Think of Reese Witherspoon without makeup. She’s been walking for days — traversing hundreds of miles. Without water, she might die. Her face is dirty and tanned, her lips are parched, and her eyes stare forward, at nothing, in startling blue clarity.
It’s how you’ll see Witherspoon in Wild. But it’s also how we saw her in A Far Off Place, which was released 21 years ago, when she was 17 years old. They’re very different stories — Wild is set along the Pacific Crest Trail; A Far Off Place sends Witherspoon to the Kalahari Desert. This is not to say that Wild is derivative; rather that the months of media claims that Witherspoon’s “gritty” and “honest” turn as Cheryl Strayed in the new movie offers up some new, heretofore unseen Reese are simply unfounded.
Like so much Hollywood publicity, it’s just a catchy claim that’s somewhat blind to history. This “wild” valence of the Witherspoon star persona has been present from the very beginning of her three-decade career, manifested in a cluster of films that live large in the VHS-defined memories of most of us who were teens in the ‘90s. There’s A Far Off Place, but also the 1991 coming-of-age super classic Man in the Moon, the 1996 super-creepy Mark Wahlberg star-maker Fear, playing the ultimate in sexy dirty in Freeway, and what, in my mind, will go down as the definitive proof of Witherspoon’s intelligence as an actor: 1999’s Election.
That the Hollywood publicity machine has elided this early Witherspoon underlines just how efficiently — and, oftentimes destructively — it flattens the star image. A star becomes the least common denominator of their attributes and roles: Tom Hanks is nothing but nice, Matthew McConaughey is everything tan and smarmy, Sandra Bullock is steely cute, Will Smith is cheerful, unthreatening black masculinity, and so on. They play variations on those roles, on repeat, on the screen, and their “private” lives are molded to reflect the same overarching values.
That univocality of those messages — this is what this star means — is the source of superstardom. It’s so legible, easy to understand. Some stars escape the flattening by retreating into “their art” — Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis, for example, have chosen such diverse projects, and kept their personal lives so relatively private that the only thing they “mean” is acting.
But for most, they must settle into an image — oftentimes one not of their choosing — and decide whether to hang out for the ride or rail against it. Chris Evans, for example, was slotted into a very precise sort of future with his casting in Captain America, but has denounced it; Zac Efron unsuccessfully attempted to leave his teen idol image behind before circling back to it; Miley Cyrus has made her contemporary career out of acting out the antithesis to her Hannah Montana image.
Sometimes, as in the case with Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, or Angelina Jolie, the strategy works. They change the conversation of their stardom from the superficial (innocence, beauty) to the cerebral (complexity, talent). They direct; they play ugly; they take on charity causes. But that’s the privilege of the contemporary superstar: When they’re rich enough, they can stop taking the roles that made them famous. They can afford, both in fiscal and career management terms, to alter the way people think of them — a club into which Witherspoon has only recently elbowed her way.
That’s a privilege that was never available to even the most behemoth of classic Hollywood stars. They arrived at their studios as raw material and, through the magic of the studio machine, emerged as ready-made stars with new names, biographies, hobbies, and interview talking points. Margarita Carmen Cansino became a femme fatale named Rita Hayworth; Roy Harold Scherer Jr. became the flannel-shirted heterosexual ideal Rock Hudson. Attempts to break free from those preset images often resulted in scandal (Ingrid Bergman) or backlash (Marilyn Monroe).
A star could, however, take a role that was significantly outside of their image wheelhouse, but only as a means to reinforce that image. Against type, in other words, to reinforce type. Bette Davis, whose image was that of a slightly bitchy but ultimately hardworking and kind New Englander, played super evil — like, kill-your-husband evil — in Little Foxes, which earned her an Oscar nomination. Davis was an amazing actor, but the Academy recognition was, at least in part, due to how effectively she diverged from what was assumed to be her “true” self, aka the type of role she played in every other film.
We see the same thing in contemporary Hollywood, in which performances are lauded when they manifest the epitome of the star’s essence (Bullock in The Blind Side; Brad Pitt in Moneyball) or mark such a significant departure (Amy Adams in American Hustle; Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club) that they effectively re-establish the integrity of the original, core image.
