Reese Witherspoon: From High School Overachiever to Darling of Hollywood

Not content with Hollywood, Reese Witherspoon has changed the game. 

Reese Witherspoon - Big Little Lies

Not content with Hollywood, Reese Witherspoon has changed the game.

Reese Witherspoon has achieved greatness in Hollywood due to her unrelenting drive. Not satisfied with winning awards or being America’s sweetheart, Witherspoon has transformed her career and the industry. When Ava DuVernay was casting the role’s of the three witches in A Wrinkle In Time, she cast women who transcended the medium. Witherspoon didn’t achieve success overnight. She began with capturing hearts with her Type A personality and now is the hottest producer in tinsel town.

Witherspoon made her on-screen debut in the 1991 film, The Man in the Moon. That would be the last feature by To Kill a Mockingbird director Robert Mulligan, but that would be just the beginning for Witherspoon. Her appearances in Cruel Intentions and Pleasantville were memorable, but it wasn’t until Election that she broke thru. She was cast as Tracy Flick, an overachiever who would stop at nothing to become the next student body president. It would be the beginning of Witherspoon’s roles as Type A personalities. Competitive, self-critical, a constant sense of urgency, and waves of hostility were trademarks of Tracy Flick for sure.

That caricature would prove very lucrative for Witherspoon. She had an even bigger hit with Legally Blonde, a film many audiences still consider her most memorable performance. The film begins with Witherspoon’s Elle Woods chasing down an ex-lover at Harvard Law School. It becomes much more than that, allowing women in the film to get what they want and not settle for second best. Elle Woods doesn’t submit to sexual advances from her boss and accomplishes what many men assumed she would never achieve. Legally Blonde still works today as an allegory for the #TimesUp movement that Witherspoon champions.

That kind of success can also come with limitations. Witherspoon would be sent projects that required a specific character. She was becoming typecast. Following her Oscar win for Walk the Line, she was in a series of disappointing comedies and forgettable romances — Four Christmases, How Do You Know, Water for Elephants, and This Means War. Witherspoon was also going through a divorce with her husband, Ryan Phillippe, that certainly didn’t help matters.

Perhaps you’ve heard of The McConaissance? It was a period for Matthew McConaughey that saw him taking on more prominent roles. During that period he starred in Mud with Reese Witherspoon who was about to have her period of growth and success. Dubbed The Reeseurggence, Witherspoon produced features under the label Pacific Standard. The company began with a bang, producing Gone Girl, which earned an Oscar nomination for Rosamund Pike and earned more than $350 million worldwide.

Wild wouldn’t be as successful as Gone Girl, but the film meant a ton to Reese Witherspoon’s career. It allowed her to take on a role her fans rarely saw. During an EW roundtable, Witherspoon shared what doors Wild opened. She said, “Wild was the first real film that I produced when I restarted my company. It’s more reflective of who I really am than any other film I’ve ever done. It was very raw and very personal.” If Witherspoon took Wild through the traditional studio system, she would’ve gotten complaints about her role as Cheryl Strayed. She expected comments such as, “She’s not very likable, and she does drugs. We don’t want to see Reese do drugs. We don’t want to see Reese curse. She’s likable she would never have sex with a married man.” Wild would earn Witherspoon an Academy Award nomination for her performance and costar Laura Dern also received a nomination. That wouldn’t be the last time Witherspoon would work with Dern.

Witherspoon grew tired of the “Smurfette Syndrome” that permeated throughout Hollywood. Even if studios would make features with female leads, she was the sole woman in the room. “For 25 years, I’ve been the only woman on set, so I had no other women to talk to… They call it ‘Smurfette Syndrome.’ Because she’s got a hundred Smurfs around her and she’s the only girl,” she explained. That’s one reason it was important that she got Big Little Lies made. There were others as well, as her mission to make more entertainment for women and give female actresses a chance to lead in a series while the men take the supporting roles. Given their relationship during Wild, Witherspoon once again worked with Jean-Marc Vallee to direct the mini-series for HBO. Witherspoon was surrounded by top-tier talents like Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, Adam Scott, and Alexander Skarsgard for the series. It’s hard to imagine that the series was a gamble for HBO, considering other studios like Amazon passed.

Witherspoon saw herself playing Kidman’s character Celeste, but it is impossible to see Witherspoon in any other role than Madeline. Madeline is a mixture of what made Witherspoon so memorable with her Type A personality with her earlier roles, with the added swagger of her Wild performance. The performance of Madeline earned her multiple award nominations. Big Little Lies itself would become one of the biggest sensations of 2017, sweeping award shows and earning a second season.

After the success of Big Little Lies, Witherspoon became in demand in the television space. She used that opportunity to transform herself from an actress, into one of the hottest producers in town. Pacific Standard was folded into a new venture called Hello Sunshine. Hello Sunshine is listed as one of the key companies behind Big Little Lies season 2 and three projects for Apple who is building a network of shows to rival other streaming giants. The three shows from Hello Sunshine make up a sizable amount of the projects Apple has committed to. One show features the TV return of Kristen Wiig. Just when you thought Witherspoon had enough projects on her plate, it was announced that she would adapt Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” as a limited series with Kerry Washington.

As Witherspoon appears in A Wrinkle in Time, she is part of another project filled with historic firsts. Not content with playing the pretty wife or mother, Witherspoon evolved her career. “She’s a blond, pretty actress and she could have just been that. In this town, that’s enough, but she has a fire in her,” explained director Ava DuVernay. Witherspoon has become a trailblazer championing women and projects created by them. Perhaps all those Type A personality performances paid off.

News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.