Girls on Film: The Oscar That Killed Reese Witherspoon’s Coolness, But Not Her Future Potential

Girls on Film: The Oscar That Killed Reese Witherspoon’s Coolness, But Not Her Future Potential

Feb 16, 2012

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.

Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line

To look at Reese Witherspoon is to be reminded of the past. Remove a trace line, smooth on a light layer of baby fat and the woman of today is the same woman of yesterday. It’s no stretch at all to remember the chaste foe to a group of overly horny teenagers, the airhead-turned-academic all-star, the overzealous overachiever, or even the young girl who forgets Elvis’ swinging hips for the sweaty body of the boy next door.

But these are memories. The faces that fly through the mind when one looks at Witherspoon are characters ten or twenty years old – fragments of a career that started electrically before dulling into a painfully bland trajectory, a habit that all started with that coveted statue the Academy gives out every year.

There are many reasons to hate on or ignore the Oscars – the wickedly deserving people who lose, the stellar films that are forgotten, and the talent that never gets chosen, but there’s also the curse to contend with. Reese Witherspoon was at the top of her game when she won an Academy Award for playing June Carter in Walk the Line, an actress who morphed a teen cult persona into an adult powerhouse merging disparate genres like black comedy, familial melodrama, and bloody carnage. Nevertheless, winning that Oscar slammed the actress against a seemingly unbreakable barrier, pushing her down a narrow path dominated by eager-to-forget romantic comedies. Our teen dream became our vapid adult nightmare.

Witherspoon in Man in the MoonIn the beginning, she was Dani Trant, the tow-headed kid whose lust for Elvis was forgotten the minute Jason London’s Court Foster came to town in The Man in the Moon. Though her early career does boast the obligatory B-films and television movies, it all began by working with Robert Mulligan – brother of quirky Richard, helmer of classics like Same Time, Next Year, or for you more obvious folks, To Kill a Mockingbird. Mulligan set the stage for Witherspoon’s future, his overly melodramatic period piece perfectly showcasing the combination that would make the actress a star – a sweet, soft exterior masking a devilish spunkiness.

She was the tomboy heart of the film, and it wasn’t long before she was given the reigns and asked to run wild with that armor-piercing gaze. In 3 years she broke into pulpy teen fare as a hostage in S.F.W. By 1998 she was the ever-smart once-stripper Ivy Miller in Overnight Delivery, and by 1999 she had her most iconic year facing teenage sex fiends in Cruel Intentions and doing her damnedest to be victorious in the ever-loved cult film Election.

Forget The Descendents. Alexander Payne perfectly manipulated Witherspoon’s talents when he made her Tracy Flick. It was hard not to be jealous of the over-achiever – not because we wanted to be Flick, to have such a sad and maniacally obsessive life, but because Witherspoon so perfectly embodied the girl with her wide eyes and flaring nostrils. For all the ridiculousness of Finn Hudson’s … sorry … Paul Metzler’s goofy jock persona or Matthew Broderick’s anger-filled Jim McAllister, it all rested on Reese Witherspoon and her ability to make us love to hate Tracy, and also feel for her. She was an intense tornado of lovably hateable charisma that sucked viewers in.


A star was born. Save for her strange involvement in Little Nicky, Witherspoon enjoyed both growing popularity and a growing array of roles, playing girlfriend in American Psycho, sorority Harvard law student in Legally Blonde, and running Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Walk the Line was the perfect next step. As Stephanie Zacharek noted, the film allowed her to not “coast on her tart cuteness” and finally take on a role that would “genuinely” challenge her. She could never visually become the singer, but as June, Witherspoon was the knowing woman; she was allowed the opportunity to channel her “tart” demeanor into a palpable adult resolve as Zacharek went on to note: “She stands up to his [Johnny Cash’s] nonsense on tiptoe, and in a crinoline – there’s never a minute when we’re not aware of how grounded she is.”

Walk the Line was the moment we wish for any beloved talent – the film that both stretches and lavishes in an actor’s skills. It was no surprise that Witherspoon could handle June’s strength, but it was a new manifestation of the power the actress had from her very first role, one that shouted to the world that Witherspoon could handle a lot more than was previously thrown at her. The masses seemed to agree. The film raked in a substantial box office take and won Witherspoon almost every acting accolade she was nominated for, including the Academy Award.

And the world’s oyster closed in grand, post-Oscar tradition.

This Means War posterIn 2006, her plagued indie Penelope was finally released. In 2007 she co-starred in the forgotten drama Rendition. A year later, she grabbed the immediately-tiresome comedy Four Christmases before taking an unplanned 2-year break until 2010’s How Do You Know. When asked about the on-screen hiatus (she also provided her voice to Monsters v. Aliens), Witherspoon explained to EW: “I just didn’t read anything I liked. There are a lot of really, really, really big movies about robots and things — and there’s not a part for a 34-year-old woman in a robot movie.”

Whether she genuinely “likes” the roles she’s picked since Walk the Line, or simply tolerates them in a crappy sea of “robots and things” (I suspect the latter), Witherspoon isn’t being given a lot to work with, and what she does take has tarnished the stardom and reputation she has built. Upon seeing This Means War, Rex Reed described the actress as “the once-discriminating but no longer fresh or versatile Reese Witherspoon.”

It’s not so much that there are bad romcoms in the mix, but that there’s nothing to properly temper the fluff. Water for Elephants garnered a middle-of-the-road response mostly directed to the obsessive RPatt fandom, and now the actress’ stardom is shifting to past talent rather than current charisma. The cool is gone. The admiration is waning. The woman who once made the airheaded pink vomit of Legally Blonde fun to a larger audience is now shackled in fare so bland that Walk the Line seems like more than a decade ago, not a mere six years.

Strangely enough, the tide seems to be turning. Hope isn’t lost after the disappointment invoked by This Means War. Her upcoming roster looks stellar. It’s such a distinct switch that the optimist inside can’t help but wonder/hope that this is a true hint at a changing mainstream mentality – that successes like Bridesmaids have opened the system to better female roles, an environment where 30-something actresses don’t have to take hiatuses because their professional options are so bleak.

Perhaps that’s naïve, but at least for Witherspoon, the tide has very palpably changed. Let’s hope it sticks.


Written and directed by Take Shelter’s Jeff Nichols, the film focuses on two teen boys who vow to help a fugitive escape an island in the Mississippi. It’s not a starring role for Witherspoon, but considering how Jessica Chastain’s involvement in Shelter earned her much praise, there’s a lot of potential here.


The West Memphis 3 is getting a feature film helmed by Atom Egoyan. Witherspoon is set to play Pam Hobbs, a mother of one of the children killed. The role should offer the actress a lot of dramatic meat to work with, as Hobbs’ now ex-husband has been considered a subject, and the mother has supported a new trial.


Just to sweeten the pot further, Witherspoon is set to star as artist Margaret Keane in the upcoming drama Big Eyes. Keane created the rather iconic images of large-eyed girls, and had a long and famous fight with her now-ex-husband to be recognized for her art.

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