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Witherspoon also owns a clothing company Draper James, and she is actively involved in children's and women's advocacy organizations. She serves on the board of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) and was named Global Ambassador of Avon Products in 2007, serving as honorary chair of the charitable Avon Foundation dedicated to women's causes. In 2000, she co-founded production company Type A Films, which has since merged with Hello Sunshine, a media firm which Witherspoon also co-founded in 2016. Hello Sunshine, focused on female-led stories, has produced a number of films and television series.
Witherspoon was raised as an Episcopalian, and has said she is proud of the "definitive Southern upbringing" which she received. She said that it gave her "a sense of family and tradition" and taught her about "being conscientious about people's feelings, being polite, being responsible and never taking for granted what you have in your life". At the age of seven, Witherspoon was selected as a model for a florist's television advertisements, which motivated her to take acting lessons. At age eleven, she took first place in the Ten-State Talent Fair. Witherspoon received high grades in school, loved reading, and considered herself "a big dork who read loads of books". On mentioning her love for books, she said, "I get crazy in a bookstore. It makes my heart beat hard because I want to buy everything." She has been described as a "multi-achiever" and was given the nickname "Little Type A" by her parents. Witherspoon attended middle school at Harding Academy and graduated from the all-girls' Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, during which time she was a cheerleader. She later attended Stanford University as an English literature major, but left the school prior to completing her studies to pursue an acting career.
In 1991, Witherspoon attended an open casting call for The Man in the Moon, intending to audition for a bit part; but instead was cast for the lead role of Dani Trant, a 14-year-old country girl who falls in love for the first time with her 17-year-old neighbor. According to The Guardian, her performance made an early impression. Film critic Roger Ebert commented, "Her first kiss is one of the most perfect little scenes I've ever seen in a movie." For her role, Witherspoon was nominated for a Young Artist Award, in the category of Best Young Actress. Later that year, she made her television debut role in Wildflower with Patricia Arquette. In 1992, Witherspoon appeared in the television filmDesperate Choices: To Save My Child, portraying a critically ill young girl.
In 1993, she played a young wife, Nonnie Parker, in the CBSminiseriesReturn to Lonesome Dove, in the Disney film A Far Off Place and had a minor role in Jack the Bear, which garnered her the Young Artist Award for Best Youth Actress Co-star. The next year, Witherspoon had another leading role as Wendy Pfister in the 1994 film S.F.W., directed by Jefery Levy. In 1996, Witherspoon starred in two major films: the thriller Fear alongside Mark Wahlberg, as Nicole Walker, a teenage girl who starts dating a man with obsessive tendencies, and the black-comedy thriller Freeway, alongside Kiefer Sutherland and Brooke Shields, in which she played the lead role. Her character in Freeway, Vanessa Lutz, is a poor girl living in Los Angeles, who encounters a serial killer on the way to her grandmother's home in Stockton. The film received positive reviews from critics; San Francisco Chronicle'sMick LaSalle wrote, "Witherspoon, who does a Texas accent, is dazzling, utterly believable in one extreme situation after the other." Witherspoon's performance won her the Best Actress Award at the Cognac Police Film Festival and helped establish her as a rising star. The production of the film also gave her significant acting experience; she said "Once I overcame the hurdle of that movie - which scared me to death - I felt like I could try anything."
In 1998, Witherspoon had major roles in three films: Overnight Delivery, Pleasantville and Twilight. In Pleasantville, she starred with Tobey Maguire in a tale about 1990s teenage siblings who are magically transported into the setting of a 1950s television series. She portrayed Jennifer, the sister of Maguire's character who is mainly concerned about appearances, relationships and popularity. Her performance received good reviews and garnered her the Young Hollywood Award for Best Female Breakthrough Performance. Director Gary Ross applauded her efforts saying, "she commits to a character so completely and she understands comedy".
Following the success of Election, Witherspoon struggled to find work due to typecasting. "I think because the character I played was so extreme and sort of shrewish--people thought that was who I was, rather than me going in and creating a part. I would audition for things and I'd always be the second choice--studios never wanted to hire me and I wasn't losing the parts to big box office actresses but to ones who I guess people felt differently about", she said. In 2000, Witherspoon had a supporting role in American Psycho as Patrick Bateman's trophy girlfriend, and made a cameo appearance in Little Nicky as the mother of the Antichrist. She also made a guest appearance in the sixth season of Friends as Rachel Green's sister Jill.
