Reese Witherspoon Praised as ‘Modern Day Feminist’ at American Cinematheque Fete

Also: Jeffrey Katzenberg espouses the virtues of the theatrical movie-going experience.

American Cinematheque Reese Witherspoon Matthew McConaughey
Michael Buckner/Variety/Rex Shutterstock

The American Cinematheque honored Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon and DreamWorks Animation honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg at the organization’s annual fundraising gala Friday night at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza.

Witherspoon received the American Cinematheque Award, reserved for an extraordinary artist currently making a significant contribution to the art of the Moving Picture. Specifically not a lifetime achievement prize, it is meant for mid-career recognition. Recent honorees have included Matthew McConaughey, Jerry Bruckheimer, Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon and Samuel L. Jackson.

“This whole experience is just overwhelming and unbelievable because I’m really just a girl from Nashville who had a dream,” Witherspoon said. “I grew up on backlots and on locations. I had my entire childhood on film. I went through puberty on film, which is something I don’t feel totally great about, but I don’t regret it at all. It’s preserved forever.”

She also spoke about her passion at this stage in her career for producing films that are equally representative of the sexes. “Women make up 50 percent of the population and we should be playing 50 percent of the roles on the screen,” she said. “We need more female surgeons, supreme court justices and soldiers — but on screen. Not just as the girlfriends to famous men.”

In addition to her award-winning work in front of the camera, she has taken bold strides spearheading projects like her own starring vehicle “Wild” and David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” last year, as well as the comedy “Hot Pursuit” with Sofia Vergara and the upcoming television series “Big Little Lies” with Nicole Kidman.

That sense of forthright feminism was a hallmark of comments made by friends and colleagues throughout the evening. McConaughey, who returned the favor after Witherspoon presented the same honor to him last year, noted her “powerful femininity” and recalled, “I remember thinking when I first met her, ‘This woman is nobody’s fool and if she wants something she makes a straight line to it.'”

Jennifer Aniston marveled at the naturalism of Witherspoon’s on-screen kisses; director Alexander Payne bristled at the notion that he put the actress on the map with 1999’s “Election” and recounted how Barack Obama called the film his favorite movie about politics; Kate Hudson — who called Witherspoon “a true, modern-day feminist” — remembered witnessing the actress work the premiere after-party of 1991’s “The Man in the Moon” at 15 years old “like a seasoned politician,” and consistently being up for the same parts later in their careers; and Jennifer Garner spoke about a shared passion for NGO Save the Children.

Other presenters included Vergara, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, T Bone Burnett, producing partner Bruna Papandrea and director Jean-Marc Vallée. Chris Pine and Robert Downey Jr. sent pre-recorded well-wishes, while country music star Kenny Chesney performed a rendition of “Wild Child.”

Witherspoon is the first woman to win the American Cinematheque Award since Julia Roberts in 2007, and only the fifth to receive it in the gala’s 29-year history.

Earlier in the evening, Katzenberg — himself a co-chair of the benefit — received the inaugural Sid Grauman Award, for an individual who has made a significant contribution to the industry in the advancement of theatrical exhibition.

The honor is the latest in a recent string of career achievement prizes for Katzenberg, including the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films’ Visionary Award in 2009, CinemaCon’s Will Rogers Pioneer of the Year Award in 2012 and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2013.

Katzenberg spoke about the significance of a prize bearing Grauman’s name because he has always been enamored by the founding fathers of the film industry, who “took a dusty town in a far corner of the country and, in a very few short years, transformed it into the place everyone wanted to be a part of.”

He also, naturally, espoused the virtues of seeing films theatrically.

“In the last decade I’ve listened to pontificators pontificate that the movie-going experience is going to imminently disappear,” he said. “In the ’50s, television was going to kill movies. In the ’70s, it was home video. In the ’90s, online entertainment. Today, mobile … [but] people have continued to flock to movie theaters. And every once in a while at the end, we do something really remarkable. We applaud. We don’t applaud at our televisions. We don’t applaud at our iPhones and iPads. But after a great movie, we applaud. That’s the power of the movie-going experience.”

American Cinematheque Honors Reese Witherspoon, Jeffrey Katzenberg