It feels like we all are having a Reese Witherspoon moment this Emmy season while celebrating a culmination of what the actress has achieved since her coming-of-age film debut in 1991’s “The Man in the Moon.” She may be nominated for six Emmys as both an actress and a producer this year for Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere,” Apple TV+’s “The Morning Show” and HBO’s second season of “Big Little Lies.” What is interesting is how each of her roles feature strands of other parts she has played to perfection on the big screen.
Yes, she won a Best Actress Oscar as country singer June Carter Cash in the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line.” It’s the type of female performance that I have dubbed in the past as a “stand-by-your-man” role, as she kept Joaquin Phoenix‘s Johnny Cash to away from drugs and encouraged him to stay sober for the sake of his career and their marriage. She showed gumption and grit by gosh, but it is a far cry from “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
But the character that I most associate her with is Tracy Flick, the insufferable over-achieving high school senior who will do whatever it takes to become student body president in filmmaker Alexander Payne‘s dark 1999 comedy “Election.” Back then, Witherspoon felt that the role typecast her and kept her from getting hired. Her reasoning? “I think because the character I played was so extreme and shrewish — people thought that was who I was, rather than me going in and creating a part.”
However, she would make another indeliable and fluffier mark as Elle Woods in the upbeat 2001 comedy “Legally Blonde.” Think Perry Mason meets Miss Clairol, a gal who sees the world through pink-tinted glasses while relying on her sharp recall of arcane facts, feminine instincts and sunny outlook to ace Harvard Law School. She is definitely not to be underestimated.
The actress would make her way onto the Oscar ballot again for her lead performance in 2014’s “Wild,” as Cheryl Strayed, who hiked 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail over 94 days to get over the death of her mother and leave behind the bad habits of her past including heroin and anonymous sex that led to an abortion and destroyed her marriage. The film was directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, who would oversee the first season of “Big Little Lies.”
There are shreds of these three signature characters that can be found in the fabric of Witherspoon’s recent projects. In “Little Fires Everywhere,” her Elena Richardson, a mother of four and a part-time journalist who wears her white privilege on her sleeve and is a control freak incarnate, tells her children, “If you want to live in this house, you have to live by my rules.” While Tracy Flick hands out 480 customized cupcakes to entice her fellow students to vote for her, Elena goes nuts over holidays and festive decorations to mask her disappoints in life — the main one being her younger daughter Izzy who rebels against her mother’s every intention, good, bad or indifferent.
As for Witherspoon’s role on “The Morning Show,” her Bradley Jackson, who hails from West Virginia and works for a conservative news outlet, is like a more strident pre-hike Strayed. She guzzles hard liquor, wears leather jackets, has sex in an alley with a Manhattan bartender she just met and blurts out that she had an abortion at age 15 t0 the a.m. viewers on her first day as a replacement co-anchor for a big network sunrise chat show.
What are her qualifications? That she isn’t a man, since former co-host got canned after multiple accusations of sexual misconduct by a female co-worker. Also, this feisty little lady is as unfiltered as they come. Bradley initially came on the show to chat about her viral video takedown of a jerk who knocks down her cameraman during a coal mine protest. She verbally blasts him into submission with an angry twang and some choice words. Also, making Witherspoon wear a brown wig brings her somewhat more down to earth and less afraid to tell the truth on the job and off.
As for the second season of “Big Little Lies,” Witherspoon’s Madeline Martha MacKenzie has an Elle Woods vibe what with her perfect house and perfect wardrobe but not so much a perfect approach to motherhood and marriage. Like her character in “Little Fires Everywhere,” she is a well-packaged Type-A personality who wants to run the show. But then she nearly blows up her perfect life by having an affair with the director of her Little Theater production of “Avenue Q” — an admission that is overheard by her devoted second husband as discussed by her elder daughter.
At one point on “The Morning Show,” Bradley confessess to a higher-up, “I know I’m an annoying pain in your ass, OK? But if it makes you feel any better, I’ve been an annoying pain in the ass to pretty much everybody I’ve ever worked with. I push, it’s just my nature. And, Jesus, I wish to God sometimes it wasn’t. But I’ve realized I can’t change it and I guess I just learned to lean into the f*cking turn.”
That’s a statement that all three of Witherspoon’s characters could actually make.
The only question that is left unanswered is which of these three roles will get her an acting Emmy? She could compete against herself in the drama actress category, where she is ranked at No. 10 for “The Morning Show” and at No. 20 for “Big Little Lies,” according to Gold Derby’s combined Emmy odds. She has a better chance to be nominated for “Little Fires Everywhere” as a movie/limited series lead actress, given that she sits in fourth place among the contenders.
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