Since the year has begun, Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, has announced a slew of upcoming projects. On top of the second season of HBO’s Big Little Lies, there’s a Hulu limited series adaptation of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere with Kerry Washington attached to star alongside Witherspoon; An Apple series order for an adaptation of crime thriller Are You Sleeping, starring Octavia Spencer; and a film based on the true story of a black woman who passed as white to attend Vassar College, which will feature Zendaya in the lead. Witherspoon has also optioned a series of novels, all written by women, which are in various stages of development. On top of that, she’s set to star in another drama she’s producing for TV, a story set in the world of morning talk shows.
In short, she’s keeping busy, but she’s also doing a lot of heavy lifting for women in the film and TV industry. Those three major deals are all based on books by women and are centred on black women. The second season of Big Little Lies will be directed by celebrated auteur Andrea Arnold. The male showrunner of the currently unnamed Apple series was replaced by a woman. Time and time again, we hear the justifications for the lack of gender parity in entertainment - there aren’t the stories out there, the writers and directors just aren’t ready, nobody wants to see women’s stories - and Witherspoon disproves them all with a sweet smile and an undeniably ambitious approach.
It’s time to announce my May book pick for @reesesbookclubxhellosunshine. This month, we’re reading ‘You Think It, I’ll Say It’ by #CurtisSittenfeld… it’s her first book of short stories! I really loved all the characters in this book. They’re so complex and interesting, and in every story, you’ll find them going through these pivotal moments in their lives. Oh, and my company @hellosunshine is developing a TV series based on this collection of short stories. Can’t wait to hear what you think! (👚: @draperjames)
Make no mistake, what Witherspoon is doing with her production company is a very big deal. She’s putting in the work, fighting to get exclusive options to top-notch material, focusing her attention specifically on women, and frequently putting her own money behind it all.
This arm of her growing empire works in conjunction with the entire reinvention of Reese Witherspoon. The Oscar-winning actress who made her name as the Southern embodiment of America’s sweetheart has not so much evolved from that image as refined it to its most appealing and profitable version. Simultaneously, she is the ravenously ambitious producer and actress seeking to level the playing field, and the sassy belle with the enviable lifestyle you too can aspire to possess. Both have made her very powerful, very rich and one of the industry’s most interesting figures.
After winning her Best Actress Oscar in 2006 for playing June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, Witherspoon had everything ahead of her. She’d turned in stellar dramatic performances before, but this was the crowning achievement that married her serious acting skills with the sweetheart image she’d been defined by for most of the prior 10 years. She was Elle Woods, after all, but she’d also defined that image through films like Sweet Home Alabama and, to a lesser extent, Cruel Intentions.
For someone so frequently labelled a rom-com queen, Witherspoon hasn’t done all that many rom-coms. Most of those titles came after her Oscar win, peppered in-between more serious efforts like Rendition and Water for Elephants. If we’re being honest, most of these films weren’t very good. Four Christmases is abysmal, This Means War made everyone involved seem utterly charmless, and Devil’s Knot, a dramatization of the West Memphis Three case, fizzled under the weight of its lofty intentions. As has happened to many a Best Actress winner, talk of the ‘Oscar curse’ began, and it seemed that Witherspoon could not escape the cutesy tropes she’d been boxed into.
That changed when she read the script that started it all. Witherspoon has told this story numerous times as the catalyst for her move into producing. She received a script for an upcoming project that was so awful that she felt insulted by the idea of working on it. After telling her agent that it was the worst script she ever read, her agent informed her that various major actresses, including fellow Oscar winners, were fighting to get the token girlfriend role. Many have theorized as to what film this train-wreck of a script was made into. The best guesses seem to be The Dilemma, starring Jennifer Connelly, or A Million Wars to Die in the West, where the token woman role was played by Charlize Theron. Whatever the case, it spurred Witherspoon on to revive her production company and start buying the rights to books for adaptation purposes.
2014 saw the fruits of her labour in two very different ways. Witherspoon produced and starred in Wild, based on the memoir and Oprah Book Club inductee by Cheryl Strayed, but she also produced the adaptation of Gone Girl. The former was a step in the right direction for her: A beautifully composed drama centred on a woman’s messy struggles and the complicated relationship with her mother. It allowed Reese to get physical, to get rough around the edges, and to be unlikeable. Witherspoon had also previously talked about how frequently she heard from producers and studio heads about what the public wanted from her, and it was always ‘likeable’. Don’t curse, don’t be mean, don’t ever stray away from universally delighting the paying customers. Wild is as close as a rejection to that limiting image as anything else she’s done in her career, and it paid off handsomely with an Oscar nomination.
Yet the true power of her new producer clout may be Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn’s page-turner was a massive hit and brief cultural touchstone, and everyone in Hollywood wanted the rights to it. Every actress wanted to play Amy Dunne too, and Reese was no exception. Yet she didn’t take the role, in part because director David Fincher said she wasn’t right for it. It would have been easy for her to take the option and run elsewhere, to a director who would let her play Amy, but she didn’t. Instead, she agreed with Fincher, and supported the chosen actress, Rosamund Pike, every step of the way. She had her moment in the spotlight, then gave it to someone else.
