Reese Witherspoon celebrates her 40th birthday today, and in homage to one of our favourite actresses and supporters of women, we celebrate the mother of three’s achievements to date.
After appearing as Elle Woods in the movie that brought her worldwide fame, it would have been easy to comfortably categorise Reese Witherspoon as the new queen of rom com. But just as deftly as Woods shed the stereotype of the perky, fashion-obsessed Beverly Hills beauty in Legally Blonde, Witherspoon has catapulted herself far beyond the generic comedic actress many thought she would become.
As she turns 40, Witherspoon is a multiple-award-winning actress (including an Academy Award for her role as June Carter Cash in
Walk the Line in 2006); owns her own production company, which currently boasts 30 projects in development; and last year launched
a homewares and clothing line named after her grandparents, Draper James. All the while raising her 16-year-old daughter, Ava, and twelve-year-old son, Deacon, from her first marriage to actor Ryan Phillippe, and her three-year-old son, Tennessee, with husband
Witherspoon credits Toth with encouraging her to move beyond acting into producing. “He told me, ‘You should produce movies.
You read more books than anybody I know.’” Witherspoon and producing partner Bruna Papandrea’s first project together was the blockbuster Gone Girl, followed by the equally successful Wild, which credited, and challenged, Witherspoon with the dual-title of
co-producer and actress. “I had a wonderful producing partner who did a lot of the heavy lifting in pre-production and actual production, so I could focus on just being an actor. But the script development – getting the book from galleys to script – is what I’ve been doing for years, but I just never got the producer title for it … I was doing it under my own banner and outside of the studio system.”
Witherspoon’s decision to move into producing was about more than simply pushing her own creative boundaries, however. She wanted to make movies for, about, and starring women. The actress recently told Harper’s Bazaar US that she wanted “to get a female perspective on film that would make my daughter understand what it means to be a woman in a different way.” According to Witherspoon, working outside the constraints of a studio system can be vital to creating an authentic retelling of a story. “I’ve had experiences where studios were very reluctant to have me use profanity in movies, drugs or any story of graphic sexuality. In the case of Wild, for instance, I didn’t want to dampen the emotional power of the author’s honesty.”
The daughter of two doctors, Witherspoon quit her pre-med studies at Stanford to star alongside Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon and James Garner in 1998’s Twilight. “It was a no-brainer to me,” she smiles. “That movie led to so many offers that pretty
soon I was too busy having a career to return to school.” If it all seems to have fallen into place a little too easily for the 39-year-old, it might surprise you to know that Witherspoon has often spoken about feeling scared throughout her twenties – scared of her career, of
her success. And it seems a little bit of that trepidation still remains. “It’s scary to be a producer out there; I’d never done that before.
I didn’t know if people were going to be like, ‘We don’t want to hear what you have to say’, but people were interested in my perspective, and I feel really happy about that.”
Despite the challenges involved, Witherspoon says she’s excited to be tackling issues surrounding women in film. Hollywood is still considered a man’s world, although according to Witherspoon in an interview with Entertainment Weekly in the US earlier this month, “It’s not about the amount of women we need in movies, it’s about the depth of character.” Quality, not quantity, in other words. “[Women] have real lives that have nothing to do with romantic entanglements or dilemmas,” she adds.
This drive to create broader, more thoughtful roles for women, to offer actresses roles with more substance than merely the male protagonist’s love interest has been buttressed somewhat by the advent of social media. Whereas once, an actress’s love life (whether
real or imagined) was daily tabloid fodder, supporting those archaic notions that women are only of interest when romantically involved, today these women can correct misleading stories instantly, and engage directly with their fans. “I feel much less vulnerable than I used to,” Witherspoon told Entertainment Weekly. “There were so many tabloids saying all kinds of wrong things, and I feel like it’s almost
all but gone.”
If Witherspoon has been America’s sweetheart for the past 25 years, it looks like she’ll be a significant force for change in the next 25. Reese really does make 40 look fabulous.