Reese Witherspoon: A consideration

When I learned our intrepid staff photographer Jamie Lusch had returned with photos, I made a beeline to the darkroom.

"So what does she look like in real life?" I asked as Jamie uploaded his images to the computer.

And then there she was — Reese Witherspoon. Standing in the Ashland Plaza. All grimed up for her role in "Wild," a story about a woman's adventures on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I've never been a star-struck person. I've seen a few actors kicking around Ashland over the years, but was never inspired to hound them for an autograph or approach them to say I admire their work.

One notable exception was this one time when I met Robert Englund, the Freddy Kruger of "Nightmare on Elm Street Fame," at the Beau Club. He was a gracious dude who seemed to genuinely enjoy the horror film nerdness that erupted out of the handful of Beau Clubbers who happened to be swilling PBR there that afternoon.

I've been a fan of Reese Witherspoon since middle school. I remember catching "Man in the Moon" on Showtime one Sunday afternoon and really digging it. It must have been in 1992 or thereabouts.

Since then, I've kept up on her career more so than bigger-name stars such as Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock. Witherspoon is a rarity among top-tier actresses: She's funny. Like, she truly understands how humor works.

Don't believe me? I hate most mainstream comedies. I have friends who have memorized "Happy Gilmore" and "Tommy Boy," but I made it through about 31.6 minutes of both before I had to get up and do something else.

However, put on "Legally Blonde" and my arse is officially laughed off.

"Legally Blonde," though, fails to crack my top three Reese Witherspoon moments. And they go as follows:

1. "Man in the Moon"

Not to sound like a crank, but they really don't make enough movies like this these days. Witherspoon plays Dani, a 14-year-old Southern country kid who develops a crush on the cute older boy who moves in next door. Sounds simple enough, but the story hits real notes about first love and whatnot. And there's Sam Waterston as the kind and protective father figure. Would Sam Waterston let you down? I think not.

Witherspoon spends the movie deftly alternating between curiosity, anger and frustration at the changes happening around her. It's some deep stuff pulled off at an early stage, and it showcased Witherspoon's natural talents.

2. "Election"

And from sweet Dani we move to Witherspoon's portrayal of Tracy Flick, the personification of pure evil. "Election" tells the story of a basically crappy human being, a teacher played by Matthew Broderick, who engages in a war of wills with the overachieving student Tracy Flick. Witherspoon embodies the vacant evil of many high school valedictorians, leveling her fellow students with a withering, pursed-lipped glare and vague threats about how she will one day rule over them in the real world.

Witherspoon plays Flick for laughs here, but she also makes it clear that her character would kill someone if it meant she could be head of the student body. It's difficult to embody broad comedy with homicidal menace, but Witherspoon pulled it off. "Election" is one of those films that I like more each time I see it.

3. "Freeway"

Witherspoon's masterpiece, and one of my top 10 movies. I would be remiss if I didn't warn you that it's best to box away any and all sensibilities prior to viewing "Freeway." I honestly can't believe she would make this movie. As far as I know, she disowns it, as I've never read an interview in which she mentions it.

Released in 1996, "Freeway" dives into the violent underbelly of Bill Clinton's America. Witherspoon plays Vanessa Lutz, the street-dwelling spawn of mass murderer Richard Speck and a prostitute. She lives with said mother and her sexually abusive meth-head boyfriend. Vanessa manages to escape a state service worker after her mom is busted and sent to jail. She meets up with her gangbanger boyfriend Chopper, from whom she purchases a gun on her way up the freeway to live with her grandmother in Stockton. On the way, Vanessa runs into Bob Wolverton, a serial killer played with master-level creepiness by Kiefer Sutherland. And from there, things get really crazy.

Witherspoon is flat-out amazing in "Freeway." If I ever have a daughter, I will pray she emulates Vanessa Lutz. She's quick-witted and tough, though she does have a soft spot for those she feels are genuine. And lordy help any male figure who believes he can prey on Vanessa because he sees her as female and therefore a target. Witherspoon, again, achieves great humor while making a stand for hard-won feminism.

I'm hoping this "Wild" movie is a success and Hollywood keeps finding roles for Witherspoon. I'm looking forward to seeing it.


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