2001-2006: International recognition
The 2001 film Legally Blonde marked a turning point in Witherspoon's career; she starred as Elle Woods, a fashion-merchandising major who decides to become a law student in order to follow her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School. Witherspoon said about the role, "When I read Legally Blonde, I was like, 'She's from Beverly Hills, she's rich, she's in a sorority. She has a great boyfriend. Oh yeah, she gets dumped. Who cares? I still hate her.' So we had to make sure she was the kind of person you just can't hate."Legally Blonde was a box-office hit, grossing US$96 million domestically. Witherspoon's performance earned her praise from critics, and the press began to refer her as "the new Meg Ryan". Roger Ebert commented, "Witherspoon effortlessly animated this material with sunshine and quick wit", and the critic from Salon noted that "she [Witherspoon] delineates Elle's character beautifully". Meanwhile, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer concluded, "Witherspoon is a talented comedian who can perk up a scene just by marching in full of pep and drive and she powers this modest little comedy almost single-handedly." The film earned her a second nomination for Best Actress at the Golden Globes, and an MTV Movie Award for Best Comedic Performance.
In 2002, Witherspoon starred in several features, such as Greta Wolfcastle in The Simpsons episode "The Bart Wants What It Wants", and as Cecily in the comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, a film adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play in which she received a Teen Choice Award nomination. Later that year, she starred with Josh Lucas and Patrick Dempsey in Andy Tennant's romantic-comedy Sweet Home Alabama, in which she played Melanie Carmichael, a young fashion designer who intends to marry a New York politician but must return to Alabama to divorce her childhood sweetheart, from whom she has been separated for seven years. Witherspoon regarded this as a "personal role" in that it reminded her of experiences she had when she moved from her hometown Nashville to Los Angeles. The film became Witherspoon's biggest live-action box office hit, earning over $35 million in the opening weekend and grossing over $127 million in the U.S. Despite the commercial success, critics gave Sweet Home Alabama negative reviews. The Miami Herald called it "a romantic comedy so rote, dull and predictable", and the press opined that Witherspoon was the only reason the film attracted such a large audience.The Christian Science Monitor wrote of her, "She is not the movie's main attraction, she is its only attraction."
The next year, Witherspoon followed up the success of Legally Blonde by starring in the sequel Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde. Elle Woods has become a Harvard-educated lawyer who is determined to protect animals from cosmetics industry science tests. The sequel was not as financially successful as the first film and it generated mostly negative reviews. USA Today considered the movie "plodding, unfunny and almost cringe-worthy", but also noted that "Reese Witherspoon still does a fine job portraying the fair-haired lovable brainiac, but her top-notch comic timing is wasted on the humorless dialogue." Meanwhile, Salon concluded that the sequel "calcifies everything that was enjoyable about the first movie". Despite being panned by critics, the sequel took in over $39 million in its first five days in the U.S. box office charts and eventually grossed $90 million in the US. Witherspoon was paid $15 million for the role--a starting point to make her consistently one of Hollywood's highest-paid actresses from 2002 until 2010.
In 2004, Witherspoon starred in Vanity Fair, adapted from the 19th-century classic novel Vanity Fair and directed by Mira Nair. Her character, Becky Sharp, is a poor woman with a ruthless determination to find fortune and establish herself a position in society. Witherspoon was carefully costumed to conceal her pregnancy during filming. This pregnancy was not a hindrance to her work as Witherspoon believed the gestation had helped her portrayal of Sharp's character: "I love the luminosity that pregnancy brings, I love the fleshiness, I love the ample bosom--it gave me much more to play with", she said. The film, and Witherspoon's performance received mixed reviews; The Hollywood Reporter wrote "Nair's cast is splendid. Witherspoon does justice to the juicy role by giving the part more buoyancy than naughtiness."The Charlotte Observer called her work "an excellent performance that's soft around the edges", and the Los Angeles Times concluded that Becky is "a role Reese Witherspoon was born to play". However, LA Weekly wrote "[Witherspoon] ends up conveying so little of what's at once appalling and perversely attractive about the would-be mistress of Vanity Fair" and states that it may have to do with Witherspoon's vanity, "with an Oscar-less young star's need to be loved more than anyone could conceivably love the "real" Becky Sharp.". Others thought she was miscast.
