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Reese Witherspoon: More than plucky?

She may have the drive, but that doesn't necessarily mean she has the talent. By Tara Ariano and Sarah Bunting

Reese Witherspoon has it all, and can do it all — at least according to this month’s Vanity Fair, which put Her Blondeness on the cover. The accompanying article made much of her successes in the realms of both film and family: she commands $15 million per picture, and goes from genre to genre with relative ease, starring in franchise chick flicks, satires and period pieces. Witherspoon is also happily married to semi-retired teen dream Ryan Phillippe, and devoted to her children. Everything’s coming up Reese these days.

But she’s not just on the cover of Vanity Fair; she’s also starring in the film version of the Thackeray novel “Vanity Fair,” and the role of Becky Sharp is not a particularly likeable one. Witherspoon has made a career out of her accessibility — she’s pretty, but not intimidatingly so; she’s successful, but she’s paid her dues. Can she continue to count on audience goodwill if she plays a less agreeable character, or are her days as America’s Sweetheart numbered?

Sarah Bunting
I like Reese Witherspoon a lot as an actress. I don’t think I’d enjoy her much as a person, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on; the Vanity Fair piece gives me the impression that she’s sort of humorless. (Although said piece also mentions that her idea of a fun afternoon is a trip to the Container Store. I looooove the Container Store. Reese, call me!)

But even when she’s playing obnoxious characters, I like her; I think she’s very good at deepening roles that might otherwise play flat or cartoonish. My favorite film on her résumé, “Election,” is a great example — the audience isn’t meant to side with Tracy Flick, and the movie pokes fun at her constantly, but Witherspoon gives her little touches of humanity (like the way she slurps her root beer during her pathetic assignation with the math teacher) that a lesser actress might not have bothered with.

She did the same sort of thing with Annette Hargrove in “Cruel Intentions”; the character is a pawn, but Witherspoon took our eyes off the larger game for a few minutes and made us feel for her in a way that Michelle Pfeiffer, in the same role, didn’t. Granted, Michelle had to battle the thespionics of the inimitable Malkovich, but still — I believe Witherspoon’s c.v. can handle a distasteful character. She’s good enough to pull it off.

Tara Ariano
I wouldn’t want to hang with her in real life either, and given the kinds of roles she plays, I think that’s a big stumbling block between her and the career she’s going to want to have in the long term. Granted, she’s not exactly marketed to us as America’s Sweetheart (unless America’s Sweetheart is supposed to be anally retentive and joyless), but she sure plays a lot of romantic comedy heroines for someone who’s not really that…likable. Which is why your comment above is kind of funny; to me, all she’s played are distasteful characters, to varying degrees.

The typical Reese Witherspoon character is not that different from the Reese Witherspoon we see in interviews: ambitious, driven, grimly determined, single-minded, and Type A (which, I guess, is why we’re supposed to think it’s cute that “Type A” is what she named her production company). I feel like I’ve never seen her show any real weakness in a role; she’s got a hard, flinty quality that I find very off-putting. That’s fine, and serves the character, when she’s playing Tracy Flick, but it’s going to be a problem when I’m supposed to believe she’s June Carter Cash in the upcoming “Walk the Line.”

Sarah
I’ll see your general point, but in that specific instance, you’re also supposed to believe Joaquin “Commodus” Phoenix is the Man in Black, which…eh.

Witherspoon can show weakness, but it’s not a traditional, trembly-teary-actressy sort of weakness — it’s more a “so angry that she bursts into tears instead of yelling” kind of vulnerability, which I can relate to even if it’s not always winning or sweet.

And to my mind, that single-minded flintiness is winning — because it’s different. Maybe it’s time for us to evolve past that “soft, yet strong” nonsense in our actresses. The “Legally Blonde” movies don’t succeed with audiences because Elle Woods is unthreatening, but rather because she’s a pink-hammer bad-ass.

Tara
I don’t mean that I want her to act more wussy or cry all the time in order for me to buy her as a real woman. I love Frances McDormand and Catherine Keener and Angela Bassett and Holly Hunter, none of whom is known as a cream puff, so I don’t have a problem with an actress or a leading lady with a motor mouth and a steel backbone.

With Witherspoon, though — unlike any of the above-named actresses — I just feel like I’ve never seen her play a character who’s had to absorb any major setback in any way. That’s not to say that I want to see her react to her Ken doll boyfriend’s dumping her by spending the rest of the movie sobbing in the sorority house or something, and duh, I know it’s a comedy, so it’s not like I expected Mike Leigh-level realism from it either. But that is just the first of the few bad things to happen to her in “Legally Blonde” that not only isn’t any kind of body blow, but that rather sets her up for a great triumph, and that’s how it seems to go for her in virtually every role.

Getting sent back to the fictional TV ’50s (“Pleasantville”) allows her to catalyze the town’s sexual awakening. Getting embroiled in a high-school scandal (“Election”) gets her a job in Washington. Abandoning her hick husband (“Sweet Home Alabama”) improbably makes her a fancy fashion designer in New York. Everything that doesn’t kill her makes her stronger.

Witherspoon is a pretty good actor and is taking her career extremely seriously. Which is not surprising, because she seems to take everything very seriously. But she lacks the genuine human vulnerability that an actor needs in order to be the kind of movie star the public cares about.

Sarah
But don’t forget “Little Nicky,” where Witherspoon showcased an emotional openness that — oh, I’m obviously kidding. We didn’t see “Little Nicky” and neither did anyone else.

She hasn’t shown vulnerability in a “House of Sand and Fog” kind of way, it’s true, and if she wants to ascend to the acting pantheon, she should probably start picking scripts with less pluck and more emotional range — but she’s good in triumph-over-minor-adversity roles. It’s a cliché she’s good at giving dimensions to, and I wish more actors would play to their strengths instead of trying to carry movies in parts that don’t fit them (cough Kevin Spacey cough).

Tara
But isn’t that exactly what she’s doing with these period pieces — “The Importance of Being Earnest” (flop) and “Vanity Fair” (The Ghost of Flops Yet to Come)? If Reese Witherspoon were really going to resolve to play to her strengths, she’d embrace a future as a character actor playing bitchy roles (like a shorter Parker Posey, say) and quit trying to force herself into the mold of a romantic comedy cutie.

Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting are co-creators and co-editors of