YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Acting on Dual Intentions

Being able to play both heroines and villains is Reese Witherspoon's forte. And no wonder: Beneath her Southern charm is a hint of a rebel.

April 11, 1999|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Nothing important escapes the attention of a certain type of Southern girl, that smart and steely magnolia draped in cascades of velvety grace.

She knows what she wants when she sees it and goes right for the object of her desire. Even an unplanned pregnancy has not derailed Reese Witherspoon. Although she has embraced motherhood as her most important career, she's not about to give up on the movies--for her, having it all is not too much to ask.

You can see the Southern debutante in Witherspoon--picture her at the cotillion (she went to two) as the petite, angelic blond in the pastel gown, now chatting with her girlfriends, then flashing that teasing smile to the boys.

"I had a very definitive Southern upbringing so it's hard to talk about my life without talking about growing up in Tennessee," says Witherspoon, 23, gingerly picking over pizza and salad at a trendy Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills. That genteel upbringing took place in Nashville and meant the solidity of social structure and the right private schools. "It bred in me such a sense of family and tradition. . . . It helped me establish a sense of normalcy in life that I hope will stay with me for the long haul."

Indeed, transitions and tragedies abound in Los Angeles, her current home. Starlets rise and starlets fall, with hardly a videotape to their names. But Witherspoon--with three feature films this year--is just hitting her stride.

She has played heroine and villain and sometimes both at the same time. Last year in "Pleasantville," she was a spoiled-rotten teen (villain) who becomes humbled (turned heroine) by a passage into a repressive '50s suburbialand. In the recent "Cruel Intentions" she plays a believable goody-goody (heroine) who plans to guard her virginity until true love comes her way (way au courant heroine). In "Election," due in theaters April 23, Alexander Payne's biting satire about the public and personal politics at play in a high school election, Witherspoon plays the ruthless Tracy Flick (villain).

Tracy is an indomitable Little Ms. Overachiever, and now she's determined to win the presidency of the student body--and she will lie, cheat or steal, but never, as God is her witness, will she stand to lose. It is a plum role, full of dramatic crescendos a juvenile Bette Davis would have coveted. And it is a natural for Witherspoon, who has so often played self-confident, spunky girls with a tendency to act out.


What is surprising, though, is that the actress actually considered another part in the movie--that of Tammy, a budding young lesbian who's furious at the whole ludicrousness of high school. Tammy also decides to run for student council president--to spite her spaced-out brother Paul, who's running and who has inadvertently stolen her girlfriend.

In one hilarious scene the three deliver campaign speeches to the student body. Tracy gives a polished speech full of lofty sentiment, followed by Paul's rambling aw-shucks presentation. Then it's Tammy's turn to stand in front of the mike and ask pointedly, "Who cares about this stupid election?" It is a land mine--a stunning blast of reality to the make-believe democracy of student elections.

"That speech alone made me want to play Tammy!" Witherspoon says. "So I was terribly conflicted--I didn't know if I wanted to play Tammy or Tracy!" The little rebel girl in Witherspoon breaks into a smile, for behind that cute upturned nose, the neatly arched brows and the sky-blue eyes, there's a fierce intelligence. There's also an outsider's view with a taste for edginess--after all, the role of the wild-in-the-streets Vanessa in "Freeway" (1996) marked her turning point.

Witherspoon played the violently independent, gun-toting anti-heroine with manic relish. In a courtroom scene, when she turns around to face the villain-turned-victim (Kiefer Sutherland), hideously disfigured by her attack, she launches a barrage of colorful invectives with "Who hit you with the ugly stick?"

Witherspoon's two favorite films of the past year--"OK, don't laugh," she warns--were "Velvet Goldmine," the film about the glitter-rock era, and "He Got Game," the Spike Lee movie. The films she herself has been in in the last two years--"Pleasantville," "Cruel Intentions," "Election," and the upcoming film noir "Best Laid Plans" and indie thriller "American Psycho"--are not avant-garde, but they have kick and bite, and are not just formulaic teen anthems.

When the modest box-office success of "Cruel Intentions" is mentioned, she breathes, "Thank God, that's about the first film I've made that's made money!"

Eight years ago, Witherspoon, at the tender age of 14, landed a remarkable role in Robert Mulligan's "Man in the Moon," a nostalgic Southern melodrama about two sisters who fall for the same boy. She played Dani, the younger, rambunctious sister, with such unexpected naturalness that she was widely praised.

Los Angeles Times Articles