She leads with her chin

Special to The Times

She's known for her eyes, the way they set ablaze with gleeful frenzy. And that broad smile. Most likely, though, the most direct route to a unified theory of Reese Witherspoon is through her chin. A sharp diamond jutting off the edge of her face, the actress has a way of turning this unusual feature into her uniquely personal calling card.

The season of awards trolling is just hitting its stride, and there will be many, many actor tribute events around town during the coming months. Nonetheless, Friday night's program at the American Cinematheque, featuring a screening of "Election" and the recent "Vanity Fair" with a scheduled appearance by Witherspoon, might seem a little odd -- she is, after all, only 28 -- were it not for the fact that she is already a seasoned veteran with more than 20 films to her credit.

Having begun her career with modeling, television commercials and talent shows at a young age, she landed her first significant movie role at age 15 in "Man on the Moon." She first came to the attention of many filmgoers with her wicked turn as a down-market Little Red Riding Hood in gonzo director Matthew Bright's 1996 film "Freeway." In quick succession she entered online screen-grab immortality in "Twilight" while turning in notable roles in "Pleasantville" and "Cruel Intentions."

But it was her over-the-top turn as Tracy Enid Flick, the overachiever's overachiever, in the 1999 high school film "Election" that really set the spark to her career. Witherspoon was able to bring such a flurry of determination and energy to the part that one couldn't help but cheer on the girl you nevertheless would have hated to sit next to in homeroom.

"One of the things that distinguishes her from other performers," American Cinematheque programmer Dennis Bartok said, "is that a lot of actors seem to be very concerned with the likeability factor, they seem to be trying so hard to convince you that they are likeable, the character is likeable, they're never going to say or do anything that's really that bad. And with Reese Witherspoon you just get the sense her characters might actually say something harsh or mean or that she just blurted out. She walks that fine line between having the audience rooting for her and saying, 'Hey, you just did something really outrageous.' "

"I think that's one of the things audiences really connect with," Bartok said. "She doesn't water it down. The characters that she plays, she pushes them to amazing extremes. She's sort of just fearless. Like in 'Election,' she gives this performance with her jaw stuck out, kind of this intense glare, and as the movie goes on she gets more and more furious. It's an amazing comic performance, and it's also really true to character."

Subsequently, she has gone on to box-office success with the two "Legally Blonde" pictures, as well as "Sweet Home Alabama," while still making time for roles such as the period piece "Vanity Fair." Playing Becky Sharp in director Mira Nair's adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's classic novel, her character serves as a prototype for portrayals of smart, ambitious modern young women.

It is a perfect fit for Witherspoon, who was pregnant during the shoot.

At the end of the day, though, all explanations of all things Witherspoon come back to that chin.

"The great thing is she doesn't try to hide it," Bartok said. "She makes it work for her, especially when she gets that sort of grim, determined look on her face and clenches her jaw. And you just know she's dug in, almost a sort of pit bull look. There's a toughness as well as a vulnerability that makes her a really fascinating on-screen presence."

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Film resume

Modeling at 7, acting at 12 ... and by 28, Reese Witherspoon already has a nearly retrospective-worthy career.

The Man in the Moon (1991)

A Far Off Place (1993)

Jack the Bear (1993)

S.F.W. (1994)

Fear (1996)

Freeway (1996)

Twilight (1998)

Overnight Delivery (1998)

Pleasantville (1998)

Cruel Intentions (1999)

Election (1999)

Best Laid Plans (1999)

American Psycho (2000)

Little Nicky (2000)

The Trumpet of the Swan (2001)

Legally Blonde (2001)

The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)

Sweet Home Alabama (2002)

Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde (2003)

Vanity Fair (2004)

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American Cinematheque

Where: The Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, "Election," followed by "Vanity Fair." A Q&A; with Reese Witherspoon is also scheduled.

Price: $9 for general admission; $6 for Cinematheque members; $8 for students and senior citizens

Info: (323) 466-FILM, www.egyptiantheatre.com

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