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Reese Witherspoon Doesn’t Care If You’re Watching

How the former Tracy Flick shifted from her picture-perfect persona toward a more authentic Reese

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In honor of Reese Witherspoon’s transcendent work on Big Little Lies, we at The Ringer hereby declare today Reese Day. Please join us as we pay tribute to the Patron Saint of Book Clubs, Wine Clubs, and Overachievers.

There are many extracurricular Reese Witherspoon performances to note, but the most essential, for my money, is the viral wedding video. The scene is an anonymous reception on Capri in the summer of 2014. The cocktail hour has passed; the band, if the ’70s classic is any indication, is on its second set. And there, off to the side, is one Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon, losing her damn mind to “I Will Survive.”

May we all strive to be wedding guests as committed as Reese. Her form is extraordinary: near-constant aerobic activity without a hint of exhaustion. I can count at least seven distinct arm dances, just in the 45 seconds of solo Reese. It is genuinely surprising to learn that Reese Witherspoon is not the kind of woman who sings along to every single word of “I Will Survive,” but, in a way, that absence adds to the experience. She is swept up in the spirit of the dance and the pinot grigio. She will windmill herself to a higher plane; she already has, probably, in the number of times the world has watched this video.

A few months after the video made its way onto TMZ — another Reese theme, for better and worse — Witherspoon was asked about the incident by Wild author Cheryl Strayed, whom Reese played in the film adaptation of the memoir. Reese claimed never to have seen it, but she and Strayed had become close during production, and so Witherspoon was willing to engage a little. “Is it hysterical?” she asked Strayed in response. “Was it funny? I mean, are you laughing because you envy my dance moves?” All this to say: It’s the kind of video that even Reese’s real-life friends and colleagues would gently mock her for. It invites loving derision. It’s corny; it’s relaxed. It’s not tabloid-level mortifying, but it’s not perfect — which is significant, because there was a time when Witherspoon didn’t know how to be anything but.

Recall, if you will, Witherspoon’s 2006 Oscars acceptance speech — all two and a half saccharine minutes of it:

It is strange now to watch Reese Witherspoon circa Walk the Line: still in traditional leading-lady mode, still married to Ryan Phillippe. This speech, given at only 29 years old, is the culmination of almost 10 successful years in Hollywood, most of them spent playing perky, uptight characters who owe a debt to Tracy Flick. Witherspoon was almost seven years removed from Election at this point, but the whiff of overachievement lingered. Her movie choices — Legally Blonde, Sweet Home Alabama, Walk the Line — were unfailingly correct. Her extracurricular activities, at least those documented by the paparazzi, mostly involved kids and jogging around Brentwood. The Oscar video is a neat summary of her particular Hollywood vibe: rehearsed, bubbly, earnest, indistinguishable.

Another video, one you probably remember:

From high to low, as they say. We’re fast-forwarding a bit: It was 2013 by the time Witherspoon was famously arrested for disorderly conduct, and her life had changed significantly in those seven years. She and Phillippe divorced not long after the Oscars; she spent the next few years dating a real live heartthrob, the Prince of Persia–era Jake Gyllenhaal. (For my money, the myth of Modern Reese begins with this photo at the Hollywood Bowl.) Meanwhile, her career slowly disintegrated, with her post-Oscar choices moving from forgettable (Penelope, Four Christmases) to inexplicable (the James L. Brooks opus How Do You Know), to plain bad (This Means War). By the turn of the decade, the market for romantic leading ladies — especially those over the age of 30 — had diminished considerably. This chilling line from a 2011 piece summarizes the state of Witherspoon’s career prospects: “‘She should be doing what Elizabeth Banks is doing,’ recommended [a] talent agent. ‘Brilliant guest turn on 30 Rock. Fantastic on Modern Family. But then: a leading role opposite Russell Crowe [in The Next Three Days], opposite Paul Rudd [in My Idiot Brother], and, like, three Sundance movies.’” Times were tough for all actresses.

Not that any of that justifies her hissy fit. The two cringiest — and not coincidentally, iconic — lines in Reese Witherspoon’s arrest video are “I am a U.S. citizen, I’m allowed to stand on American ground,” and “You’re about to find out who I am.” It is the line reading that makes both; her indignation is tinged with the slight Southern twang that Reese deploys when she wants to seem authentic. And it works: She sells you on privilege and the ego, in movie star quantities, that have seemingly been lurking beneath the surface all that time. The only even marginally sympathetic aspect of this video is at the very end, when Reese’s new husband, Jim Toth, can be heard trying to throw her further under the bus. Also when she has to pee.

She did her best to erase it a few weeks later. The Reese Witherspoon Good Morning America performance, as my colleague Kate Knibbs has pointed out, is a masterful example of celebrity damage control: direct, contrite, efficient. “I am so sorry.” “I was so disrespectful.” You can see the echoes of Oscars Reese: She doesn’t drop eye contact; she hits every line. But there is also a quality of plain embarrassment here — or maybe it’s desperation, channeled into the most palatable form — that’s new and unexpectedly humanizing. It is still acting, but it is a more honest version of it.

“There are two Reese Witherspoons,” wrote the great Caity Weaver in 2014. “The one we’re supposed to love but don’t quite like; and the one that scares the shit out of us and leaves us obsessively smitten.” She was responding, in part, to yet another uncensored moment, in which Reese Witherspoon claimed her share of the Met Ball’s champagne and then attempted to speak French in an elevator.

This, in 20 seconds, is a concise explanation of Reese Witherspoon’s late-period comeback. Unidentified alcoholic beverage? Check. At least three to four women — preferably recognizable celebrities — in a convivial setting? Check. A sense that Reese Witherspoon is still the bossiest person in any room, but now slightly less conflicted about that particular identity? Indeed.

It is amazing how far she has taken this particular strain of reinvention — how savvy and successful Witherspoon has been in uniting the cutesy, well-meaning Reese with, as Weaver, wrote, “the one who scares the shit out of us.” The wedding dancing, the constant Mom Instagramming, the quiet Mean-Girling on her press tours: The New Reese never sleeps. Behold a conversation between Witherspoon and her Big Little Lies costar Laura Dern, from this weekend’s New York Times. The two actresses spend the better part of the interview gushing about their friendship — bonding on the set of Wild, introducing their mothers, learning about “brown lipstick” together. On the conversation goes, like a particularly oppressive baby shower, until Reese pauses to consider the future:

It’s a bit much, maybe, but it has the benefit of being authentic. We have seen the videos; we have watched Witherspoon try and fail to contain her inherent messiness. Big Little Lies, for all its tech satire and marital discord, is built upon the Myth of Modern Reese — the idea that playing perfect will make you absolutely miserable, and that being a little mean is the only way to survive. Imagine anyone else saying this line and selling it; imagine anyone else saying this line and enjoying it:

(HBO)
(HBO)

“I hate everyone but you,” Witherspoon’s Big Little Lies character says at another point. I have heard this line often in the last few weeks, repeated by the overachieving, slightly harried women in my own life. The appeal is in the pettiness. You will try and fail to please everyone, Reese Witherspoon teaches us. Better to let loose in the corner with your real friends instead.