Big Little Lies may be the most potent exemplification of Witherspoon’s newfound power and her specific aims for it. Take a major best-selling novel by a beloved woman writer, cast one of the biggest actresses in the world, as well as a beloved critical icon and two rising stars, and make it into a major television event on one of the medium’s most prestigious networks. Despite its hefty subject matter and indie filmmaking sensibilities, many male critics were quick to dismiss the show as an elevated soap opera. It seemed inevitable that any show about women’s problems that featured something as dark as murder at its heart must be a frivolous affair. It didn’t take long for those critics to eat crow, and Big Little Lies was a tour de force that won every award that passed its way. Witherspoon got an Emmy nomination for her performance - and it’s another notch in her belt of abrasive, tough to like women - but everyone knew the lion’s share of critical love would go to fellow producer Nicole Kidman. Once again, Witherspoon was only too happy to step aside for such things. It helped that she was already taking home so much silverware as a producer. The fact that the show is getting a second season is testament to both Witherspoon’s drive and her awareness of what audiences want. That she managed to land both Meryl Streep and an Oscar winning director for the job is merely the cherry on top of the cake.
Where Witherspoon succeeds as a producer over, say, Megan Ellison or Jason Blum, is in how she markets herself as part of that synergistic relationship. It’s not just that she’s optioning books for films: She’s sharing her book choices with her fans in an online book club and using her seal of approval to get people excited for the projects she will then create from them. All of the books she picks are written by women, and she is careful to never just pick books by white women. Like Oprah, her book club has a breezy feel to it, like hanging out with your galpals and drinking margaritas, but the books themselves are seldom light reading. Similarly like Oprah’s book club, the publishing industry has seen major results whenever Reese makes a recommendation. Witherspoon has created a community, or at the very least a convincing illusion of one, and women have flocked to it. The website Hello Sunshine, which hosts the book club, also acts as a Hello Giggles-style website dedicated to women’s issues and storytelling. Witherspoon is savvy enough to know that you can’t just have one thing or be one person.
Which is how we get to Draper James. I’ve talked about Witherspoon’s gingham-heavy Southern belle lifestyle brand before, but it remains a topic of fascination to me. Ostensibly a clothing and homeware line, Draper James packages the nice parts of Southern hospitality and sells them on as gently aspirational, with Reese as its greatest cover model. Where Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop thrives on its inherent inaccessibility, Draper James appeals to all, or that’s the theory. They’ve diversified their models, and done deals with businesses like Crate & Barrel, but some of their products remain eye-watering in their cost: $58 for cocktail napkins! Yet her products consistently sell out at these prices.
One of the reasons I’m so intrigued by Draper James is that it seems almost contradictory to everything else Witherspoon is creating as both a public figure and businesswoman. Draper James is hyper femininity - collars ironed just so, skirts billowing in the breeze but never blowing too far up, wearing gloves while you drive, making sure every accessory on yourself and your home matches, cooking 6 courses for your guest and refusing to hand over the drinks unless they are politely asked for. Witherspoon’s inspiration for Draper James was her grandmother Dorothea, a woman she describes as having ‘an incredible sense of style and knew how to make the most of any outfit by wearing the perfect accessories. Her shoes always matched her purse and she never removed her pearls or her wedding ring.’ She credits her grandparents with teaching her ‘everything I know about gracious Southern living. From them I learned to dress and act like a lady, to take pride in my home, to reach out to help a neighbor, and to always invite everyone in for a visit.’ It’s beauty and tradition and seems like a foot firmly in the past, especially when compared to her decidedly forward-thinking approach to her work in film.
It’s in this apparent contradiction where Witherspoon’s real genius lies. With each project and branding exercise, she makes herself more appealing to a new demographic. The women she grew up with will never fear that she’s gone ‘full Hollywood’, while her contemporaries in the business have her in their corner for getting the dirty work of movie making done. What seems so oppositional to many is simply a multi-faceted business plan for Witherspoon and her star image: She’ll cut you down to get shit done but she’ll be ever so polite about it.
Last week, New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott wrote a piece with ideas for how the film industry could improve. One suggestion was that Witherspoon and director Ava DuVernay band together to run a movie or TV studio. Given the way both women are helping to redefine film and what stories are told, it doesn’t seem all that unfeasible to have them running one of the big five. That may be a bit too much for Witherspoon. Sure, she could do wonders with that, but then there’d be less time for acting, less time for Draper James, and less time for her all-encompassing brand, which she’s turned into something truly formidable. Whatever the case, it would certainly be foolish to bet against Reese Witherspoon in the coming years, and where she goes, others will follow.
Elle Woods would have been proud.
(Header photograph from Getty Images)