With the rising buzz about female superheroes, let’s praise the plain old Hollywood heroics of Reese Witherspoon, who’s being honored Oct. 30 by the American Cinematheque. The brainy blonde was ahead of the gender equality curve, founding her own movie company, Pacific Standard, and developing female-driven projects with partner Bruna Papandrea. Given the New Orleans native’s Type-A personality, it’s no surprise that her company’s first two films, “Wild” (in which she starred) and “Gone Girl,” earned three Oscar nominations — with Witherspoon nabbing one for actress.
With these two films, Witherspoon, an avid reader, solidified the bridge between chick lit and chick films that had already been established by YA super-hits “The Twilight Saga” and “The Hunger Games.” And, like the heroines in these post-feminist movies, Witherspoon wasn’t going to go all damsel-in-distress: if there weren’t enough challenging female roles, she would build them herself.
It’s an action that would please Tracy Flick, the overachiever stereotype of a future D.C. player in Alexander Payne’s 1999 classic, “Election.” In this literate, dark comedy about the rough road to student body president as political metaphor, Witherspoon planted the seeds for a thoroughbred career: intelligent, literate, beautiful — and not afraid to bust balls.
Another Witherspoon touchstone was the beloved “Legally Blonde” movies. Her Elle Woods is underestimated by almost everyone she encounters — the fools can’t see beyond her curtain of golden locks and girly wardrobe. But Woods owns her beauty and fashion obsession. Woods turns that combination into something powerful and takes it all the way to court. Dumb blonde? Hardly! RIP stereotype.
She could also “Walk the Line” in a different direction. Preppy mama Witherspoon and method monster Joaquin Phoenix make a moving duet as June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash. She nabbed an actress Oscar (he got an actor nom) as a Southern singer etching out a career in a chokingly male-dominated business while married to a musical genius who also happens to be substance abuser.
Witherspoon takes surprising leaps — and always sticks that landing. Take “Wild,” in which she played sex-and-drug addict Cheryl Strayed on her 1,100-mile trek to recovery. This was dark territory for Witherspoon, but that mood chimed with the malevolent mystery she produced that same year: “Gone Girl.” Gillian Flynn’s bestseller became a Ben Affleck-Rosamund Pike hit, grossing $368 million worldwide, and $168 million domestically. (But though Witherspoon has the sunny looks of an ad-ready Breck girl, early roles included edgy indies such as “Freeway,” and memorable turns in cult classics “Cruel Intentions” and “American Psycho.”)
In “Wild” and “Gone Girl,” the first two films produced by Pacific Standard, Witherspoon loosened up (a bit — she’ll always be Type A), revealing her struggle and her triumph by seizing the means of film production and making a path for her talent, and that of female authors like Flynn and Strayed.
The canny powerhouse is rising as a key player at 39, just when old Hollywood would have been calculating her sell-by date. Like Tracy Flick, she is taking no prisoners — and gathering well-deserved kudos.