Anything but Dumb

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."

Witherspoon updates the character in that she no longer has to be devious, Basinger says. Educated and sophisticated, young women today don't necessarily look to her as a role model, but rather identify with the concept of a female who can be attractive, can go shopping, like trivial things and still be a star. "It's not either-or. She can be both dumb and smart. Beautiful and not beautiful. She can shop and wear tight clothes and still be a top student. She will not let people judge her by surfaces.

"The college girls I know like that she has power over her own destiny," she says. In her own life, Witherspoon is a shrewd steward of her own career. Her team includes William Morris agent Steve Dontanville, a manager and a publicist. Two years ago Witherspoon founded her own production company, Type A Films, named for the nickname her mother bestowed on her bossy daughter.

"There aren't that many great scripts out there," she says matter-of-factly. After the success with comedy, she says she doesn't expect people to see her in any other way. "Only I know what I'm capable of, and I see it myself in my own mind. So, I'm feeling frustrated, going, 'Why isn't there that kind of role?' I just realized at a certain point I had to create it."

Many successful actors begin their own production companies, some considered vanity projects whose mission is to develop roles for the star alone. The more serious companies also look for material for others, some agents say.

Witherspoon's producing partner, Jennifer Simpson, says they look for stories that offer smart, complex roles. "We're looking for vehicles for Reese to star in that are not necessarily romantic comedies. She's into finding movies that can offer strong role models to young women," Simpson says. So along with a comedy about tennis, and an adaptation of Melissa Bank's feminist empowerment novel "A Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing," Type A Films is also developing a drama about turn-of-the-century suffragettes. Witherspoon is trying to expand her range in other ways; she recently landed the starring role in "Vanity Fair," an independent remake of Thackeray's classic novel of 19th century London social climber Becky Sharp to be directed by Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding") and released next year. (Witherspoon has read the novel, her publicist said.)

She's already acquainted with the milieu after playing a love-struck Englishwoman in the most recent version of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" that was released by Miramax earlier this year.

"It's a dream come true for me," she says about working with Nair. "Now, I'm in a position where, gosh, she can make a film with me, and I can help her get it financed." Without a big-name star, Nair was having trouble getting the money she needed to make the film, Witherspoon explains. "It's important to have somebody who means something on the box-office charts. I never knew movies worked that way until this year."

"Red, White and Blonde" will be her first outing as an executive producer. She and producer Marc Platt have chosen a director ("Kissing Jessica Stein's" Charles Herman-Wurmfeld) and are collaborating on script ideas and casting. "It's exciting for me. To be able to call people and say, 'I think you're the greatest. Will you please come work with me?' It's a new moment in my life."

However, Witherspoon may be risking her audience when she moves away from the heightened comedy of "Legally Blonde."

"Nobody appreciated Meryl Streep when she's done comedies," Basinger says. "I hope she has more luck crossing over into [serious] roles than Julia Roberts did with things like 'Mary Reilly.' A lot will depend on the material she picks."

Elle Woods was a smart dumb blond. Tracy Flick was a smart smart blond. As a more traditional romantic comedy, "Sweet Home Alabama" will present another sort of test for the actress. As Manhattan fashion designer Melanie, her edges have been sanded down, leaving her not quite as dumb, not quite as smart.

Witherspoon, 5 feet 2, is a study in delicate, sturdy dignity. Her manner is reserved and dutiful at first, her voice girlishly soft and pleasant. She will speak Southern on demand. Her giant sparkly blue eyes--once seriously nearsighted, but corrected by laser surgery--are set in a flawless face, graced only with a little lip gloss.

It's a package that can make struggling actresses nearly suicidal. The keys to succeeding in Hollywood, she would tell them in a manner that brings Tracy Flick to mind, are perseverance, endurance and resilience. "You have to be able to tolerate a lot of rejection and still have your self-worth intact. Sometimes I meet people and I think I don't know how they've made it this long when they're soooooo fragile. You have to be determined, to be very clear about what are your good points, what are your bad points. Focus on the positive aspects of your personality and be realistic about yourself."

She was turned down for roles in "Cape Fear" and "Romeo & Juliet" that went to Juliette Lewis and Claire Danes, respectively. She's also tried to protect her talent by not squandering it on insubstantial movies. She turned down roles in "Scream" (1996) and "Urban Legend" (1998). Whenever she's deciding whether to take a job, she reminds herself that the film's ideas and her image will be on film forever. "It's going to be on digital or video the rest of my life, my child's life. It's not a flip decision I'm making, you know?"

