Steel Behind The Smile

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Reese Witherspoon's parents have more degrees than a thermometer. Dad is a surgeon; Mom has a Ph.D. in pediatric nursing. They are under the impression, Witherspoon says, that someday she will return to Stanford, which she left after a year, to get her B.A.

Now that the success of Legally Blonde has finally certified her as a bankable movie star, returning to Stanford seems a remote possibility. And yet Witherspoon is keeping quiet on the subject. "I haven't broken it to them," she says. "They still think I'm going to finish."

Or maybe, like a lot of smart people, her folks saw the handwriting on the Cineplex screen some time ago. In the past decade (beginning when, at 14, she applied for an extra's job and ended up in the central role in The Man in the Moon, which was shooting near her native Nashville), she has made 17 feature films and had a recurring role on Friends. She even has an acting prize, from the National Society of Film Critics, for her work as a high school girl who will do anything to be student-body president in the delicious comedy Election.

The problem for Witherspoon, 25--a tiny thing (5 ft. 2 in.) who is as pretty as a glossy picture--has been her lack of mainstream exposure and perhaps an admirable reluctance to appear easily lovable. These are both matters that her new movie cagily addresses. It is a sweet, smiley-face comedy in which she plays a fashion-forward airhead pursuing a lunky hunk who has unaccountably rejected her. She follows him to Harvard Law School, where she discovers not only her long-buried IQ but also her inner feminism. It is really fun to see her (and her Chihuahua) unhinge Cambridge's assorted snots and snobs.

Unlike most of Witherspoon's best work, Blonde was released by a studio that felt like spending more than $1.98 to promote it and came in a summer when audiences were desperate for a laugh. It could gross $60 million--a solid hit for an inexpensive film. Not that she cares very much about such matters. She seems really to mean it when she says she loves "doing small independent films, where you think, 'That's such an original voice.' I would never give up those opportunities. I don't care how much money people throw at me."

One suspects she will not for long surrender to the kind of simple adorability she demonstrates in Blonde. Her essence is tougher, maybe more driven. Her mother used to call her "my little Type A personality," a phrase Witherspoon borrowed to name her production company. She's a notorious spur to her films' writers; she helped turn Blonde into something resembling the female-empowerment comedy Private Benjamin. That intensity carries over to the set. Says Blonde co-producer Marc Platt: "Whether it was Take 2 or Take 7, she'd be focused as if there was no one else on the set--mouthing the words, in character, to make sure she had it just the way she wanted it. She had to consume the character."

Witherspoon, who is married to the illegally cute actor Ryan Philippe (her co-star in 1999's Cruel Intentions) and has a two-year-old daughter, says her secret ambition is to be an anthropologist. She says she did some fieldwork along those lines by hanging out with U.S.C. sorority girls to prepare for this role. But she knows more about young American bitchiness than she's telling--or showing--in Blonde. Sometimes, as in Election or the brilliant Pleasantville, in which she was a modern teen time-warped back to the bland, sitcom '50s, her wide-set blue eyes turn cold with contempt for square adulthood. Or squinch up in shrewd calculation of how to use (or abuse) the cluelessness of grownups.

She has the wit to keep the hard-edged observations in her performances distanced by satire. But a sharp viewer can find them. Even in Legally Blonde, which spins her screen character so genially, a slight chill invades the watcher--all that shrewdness, all that drive devoted to winning not particularly well-considered gains.

The actress's goals are more carefully considered. She has finished a new film version of The Importance of Being Earnest in which she plays Cecily Cardew, whose romantic cleverness is of a variety more purring than Witherspoon has yet played. Also looming is an action picture based on the old Honey West private-eye books.

In the meantime, she's considering improving her L.A. digs. "There's this whole fallacy that because you're in the movies, you make a load of money," Witherspoon says. "You really don't." Maybe not yet. But after Blonde opened big, she said to her husband, "Ryan, this might be it. We might finally get air-conditioning." And, one imagines, a whole lot more.