|She became Hollywood’s most powerful woman|
Few TV dramas have been as highly anticipated as Big Little Lies, which arrives on sky atlantic this week. This glossy, addictive melodrama about motherhood and murder has a starry cast including Nicole Kidman, Zoe Kravitz and Laura Dern, and has been called “deeply satisfying” and “corrosively funny” by US critics.
It also marks the evolution of Reese Witherspoon its leading lady and executive producer, from America’s sweetheart to Hollywood’s most powerful female star, with an estimated net worth of $80m and a reach that goes far beyond her perky screen presence.
Since 2012, when she established production company Pacific Standard, with the aim of seeing “different, dynamic women on film”, Witherspoon has been remaking the cinema landscape, allowing female-led films such as Gone Girl and Wild to thrive in a big-budget environment. Big Little Lies is her first foray into television, as both producer and actor, and came about because the 40-year-old mother of three wanted to examine attitudes to parenting.
“I felt the story [adapted from Australian author Liane Moriarty’s book] was a unique opportunity to have women of every age talking about motherhood,” she said ahead of the show’s launch in the US last month. “Reading the book, I saw myself in different stages of motherhood. I was a mum at 22, like Jane, and a mum who was 40, like Madeline. I’ve been divorced. I’ve been remarried. There were so many aspects of it that were relatable … and it was actually digging deep into the lives of women. It wasn’t about them being good or bad.”
It was also intended as a response to the paucity of well-written roles for women. “For 25 years I have been the only woman on set, with no other women to talk to, and it’s been so refreshing to finally get to spend time with some.
We nurtured each other’s performance. We sent each other articles and said, ‘Did you see this?’ I really feel strongly that this is the greatest ensemble experience I’ve ever had.”
The fact that she went out and created that experience rather than waiting for it to fall into her lap should come as no surprise: Witherspoon has always determined her own path.
Born in New Orleans to a well-to-do family (her father, John, was an ear, nose and throat specialist, her mother Betty a professor of nursing) she made her film debut at 14 in The Man in the Moon, later dropping out of Stanford University when her acting career took off.
In 2015 she admitted to Glamour magazine: “I have this drive from my upbringing to be a doer not just a complainer … my mother would always say, ‘If you want something done, do it yourself’.”
This can-do attitude led to the formation of both Pacific Standard (with Australian producer Bruna Papandrea, who helped produce Big Little Lies before leaving the company in September last year) and digital media company Hello Sunshine, “dedicated to telling female driven stories … across all platforms”,which will begin to share content later this year. “I felt a responsibility to my daughter and all the women in the world to create more opportunities for women,” she told Glamour. “We’re 50% of the population.”
It is a far cry from her early career, which tended to see her hiding behind southern good manners and almost relentlessly upbeat, but there’s the sense that the more outspoken she becomes the more relaxed she feels.
She even managed to laugh off a drunken outburst last year, which saw her yelling “You’re about to find out who I am” at a traffic cop who was breathalysing her husband Jim Toth. “We all make mistakes. The best you can do is say sorry, learn from it and move on.”
She has talked about “feeling lost” following her 2006 best actress Oscar for Walk The Line (a period that coincided with the collapse of her first marriage, to actor Ryan Phillippe) and it did seem that after an effortless ascent to the A-list – she was at that point the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, commanding $20m a film – she became bogged down in substandard romcoms.
While hits such as Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama earned Witherspoon an image as a bubbly girl next door, there has always been a steely edge to her charm, and her best roles are those that hint at a darkness within.
She was a successful if slightly sugary Becky Sharp in Mira Nair’s 2004 take on Vanity Fair, and brought an earthy pragmatism to June Carter Cash in Walk The Line.
Yet it was as high-school overachiever Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne’s caustic 1999 comedy Election that she truly shone, leavening Tracy’s relentless ambition with just enough vulnerability to ensure that she is more force of nature than one-note joke, a fictional sister to the difficult likes of Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren.
She brings a welcome humanity to Big Little Lies’ flawed yet somehow fabulous Madeline Martha McKenzie, thwarted actress turned overbearing stay-at-home mum (“She thought she was going to be Betty Grable but ended up as Betty Crocker,” remarks an unimpressed witness).
She’s the sort of woman who can manufacture a three-act drama out of a minor PTA misdemeanor. Witherspoon’s Madeline is both grotesque and oddly likable, a woman capable of both great generosity and immense childishness, who tends to her grudges “like small pets” yet looks out for those she has taken under her surprisingly capacious wing.
It is a wonderful performance, and one that should cement her reputation as a force to be reckoned with, on camera and off.