Which is all to say that it’s really, really difficult for a star to break out of the mold that’s been created for them. The conservative logic of contemporary Hollywood prevents it: A star is only valuable inasmuch as they are a static commodity; studios will bank on products in which the star promises to reproduce that known commodity value but balk at those who threaten to compromise it.
There’s a reason, in other words, that stars like McConaughey, Kate Hudson, Katherine Heigl, and Vince Vaughn get mired in the rom-com death spiral of deeply shitty movies: Studios would rather green-light a sure thing, no matter how horrible, so long as it reproduces the roles of past hits. In this way, each performance becomes a slightly less vivid reproduction of the one before; a copy of a copy of a wearied, worn out, once-charismatic star.
The last nine years of Reese Witherspoon’s career have exemplified this slow degradation. Her image as the perky innocent first began to coalesce in 1999’s Cruel Intentions, was solidified in 2001 with Legally Blonde, and was then ossified the following year in Sweet Home Alabama, the mid-budget, totally inoffensive, sometimes adorable rom-com beloved by everyone who’s ever watched a movie on cable on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Witherspoon’s character Melanie in Alabama is tough, sophisticated, and New York on the outside, but soft and Southern in the inside. The “real” Melanie just wanted to shed her high heels and black pencil skirt and hang out with her high school sweetheart, drink beer, and maybe have some babies — a sentiment mirrored in Witherspoon’s own life, as she married her Cruel Intentions co-star Ryan Phillippe at the age of 23, and gave birth to a daughter, Ava, later that year.
She reprised, and thus reified, that image in 2003’s Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, played a slightly more conniving version of Sweet Home Alabama’s New York Melanie in Vanity Fair the following year, and won an Oscar for playing the much beleaguered June Carter in 2005’s Walk the Line. Her performance is excellent, but it’s not a revelatory one so much as one based on a much beloved historical figure in addition to being serious, and thus, in Hollywood logic, worthy of being taken seriously.
Witherspoon’s post-Oscar career can only be characterized as banal. There’s a high-minded bomb of a thriller (2007’s Rendition), a surprisingly lifeless adaptation of an immensely popular book about the circus (2011’s Water for Elephants) and a laundry list of highly forgettable rom-com-ish dreck: 2005’s Just Like Heaven, 2008’s Four Christmases, 2010’s How Do You Know, and 2012’s This Means War. It was at this point that a New Yorker profile of Ben Stiller grouped Witherspoon with a list of actors, including Mel Gibson, Demi Moore, Russell Crowe, and Keanu Reeves, “who were big stars 10 years ago,” but no longer.
Witherspoon read the profile and took action. She told Vogue earlier this year, “It’s not that the roles dried up ... They just weren’t as dynamic or interesting as anything I felt I could do,” which reads like code for, “They were the same damn thing over and over again.” She was, according to one director, too “Southern and sweet and huge” of a star. Hence the image renovation, or what Vogue calls “the girl next door find[ing] her edge.”
That “edge” includes roles as the antithesis of America’s sweetheart opposite McConaughey in 2013’s Mud, one of several films that put McConaughey’s career rejuvenation into motion, and dressed down for a supporting role in this year’s The Good Lie. The movie told the story of four Sudanese refugees and, after a premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, quietly disappeared from theaters.
Still, those films were but a prelude to Witherspoon’s “new” image, first as a producer of this year’s highly anticipated and hotly debated Gone Girl, then as the driving force behind the adaptation of Wild, which she read and pursued before it became a global phenomenon. Once passive to the predetermined trajectory of her image and career, Witherspoon is now regularly described as literally and figuratively owning it.
But similar to what I argued in my “alternative reading” of the McConnaissance, that component of Witherspoon’s image has been there all along. In 1999’s Man on the Moon, she’s a stubborn tomboy; in A Far Off Place, her sidekick, Harry (Ethan Embry), is the bumbling, incompetent damsel in distress to her highly skilled Nonnie as they make their way across 2,000 miles of desert. In both movies, she’s a teen, but she’s by no means the teen that would grow up to become Elle Woods: With her makeup-less face and utilitarian attitude toward boys, this early picture personality is far more JLaw with The Hunger Games franchise than ditzy blonde in a bubblegum-pink power suit.