In late 2004, Witherspoon starred alongside Mark Ruffalo in the romantic comedy Just Like Heaven. Her character, Elizabeth Masterson, is an ambitious young doctor who is involved in a car accident on her way to a blind date and is left in a coma; her spirit returns to her old apartment where she later finds true love. Next, she was cast as June Carter Cash, the second wife of singer-songwriter Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), in James Mangold's Walk the Line (2005). She never had the chance to meet Carter Cash, as Witherspoon was filming Vanity Fair at the time the singer died. Witherspoon performed her own vocals in the film and her songs had to be performed in front of a live audience, she was so worried about needing to perform live that she asked her lawyer to terminate the film contract. "That was the most challenging part of the role," she later recalled. "I'd never sung professionally." Subsequently, she had to spend six months learning how to sing for the role, including from the help of vocal coach Roger Love. Witherspoon's portrayal of Carter Cash was acclaimed by critics, with Roger Ebert stating that her performance added "boundless energy" to the film. She won Best Actress at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, British Academy Film Awards, and a Screen Actors Guild award for her performance.
In addition, Witherspoon and Phoenix received a nomination for "collaborative video of the year" from the CMT Music Awards. Witherspoon has expressed her passion for the film: "I really like in this film that it is realistic and portrays sort of a real marriage, a real relationship where there are forbidden thoughts and fallibility. And it is about compassion in the long haul, not just the short easy solutions to problems." She also stated that she believed Carter Cash was a woman ahead of her time: "I think the really remarkable thing about her character is that she did all of these things that we sort of see as normal things in the 1950s when it wasn't really acceptable for a woman to be married and divorced twice and have two different children by two different husbands and travel around in a car full of very famous musicians all by herself. She didn't try to comply to social convention, so I think that makes her a very modern woman." After the success of Walk the Line, Witherspoon starred in the fantasy Penelope, as Annie, the best friend of Penelope (Christina Ricci), a girl who has a curse in her family. The film was produced by her company Type A Films, and filming began in March 2006. The film premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, but went unreleased until February 2008.
2007-2012: Career slump, and romantic comedies
Witherspoon admits to spending several years "kind of floundering career-wise". Reflecting on this period of time in a December 2014 interview, Witherspoon attributed it to the split from her first husband in October 2006 and their subsequent divorce, stating that she spent "a few years just trying to feel better. You know, you can't really be very creative when you feel like your brain is scrambled eggs." She claims that she "wasn't making things I was passionate about. I was just kind of working, you know. And it was really clear that audiences weren't responding to anything I was putting out there."
Witherspoon at the premiere of Water for Elephants, May 2011
Witherspoon appeared in the thriller Rendition, in which she played Isabella El-Ibrahim, the pregnant wife of a bombing suspect. The film was released in October 2007 and it was her first film appearance since the 2005's Walk the Line. The film received mostly mixed reviews and was deemed a major disappointment at the Toronto International Film Festival. Witherspoon's performance was also criticized; writing for USA Today, Claudia Puig wrote "Reese Witherspoon is surprisingly lifeless ... She customarily injects energy and spirit into her parts, but here, her performance feels tamped down." In 2008, Witherspoon starred with Vince Vaughn in the holiday comedy Four Christmases, a story about a couple who must spend their Christmas Day trying to visit all four of their divorced parents. Despite negative reviews from critics, the film was a box office success, earning more than $120 million domestically and $157 million worldwide. In 2009, Witherspoon voiced Susan Murphy, the lead character in the DreamWorks AnimationMonsters vs. Aliens, released in March, which grossed $381 million worldwide. She also co-produced the Legally Blonde spin-off Legally Blondes, starring Milly and Becky Rosso. However, Witherspoon did not appear in a live-action film for two years after Four Christmases. She told Entertainment Weekly that the "break" was unplanned, stating that, "I just didn't read anything I liked... There are a lot of really, really, really big movies about robots and things--and there's not a part for a 34-year-old woman in a robot movie."
Witherspoon returned with three romances released in 2010, 2011 and 2012, all starring her as a woman caught in a love triangle between two men. In the first, she was cast in James L. Brooks' How Do You Know, in which she played a former national softball player who struggles to choose between a baseball-star boyfriend (Owen Wilson) and a business executive being investigated for white-collar crime (Paul Rudd). Filming took place in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. during the summer and fall of 2009 and it was released on December 17, 2010. The film was critically and commercially unsuccessful; with a budget of more than $100 million, the film only earned $48.7 million worldwide, leading the Los Angeles Times to call it "one of the year's biggest flops". The film received mainly unfavorable reviews, with an approval rating of 35% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 111 reviews as of December 2010.
