by David Raether
Go ahead, guess. Who is the world’s richest actress?
You might assume it’s somebody like Julia Roberts, Meryl Streepor Sandra Bullockright?
Nope. The world’s richest actress, according to Forbes Magazine, is Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon. Forbes estimates her net worth at $ 400 million. I certainly didn’t see that coming. And, of course, her personal wealth isn’t really a measure of how good an actress she is. (Well, it sorta is, but there are a lot of great actresses who aren’t worth $ 400 million.) How did she do it?
First of all, Witherspoon is exceptionally good at picking projects. There are almost no bad movies in her filmography. Well, there is Jack the Bear (1993), but she has a minor role in it and I can’t really blame her for this really bad movie.
Secondly, as Forbes said, she bets on herself, which is probably the most important thing about her career. In 2012, frustrated with the types of projects she and other actresses were being offered, she formed her own production company, Pacific Standard, with the mission to produce films and television projects telling stories by and about women.
This wasn’t simply some kind of sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves exercise in feminism. It’s smart business sense. Women make up the majority of moviegoers, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, and are far more frequent users of streaming services, according to data from Statista.
And yet, only roughly a third of movies have female leads.
Hmmm… That’s what they’d call business business a market inefficiency and one ripe for exploitation.
Witherspoon was on to something. She folded Pacific Standard into a new production company, Hello Sunshine, in 2016. Based on the same mission as Pacific Standard, the company produced Big Little Lies (2017-19), The Morning Show (2019-2022), and Little Fires Everywhere (2020). The success of these projects, along with a number of other projects the company has in the pipeline, led the investment banking firm Blackstone Group to value Hello Sunshine at $ 900 million when a firm it backed bought the company. Witherspoon’s 40% share was reduced to 18% and she received a nice check for $ 120 million with the sale.
Witherspoon also started a book club, Reese’s Book Club, which has an uncanny record for picking bestsellers. Of the 50 books the club has featured, 42 have gone on to become New York Times bestsellers.
I don’t know about you, but isn’t the whole topic of how rich a person is ultimately boring? I mean, to a large extent, who cares? Anyone who can go from zero to four hundred million, hey, hats off to her. She has parlayed her success into more success outside her original realm of acting.
What really interests me about Reese Witherspoon is Reese as an actress. She’s a good actress, charming onscreen — lively, intense, quick to laugh, fiery when needed, but mainly charming. You can go a long way in life just by being charming. Trust me, I know. I’m proof of the opposite; I’ve gone a short way in life by being generally uncharming.
Where does this charming nature come from? What comes through in her performances is her Southern-ness. She is proud of her Southern heritage. In an interview with USA Today at the time of the release of Sweet Home Alabama (2002), she said this about her Southern upbringing: “[It] has been real beneficial to me in this industry: being conscientious about people’s feelings, being polite, being responsible and never taking for granted what you have in your life. “
Witherspoon was born in New Orleans on March 22, 1976. Her father is a doctor, her mother is a Ph.D. in pediatric nursing. She grew up in Nashville, where she became interested in acting as a girl. She went to an open casting call for the film The Man in the Moon (1991) for a minor role but was so impressive that she was cast instead for a second lead. She was just 14 years old.
She appeared in four more films before going off to Stanford University to be an English major. Stanford didn’t stick, however, and she left school before her junior year.
In the next several years, Witherspoon moved into leading roles, consistently turning into outstanding performances. I recommend checking out the adventure movie A Far Off Place (1993), the dark comedy Freeway (1996), or the psychological thriller Fear (1996). These movies demonstrate her range as an actress. (Hint: she can do just about anything.)
For me, her big breakthrough performance as an actress was in 1999’s Election, a dark comedy from Alexander Payne about a student election at a high school in Omaha.
The same year Election came out was the year she married actor Ryan Phillipe. The couple had two children together, but the marriage ended in divorce in 2008. Three years later, Witherspoon married again, this time to Jim Toth, a big fancy agent at Creative Artists Agency, a big fancy Hollywood agency. They have a child together.
In 2001, Witherspoon made the movie that brought her worldwide attention: Legally Blonde. This surprisingly sharp-witted comedy was a global smash and made more than $ 300 million worldwide. (Oops, I’m talking about money again. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to her performances.)
She followed that up with standout performances in the romantic comedy Sweet Home Alabama (2002), the costume drama Vanity Fair (2004), and the Johnny Cash/ June Carter Cash biopic Walk the Line (2005).
Things sort of dipped from there. In the years immediately following her divorce from Phillipe, she appeared in a series of romantic comedies that aren’t particularly notable. By 2012, she was frustrated with the roles women were being offered and founded Pacific Standard. By 2015, she had moved into television and streaming services. Streaming offers actors, writers, and directors more freedom — albeit smaller budgets — to do more interesting storytelling. Streaming services also tend to function with less bureaucracy, so there are fewer executives to fight your way through to do what you want. Plus, because their need for more content is so relentless, the amount of time they have to argue with actors, writers, and directors is significantly reduced.
For me, her most important work as an actress has occurred in her streaming television projects in the past several years. In 2016, she focused on the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies. Her performance here was widely lauded, with the Washington Post comparing it to her work in Election and Legally Blonde.
In 2019, she produced and starred (along with Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell) in Apple TV’s The Morning Show. And the following year she produced and starred in another brilliant mini-series, Little Fires Everywhere (2020).
Over the course of her thirty-year career, Witherspoon has proven herself to be adept at acting in any number of genres (comedy, drama, thrillers, etc.). She’s also proven to be an uncanny judge of good material. What can I say? She picks good projects and then throws herself into them as if she owns them… which, in many cases, she does partially.
Here are five of my favorite Reese Witherspoon movies.