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Anything but Dumb

With 'Sweet Home Alabama,' Reese Witherspoon is poised to leapfrog to the top of the A-list of women who can carry a film

September 29, 2002|LYNN SMITH

Unless you know the back story, it would be easy to underestimate the tiny figure walking through the door of Ubon restaurant in the Beverly Center. At 1:30 p.m. on a Monday, she's dressed in what she calls her uniform: jeans, sneakers, zip-up sweatshirt and baseball cap. None of the scattered customers looks up to see her greet the waitresses and wave to the cooks.

Just like the feisty sorority-girl-turned-legal-eagle she played in "Legally Blonde," Reese Witherspoon is more than the outside world might think. At 26, the Tennessee native is polite and unpretentious, a family-first wife and mother. She is also the new princess of the box office and a serious supervisor of her own career. By inhabiting over-the-top characters ("Pleasantville," "Election" and especially "Legally Blonde") and making them angelic-looking, ferociously determined and hilariously unaware, she has become that rare Hollywood commodity: a young bankable actress.

"Although we have produced great comediennes, we haven't produced a lot of them," says film scholar Jeanine Basinger, author of "A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women" (Knopf, 1993). Witherspoon has emerged from the pack of young starlets and moved into position to become a major player, she says.

Veterans like Gwyneth Paltrow, Cameron Diaz and even Julia Roberts, have "hit the ceiling," she says, meaning in a business that replaces people at an increasingly rapid rate, they've been around long enough to start fading. (See related story, Page 16.) Younger starlets like Kate Hudson and Katie Holmes don't yet have the stature to carry a film alone. In contrast, Witherspoon is fresh, funny and has a future.

"She's probably as hot an actress as there is out there now," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co. "And she has the acting chops to back it up. All she needs is a few more hits under her belt."

Which is why this weekend is a crucial one for Witherspoon's career. Disney's "Sweet Home Alabama," heavily promoted with advertising showing her face alone, will test her box-office clout. Witherspoon stars in the more traditional romantic comedy, which opened Friday on 3,000 screens, as a successful New York fashion designer torn between a rich fiance (Patrick Dempsey) and a secret redneck husband (Josh Lucas) back home. (Early reviews of the film were mixed.) She is also about to reprise her best-known character, Elle Woods, the Harvard Law School Barbie, in MGM's "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde," a sequel that follows Woods, now a corporate lawyer, to Washington.

Her reported $5-million salary for "Sweet Home" will jump anywhere from $12 million to $15 million, sources say, for "Red, White and Blonde." If "Sweet Home Alabama" hits big, it would prove to Hollywood that "Legally Blonde" was no fluke and confirm Witherspoon as an A-list star.

The keystone of her popularity lies in the fact that Witherspoon was not a studio-produced phenomenon sold to the public, Basinger says. "The audience found her. That is always authentic stardom. It was not given to her, nor did it happen overnight."

Witherspoon has been working in the industry for more than half her life, appearing in TV shows and in more than a dozen films. She's played a foulmouthed teen killer in "Freeway" (1996), a nasty mini-mart hostage in "S.W.F." (1994) and a savvy virgin in "Cruel Intentions" (1999) (notable also because she co-starred with husband-to-be Ryan Phillippe). But it was through comedy that she became a breakout star. As Tracy Flick, the cute overachiever with the square-jawed determination of a Marine, Witherspoon stole "Election" and helped make the smart satire a critical (if not commercial) smash. "Legally Blonde," another comedy (though broader than "Election"), grossed a surprising $96.5 million and created a franchise for her character, Elle Woods. A pilot for a TV series based on the character was turned down by ABC because, says a source who asked not to be named, "There's only one Reese Witherspoon."

Yet Witherspoon has never considered herself a comic. "I don't ever try to be funny," she says. "I think that's death to comedy. The second you start thinking you're funny or start laughing at your own jokes, you're in trouble."

She learned she was funny only after she played a wild-child killer who earns the respect of homicide detectives in "Freeway"--and made people laugh. "I thought I was giving a really great dramatic performance," she says. "People said, 'You're really funny.' I was like, 'Oh, right! I meant to do that. It's all part of my plan!' "

Witherspoon follows in the hallowed tradition of the "smart dumb blond," typified by Carole Lombard and Judy Holliday, Basinger says. "The person who can make you laugh and can handle being laughed at without losing any dignity or any glamour."

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