9 Milestones in the Evolution of Reese Witherspoon
In this weekend's Water for Elephants, Reese Witherspoon stars as the bewitching star performer of the Benzini Brothers Circus who is torn between her abusive husband and the gentle embrace of Robert Pattinson's pachyderm whisperer. How did Witherspoon transform herself from a brassy Louisiana teen to a graceful and multi-talented Oscar-winning actress?
For every Hollywood star, a direct line can be drawn from their humble beginnings to the current stage of their career. In honor of Water for Elephants, let's investigate nine performances that track the evolution of Reese Witherspoon.
The Man in the Moon (1991)
Witherspoon's feature film debut was actually a leading role in Robert Mulligan's 50's drama about a spunky fourteen-year-old caught in a tragic love triangle with her first-ever crush (Jason London) and her older sister (Emily Warfield). Even this early in her career, viewers can see the fiery stubbornness that Witherspoon would shelve for her later 90's work and rediscover to play June Cash Carter in Walk the Line.
[Fast forward to 1:54 for Witherspoon's scene.]
From angsty young teen to one of the most angsty titles of the '90s, Witherspoon joined Jefery Levy's S.F.W. ("So Fucking What" abbreviated) as Wendy Pfister, a convenience store hostage-turned-local celebrity who falls in love with one her fellow hostages-turned-celebrity, Cliff Spab (Stephen Dorff). Roger Ebert slammed Dorff's character as "the most singularly stupid, obnoxious character I've seen on the screen in many a day - which would be promising, if he were not boring, as well." Witherspoon's inoffensive work onscreen meant that she was spared similar critical attacks. For an unimpressive film like this, that is a victory.
Witherspoon dropped generational nonchalance for a gritty, white trashy turn in Matthew Bright's crime flick Freeway which was loosely based on Little Red Riding Hood. Witherspoon plays Vanessa Lutz, a destitute and illiterate L.A. teen who dates local gang members and steals her social worker's car to visit her grandmother. Her wholesome plan is nearly foiled by a serial killer/rapist (Kiefer Sutherland) whose unwelcome advances trigger repressed memories of a sexually abusive father. A film about an upper-class Barbie overcoming the odds to succeed at Harvard, Freeway was not.
From Freeway, Witherspoon jumped to other end of the socioeconomic spectrum to play a literate upper middle class innocent swooning over a polite hunk (Mark Wahlberg) who turns out to be an obsessive sociopath willing to carve her name into his chest, behead her dog, trash her father's car and take her family hostage just to prove his authority. Or something. Three years later, Witherspoon would perfect the role of "Wholesome Teenage Conquest in an MTV Award-Worthy Film" in Movieline's Bad Movie We Love Cruel Intentions.
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