Witherspoon’s first high-profile “adult” role was opposite Mark Wahlberg, at his most sociopathic, in Fear. She played fairly girl-next-door, but with the exact sort of sexual edge that critics ascribe to her turn in Wild. Mention “the roller coaster scene” — in which Witherspoon guides Wahlberg’s hand while he brings her to orgasm while “Wild Horses” plays — to a woman of a certain age, and she will know exactly what you’re talking about.
And then there’s Election, in which Witherspoon satirizes the sort of buttoned up, perfectionist persona in which her future films would mire her. Usually stars lampoon their images after they’ve come to define them, but Election shows a weird sort of prescience about what was to come in Witherspoon’s career, as if director Alexander Payne saw exactly what Hollywood would do with the type of precocious, heart-faced girl whose parents gave her the nickname “Little Type A.”
The brilliance of Witherspoon’s performance in Election lies in its illumination of the embittered underside of perfection: The harder you hew to its prescribed boundaries, the movie suggests, the crazier you become. Not only is it the truth to the lie of Witherspoon’s future performances, but it also suggests an intelligence about what it means to be a woman in the world that a film like Legally Blonde, for all of its Harvard law degrees, obscures.
Witherspoon’s performance in Wild has the same rawness, anger, bravery, and vulnerability of her performances in those early films, many of which have been largely forgotten, but they nonetheless evidence her startling, invigorating capacity as an actor. It’s not as if Witherspoon, herself, didn’t realize as much: “When people underestimate me, it’s actually a comfortable place for me,” she told Vogue. “Oh, that’s what you think I am; well, no I’m not. I’m a complex human being. I have many different shades.”
While those sides are perhaps most visible in her earlier work, it’s not as if they disappeared when she started playing rom-com heroines. As Gawker’s Caity Weaver brilliantly pointed out last year, Witherspoon’s “private” life can be divided into two spheres: the proper Southern belle, who writes prompt thank-you cards and looks great in modest mom shorts and goes on three-mile runs, and the darker, “terrifying” Reese, whom Weaver dubs “Laura Jean,” Witherspoon’s birth name.
If Reese loves posting inspirational quotes and photos of her shoes in falling leaves on Instagram, then Laura Jean wears a dress that shows a lot of sideboob to a big celebrity function, gets drunk, and tells a supermodel in the elevator that the “most important thing in a name, for a girl” is “that a man can whisper it into his pillow.”
Laura Jean also got wasted and mouthed off to cops when her husband was pulled over for DUI; Reese apologized sincerely for it on Good Morning America. Laura Jean drops the f-bomb constantly; Reese dresses up to walk through a parking lot. Laura Jean stars in Wild; Reese clunks her way through Four Christmases.
Of course, there aren’t two Reese Witherspoons — there’s just society’s generalized incapacity to allow a woman to contain multitudes, especially if they’re seemingly at odds. The problem with the virgin/whore dichotomy, after all, isn’t virgins, or whores, but the idea that a woman couldn’t possibly contain vestiges of both, and embrace them equally. After all, that’s what makes a text like Wild so exquisite: its ability to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable or, as Strayed puts it in the passage that ends both the memoir and the film, “What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently that I had done?”
Hollywood loves a comeback, and will certainly embrace this one from Witherspoon. The reviews of Wild, in which she appears in nearly every scene, are glowing, and predictions of another Oscar are gaining strength. The irony, of course, is that the powers that have and will continue to celebrate her performance are, in large part, the same ones that would’ve prevented it from happening.
The lesson of Witherspoon’s career — and, by extension, contemporary Hollywood stardom — is thus startling in its simplicity: The very image that shot you to stardom will, unchecked, also lead you to the end of it. The solution, however, isn’t necessarily to abandon it altogether — there’s something in any superstar image, after all, that has and will always resonate. Rather, it’s to expand, and amplify, the valences that have been there all along.
Reese Witherspoon has always been some sort of wild. It just took a film of her own producing for us to remember.
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Missoula, Montana.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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