On the set, she'll argue points. "It's hard to force Reese Witherspoon to do something," says "Cruel Intentions" director Roger Kumble, discussing the film on the DVD.

In "Legally Blonde," she considered some lines too crass for Elle Woods to say. "She was very strong about her point of view," Platt says. "At the end of the day, she turned out to be 100% right. The lines were very funny, but in the context of the movie and the character she had in mind, it didn't fit the film."

In "Sweet Home Alabama," Witherspoon was "ready to marry the comic performer she was getting to be known for with the dramatic actress she's been the past 10 years," says "Sweet Home" director Andy Tennant, who worked with Witherspoon 10 years ago on a TV movie, "Desperate Choices," in which she played a 15-year-old leukemia victim. In "Sweet Home," she delivers a 45-second monologue that starts with a grin and ends in tears. "It's not just the crying," he says. "You can see all her thoughts. I didn't cut it. I wanted everyone to see her performance."

Growing up in Nashville, the privileged second child of a surgeon and a nursing professor, Witherspoon says her parents supported her early ambitions to be an actress with lessons and nontraditional expectations. "Being a Southern eccentric was the big influence in my family. [The standard was] How weird can you be?" At Harpeth Hall, an all-girls private high school in Nashville, she was also encouraged to think outside the steel magnolia box, and was formed, she says, by assignments to spend a month studying newscasters or lawyers in their work environments.

Still, she says she was naive when she arrived in Hollywood at 14. "Even though you can be mature, I don't think you have the emotional maturity to deal with a lot of the situations you're put in," she says. "You have to deal with a lot of adult personalities, you have to negotiate."

Referring specifically to male attention, she says, "There are a lot of ulterior motivations that you don't necessarily understand when you're 14 years old. It's every young woman's experience. It's just hard to do it in a professional context," she says. "I won't let my daughter get in the business until she's 18 years old."

In some ways, Witherspoon also regrets leaving Stanford after her freshman year to take a small part in "Twilight" (1998) with Paul Newman and Gene Hackman. "I don't feel as knowledgeable or as educated as I'd like to be," she says. "When I'm around very well-educated people, I feel embarrassed, or inferior, you know." She would like to return to school, resuming her English major, when her children are grown, she says.

Witherspoon's handlers had warned that the actress would not talk about her personal life. Her husband, who stars in the current dark comic film "Igby Goes Down," recently revealed on a radio program that their sex life had suffered under the strain of parenting their 3-year-old daughter Ava. He went on to describe details and disclose they were both in therapy.

Reportedly upset with him, Witherspoon, however, spoke only in the neutral to glowing terms she has always used to describe their marriage. "We've grown up together. We met when I was 21. I'm a lot different than I was at that age. He's a lot different from when he was 22," she says. "I didn't have as much responsibility. There's more pressure on me."

She hopes to have more children. Family life--the sort with 8 p.m. bedtimes and dogs and non-industry friends and barbecues in their Tudor home in Los Angeles--grounds her, and keeps her from spinning out into the "disorienting hyperbole" of celebrity and fame, she says.

Judging by colleagues' accounts of her highly organized and disciplined lifestyle, she could write a manual of how to juggle family and work. "She is extremely professional on the set. Even before the camera rolls, you will see her on her mark, reciting her lines," Platt says. "At the same time, she always makes sure to allocate time in the day when it's possible to visit with her daughter. There are times when Reese says, 'I'm here for the hours you need me to be, but I've got to get going tonight. It's our anniversary and we're going out to dinner.' "

As the lunch at Ubon concludes, Witherspoon takes off her cap and tosses her blond hair. The veneer melts only slightly as she says she wants her future to include movies of all sorts, big popcorn movies, little arty movies, "if they let me." If they let her?

"This moment is not forever," she says. "Everything in this business is evanescent. Whatever you have this week could disappear a year from now."

She thanks the waitress and exits the restaurant on Beverly Boulevard. She tells me to take the escalator to the parking lot, not the street-level entrance. "I don't want you walking there," she says, "there's too much traffic."

Then, after checking both ways, she lopes gracefully across the busy street.

Lynn Smith is a Times staff writer.

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