Witherspoon next starred in Devil's Knot, which was directed by Atom Egoyan, and based on the true crime book of the same name, examining the controversial case of the West Memphis Three. Like Mud, the film is set in Arkansas. Witherspoon played Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of three young murder victims. In an interview subsequent to her casting in the film, Egoyan noted that although the role requires "an emotionally loaded journey," he "met with Reese, and... talked at length about the project, and she's eager to take on the challenge." Filming took place in Georgia in June and July 2012 and Witherspoon was pregnant with her third child during filming. The film premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, followed by a release in selected American theaters on May 9, 2014. Although the film received mainly negative reviews; Evening Standard thought Witherspoon was "the strongest, most involving character".
In 2012, Witherspoon founded production company Pacific Standard (now part of Hello Sunshine). Her goal was to produce projects with "strong" female lead characters, as she felt this was lacking in Hollywood. Through the company, Witherspoon served as a producer on Gone Girl (2014), an adaptation of Gillian Flynn's novel of the same name. She also produced and starred in the biographical adventure Wild (2014), based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir of the same name. She portrayed Strayed on her 1,000-mile (1,600 km) hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.Wild was released in December 2014 to critical acclaim; Michael Phillips of Chicago Tribune wrote in his review, "Witherspoon does the least acting of her career, and it works. Calmly yet restlessly, she brings to life Strayed's longings, her states of grief and desire and her wary optimism."Wild was considered as Witherspoon's "comeback" role following her previous career slump, and she earned a second Academy Award nomination for her performance.
Witherspoon appeared in Philippe Falardeau's drama The Good Lie, based on a true story about an employment counselor assigned to help four young Sudanese refugees, known as Lost Boys of Sudan, who win a lottery for relocation to the U.S. It was released on October 3, 2014. The film was mostly well-received; The Hollywood Reporter critic praised the touching story and performances of the cast, noting that Witherspoon doesn't "upstage" her colleagues. Next, she appeared in Inherent Vice (2014), an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel of the same name. In May 2014, Witherspoon began production in Louisiana on Hot Pursuit, a comedy in which she plays a police officer trying to protect a drug lord's widow (Sofía Vergara). The feature was released on May 8, 2015. In 2016, she had a voice role in the animation Sing, and served as a major performer on the film's soundtrack. Sing became Witherspoon's biggest commercial success, being the first to make over $200 million domestically and $600 million worldwide.
Witherspoon will produce and star in three Netflix films. First, she will headline Pyros, a science fiction drama directed by Simon Kinberg. She will also headline two romantic comedies on Netflix. Witherspoon will produce two films including A White Lie set to star Zendaya for TriStar Pictures and a documentary about Martina Navratilova. Witherspoon will also reprise the role of Elle Woods by starring in and producing Legally Blonde 3. The script of Legally Blonde 3 will be written by Dan Goor and Mindy Kaling. The film will be the fourth collaboration between Kaling and Witherspoon after A Wrinkle in Time, The Mindy Project and The Morning Show.
Witherspoon owned a production company called Type A Films, which the media believed was a nickname from her childhood, "Little Miss Type A". However, when asked about the company by Interview magazine, she clarified the name's origin: "... people think I named it after myself... It was actually an in-joke with my family because at [age] 7 I understood complicated medical terms, such as the difference between type A and type B personalities. But I just wished I'd named the company Dogfood Films or Fork or something. You carry that baggage all your life." In March 2012, Witherspoon merged Type A Films with Bruna Papandrea's "Make Movies" banner to form a new production company called Pacific Standard. In 2016, Witherspoon and Papandrea parted ways, and Witherspoon gained full control of the company. Pacific Standard has since become a subsidiary of Hello Sunshine, a firm co-owned by Witherspoon and Otter Media, focused on telling female-oriented stories through film, television and digital channels. Witherspoon also runs the Hello Sunshine book club, where she makes book recommendations.
In May 2015, Witherspoon launched Draper James, a retail brand focusing on fashion and home décor inspired by the American South. It is named after her grandparents, Dorothea Draper and William James Witherspoon, who are said to be her greatest influences. Some of the products are being manufactured and designed in-house, and the brand was launched online before opening its first retail outlet in 2015 in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. In March 2017, Witherspoon became the chief storyteller for Elizabeth Arden, Inc., helping the company to shape the brand's narrative through advertising campaigns and marketing programs. Witherspoon stated that she was "excited to work as a creative partner alongside the Elizabeth Arden team, producing content that celebrates the spirit of the brand, highlighting female-centric stories that illustrate women's true life experiences which unite us all".
