Scorsese would you just tell him I’d like a do-over, maybe?”
3. She was a star ever since the start of her career.
Many of the presenters who attended Witherspoon’s big night expressed their first impressions of the “Wild” actress including Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, and Alexander Payne. The “Friends” actress was the first of several presenters who spoke on Witherspoon’s behalf. Aniston said, “Reese is not only an extraordinary actress, but she also knows how to make an excellent first impression. The late great critic Roger Ebert wrote, ‘Her kiss is one of the most perfect little scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie,’ and that was just Reese’s first screen performance. Right from the start, Reese somehow understood how to achieve her own kind of big screen perfection.”
Alexander Payne — director of “Election,” in which Witherspoon played high school student Tracy Flick — added, “I resolutely reject when some go on to say, ‘You put her on the map.’ My answer is that she was going to get there anyway with or without me.”
Soon after, Kate Hudson came forward and shared how she first met Witherspoon when she was only 11 years old at “The Man in the Moon” premiere. “I was very intimidated. I could say I kind of met my match. I watched the film, I was mesmerized and I remember even at such a young age recognizing her depth, her piercing eyes, her sass, her confidence and her vulnerability. That performance marked the beginning of a true star.”
4. She’s just as great behind the camera as she is in front of it.
Having been presented with last year’s American Cinematheque Award by none other than Witherspoon herself, Matthew McConaughey returned the favor and presented Witherspoon with this year’s honor and praised her not only as an influential actress, but also as a headstrong producer behind the camera. “If there is a lesson to shine a light on tonight it’s probably that the roles you were the most passionate about are the ones that still resonate the most today,” he said. “Elle Woods, Becky Sharp, Cheryl Strayed, June Carter and Tracy Flick — all very different complex characters whose only common denominator was that they were played by you. What about when those kinds of roles weren’t being offered to you? You sure as hell didn’t sit around and wait for them to show up. No, you put on your producer’s hat and said ‘I have to find them,’ like Cheryl Strayed in ‘Wild.'”
T-Bone Burnett, the executive music producer for “Walk the Line,” shared a story of how Witherspoon was determined to capture June Carter’s “Wildwood Flower” for the film. “It is the holy grail of American vernacular music and Reese was recording it on a particular day. I was in a room upstairs above the studio where Reese was working with a vocal coach practicing and recording vocals for ‘Wildwood Flower’ for maybe three hours. I can hear her beginning to get frustrated. By the time I got to the doors to the backyard that she had thrown open, she was bent over absolutely in half and emitted through her legs the seriously loudest scream I’ve ever heard. It was an actual blood-curdling scream. All the birds flew away and the neighbor’s burglar alarm went off. Then she stood straight up and spun around, bemused and surprised, radiating something like that first shot of Rita Hayworth in ‘Gilda.’ So I said something like, ‘Well, you sound like you’re ready to sing,’ and she laughed and said she was merely clearing her throat. We went back into the studio and I picked up the guitar and said, ‘Let’s just do this the two of us right here and just sing it like you’re singing Ava a lullaby.’ Then she did that amazing thing that actors do. She channeled Maybelle Carter. She gave a completely true authentic reading of that song. We did one take and we didn’t touch it. That’s the take that’s in the movie. A movie for which she won the Oscar.”
5. Among other things, she’s also a humanitarian, entrepreneur and mother of three children.
One of many presenters who went on to accolade Witherspoon was Jennifer Garner. The “Dallas Buyers Club” actress mentioned many of Witherspoon’s enterprises, including her humanitarian effort and clothing line: “Reese has been a longtime supporter of ‘Save the Children’ and has served on the Board of the Children’s Defense Fund since forever. She’s always been a multi-achiever and as a producer, mom and actress — well she’s still at it. Just this week in Nashville she opened the flagship store for ‘Draper James,’ her Southern-style fashion line named after her grandparents. It’s impossible to talk about what Reese has achieved without mentioning her kids and I almost didn’t want to because Reese is so fiercely protective of her children, something I admire deeply, but they’re here [tonight] so we have to at least admit that Ava, Deacon and Tennessee do exist.”
6. She is a natural caretaker.
Laura Dern characterized the generosity and compassion of her on-screen daughter. The “Wild” co-star told the audience, “Recently, I asked Reese’s mom, Betty, to explain how this magical creature, artist, genius and friend came to be and Betty said, ‘Weller, maybe it was Reese’s innate desire to take care of other people and other women.’ She reminded me that Reese grew up in a home of healthcare providers. You find home wherever Reese is. I can tell you I feel better whenever Reese Witherspoon is around and I feel safer.”
“I’m literally just a girl from Nashville who had a big a dream. My dad was a doctor and my mom was a nurse. There’s no reason I should be here,” Witherspoon remarked.
7. She is a modern day feminist.
“I’m very blessed to have people support my newest endeavor which is my production company Pacific Standard Films,” Witherspoon said. “I started it three years ago to create more leading roles for women in film. Women are 50 percent of the population so we should be 50 percent of the roles on screen. We need to see more female surgeons, astronauts, soldiers and Supreme Court Justices on screen. Not just mothers and girlfriends of famous men.”
Matthew McConaughey noted her powerful femininity as well. He said, “When you get restless you create a way. You make it happen and you can’t help it. Upon meeting you, I remember thinking, ‘This lady is nobody’s fool. If she wants something she’s going to take a straight line to it. To hell with what’s in your way.'”
Kate Hudson made sure to emphasize many of Witherspoon’s strongest qualities and passions. “She’s the kind of woman that can inspire a movement. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to her discuss the things she’s passionate about such as supporting women in film. She’s determined to seeing and creating more female driven material. She actively tries to understand why the percentage of female politicians is so low and wonders how we can shift that while wanting to see women take on more leadership roles and positions. It’s safe to say we share a passion for feminism. She is a true modern day feminist.”