Something about Reese – not just a pretty face

Reece Witherspoon on the Red Carpet at the 83rd Academy Awards.

The majority of people, when asked to name a film starring Reece Witherspoon, would answer with her role as Elle Woods in the still much-loved Legally Blonde – the iconic performance that shot her to superstardom in 2001. Since the film’s enormous success (now a hit West-End musical) there has been a tendency to imagine Reese as an actor who specialises in girly, ditsy, and light-hearted roles. This is interesting when we consider the diverse number of parts she has since played, in addition to winning a BAFTA and Academy Award in 2005 for her performance in Walk The Line. While many female actors would resent this continuing conflation of actor and character, Reese has always been proud of her defining role as Elle Woods, and the responsibility it has given her a role model for young girls. During a recent interview on ITV’s Lorraine, she described feeling proud of the message the film promotes, stating with her characteristic no-nonsense cheeriness: “women can be strong and interesting, but also have their nails done.”

Feeling able to embrace your femininity without being belittled is an ethos Reese has embraced on and off screen. We saw the direct manifestation of this belief back in 2015 when Reese publically spoke out on social media with the hashtag #AskHerMore. The campaign was a bid to combat the red carpet’s insistence on asking women who they were wearing ahead of anything else. While some would argue red carpets are as much about films as fashion, Reese argued the time and the place for talking about it should be kept separate, as female actors find themselves forced to sacrifice potentially interesting dialogues to discuss clothes designers. Her Instagram stated: “I love the Oscars AND fashion like many of you – & am excited to share #WhoAmIWearing later tonight […] But I’d also love to answer some of these Qs [see post]….And hear your suggestions?!” The response to the campaign was overwhelmingly positive, with lots of the public, along with famous faces and activists such as Lena Dunham, voicing their support. This success can largely be attributed to Reese’s inclusive and broad-minded approach to feminism, stressing the fact that as a woman it is okay to enjoy fashion and dressing it up, yet there is a time and a place, and therefore in an environment where men and woman are gathered to celebrate achievements in film, this shouldn’t be taking priority.

Reese’s refreshingly inclusive and unapologetic brand of feminism influences not only the way she expects to be treated in the film industry, but also the qualities of strength and complexity she looks for when choosing her roles. As a collective, her films speak to the fact that as a woman there is no right or wrong way to be. Redefining women’s roles is a big passion for Reese. Her latest rom-com Home Again, co-directed and produced by the mother-daughter duo Hallie Meyers-Shyer and Nancy Meyers, is testament to this commitment. The film picks up after Alice Kinney (Reece Witherspoon) has made the decision to separate from her husband and move from New York ‘home again’ to Hollywood, California. Numerous romantic entanglements ensue after she agrees to let three aspiring young filmmakers stay in her guest-house following a wild 40th birthday night out. Although the plot centres around the tumultuous events that take place because of this decision, the emotional focus of the film is orchestrated through Alice. Meyers-Shyer told The Hollywood Reporter (see source) that she intended to create a film that would truthfully depict “that time in a woman’s life right after they are separated and questioning their decisions and starting their life over.” Just as the film draws attention to an emotionally rich, relatable, yet often overlooked time in a women’s life, the relationship between Alice and her main love interest Harry (Pico Alexander) is also progressive in its portrayal of a younger man dating an older woman – a rare occurrence in Hollywood. As much as I enjoyed the film’s fun, heart-felt and entertaining story, it will by no means be making an entry into the rom-com hall of fame any time soon. Yet, that being said, Shyer and Meyers’ contribution to the genre is a beneficial one. Home Again is very far from the mindless breed of male-centred romantic comedies that are so easily churned out these days.

Reese’s contribution to the film industry extends beyond acting. After lamenting with female actor friends over the lack of in-depth roles for women offered in Hollywood, Reese decided to self-fund her own production company, Type A Films. The venture was a way to take control and fill this need for authentic and engaging female-centred stories that were absent in the hordes of bad scripts routinely sent to her door. Talking of this experience in an interview she stated, “The women were girlfriends and wives but they weren’t at the centre of their own stories” (watch full interview here). Type A Films later merged with Bruna Papandrea to become Pacific Standard in 2012. This turned out to be a hugely fruitful collaboration, responsible for Oscar nominated films Gone Girl, Wild, and HBO drama series Big Little Lies. Last year Reece split with Panandrea and re-branded as the multimedia company Hello Sunshine, through which Home Again was produced. The company’s upcoming film venture, in which Reese will be starring alongside Jennifer Anniston, centres around women in the media industry and how they are treated. This topic could not be more current in light of recent revelations involving the BBC’s gender pay-gap.

Reese Witherspoon’s effortless performances and trademark charm is testament to her continuing success and thriving career. However, her acting prowess and infectious on-screen presence is just part of her contribution to film. Reese’s insistence on making sure women’s lives, however ordinary, are portrayed with nuance, depth and intelligence is a prerogative that has, and will continue, to enrich the film industry.

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