Witherspoon is involved in children and women's rights advocacy. She is a longtime supporter of Save the Children, an organization that helps provide children around the world with education, healthcare and emergency aid. She also serves on the board of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), a child advocacy and research group. In 2006, she was among a group of actresses who went to New Orleans, Louisiana in a CDF project to publicize the needs of Hurricane Katrina victims. During this trip, she helped open the city's first Freedom School, as she met and talked with the children. Witherspoon later called this an experience that she would never forget.
In 2007, Witherspoon made her first move into endorsements, and she signed a multi-year agreement to serve as the first Global Ambassador for cosmetics firm Avon Products. She acts as a spokeswoman for Avon and serves as the honorary chair of the Avon Foundation, a charitable organization that supports women and focuses on breast cancer research and the prevention of domestic violence. She is also committed to the development of cosmetic products and making appearances in commercials. Explaining her motives for joining the foundation, she said, "As a woman and a mother I care deeply about the well being of other women and children throughout the world and through the years, I have always looked for opportunities to make a difference."
In 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Witherspoon announced the "Draper James Loves Teachers" initiative, offering free dresses from the clothing collection to teachers.
In 2013, Witherspoon recorded a cover of the classic Frank Sinatra and Nancy Sinatra duet, "Somethin' Stupid" with Michael Bublé for his 2013 album, To Be Loved. In September 2018, Witherspoon published her first book, Whiskey in a Teacup, which is a lifestyle publication inspired by her southern upbringing. In 2018, Witherspoon joined approximately 300 other actors, agents, writers and entertainment employees in creating the Time's Up initiative, which seeks to counteract sexual harassment in the workplace.
Witherspoon met actor Ryan Phillippe at her 21st birthday party in March 1997. They became engaged in December 1998 and married near Charleston, South Carolina, on June 5, 1999, at Old Wide Awake Plantation. They have two children together, a daughter, Ava Elizabeth Phillippe, born on September 9, 1999, and a son, Deacon Reese Phillippe, born in October 2003. In October 2006, Witherspoon and Phillippe announced their separation.
In 2007, she was selected by People and the entertainment news program Access Hollywood as one of the year's best-dressed female stars. The yellow dress she wore to that year's Golden Globe Awards was widely acclaimed. A study conducted by E-Poll Market Research showed that Witherspoon was the most likable female celebrity of 2007. That same year, Witherspoon established herself as the highest-paid actress in the American film industry, earning $15 to $20 million per film. The following years, her appearance in a number of commercially unsuccessful films caused her to lose this status, and she was noted as one of the most overpaid actors in Hollywood in 2011, 2012 and 2013. In April 2011, Witherspoon ranked No. 3 on the 22nd annual People's Most Beautiful issue.
In June 2013, Witherspoon filed a lawsuit against Marketing Advantages International Inc., claiming they extensively used her name and image in jewelry advertising, without permission in the U.S. and internationally. In December 2015, while Witherspoon's trademark claims to her name were rejected, for she had not established secondary meaning to her full name, that she did not claim "emotional distress" and the "photos and facts were generally known by the public and the photos were taken in public with Plaintiff's consent", the court ruled that she could proceed with her right of publicity claims against a number of defendants. Two months later, Witherspoon withdrew her lawsuit, having "come to private agreements with the various defendants, including Centerbrook Sales, Fragrance Hut, Gemvara, and others". In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations, Witherspoon revealed that she had been sexually assaulted by a director at the age of 16 and has had "multiple experiences of harassment and sexual assault" throughout her career.
In 2015, Witherspoon made her second appearance among the Time 100, with her featured article being written by Mindy Kaling. The same year, she was awarded, by a unanimous vote from the committee, the American Cinematheque for being "a perfect example of an actress flourishing in today's world" and "an active and successful movie producer who is moving her career forward both behind and in front of the camera". In 2017, Forbes reported her career earnings are in excess of $198 million, making her the highest-paid primetime Emmy nominee in 2017. In 2019, Forbes listed her among the World's 100 Most Powerful Women.
Filmography and accolades
Witherspoon's most acclaimed and highest-grossing films, according to the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, include Election (1999), Legally Blonde (2001), Walk the Line (2005), Monsters vs. Aliens (2009), Mud (2013), Wild (2014), and Sing (2013). Witherspoon has been nominated for two Academy Awards, seven Golden Globe Awards, and two British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs). She won an Academy Award, Golden Globe and BAFTA for her performance in Walk the Line (2005). Witherspoon received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6262 Hollywood Boulevard.