Reese Witherspoon hasn't been seen on screen much lately. That's because not many people saw How Do You Know, and she was only a voice in the animated Monsters vs. Aliens. • Absence isn't necessary to make our hearts grow fonder of Witherspoon, who appears to be the nicest person in Hollywood this side of Sandra Bullock. America can never have enough sweethearts. • Witherspoon's return Friday in the big top romance Water for Elephants is cause to reflect on five movies making us love her in the first place, starting with:
The story: A demented version of Little Red Riding Hood with Witherspoon showing her saucy psycho side as trailer trash Vanessa Lutz. Vanessa is a juvenile delinquent on the lam to Grandma's house when she's picked up by Kiefer Sutherland, playing a serial killer named Bob Wolverton (get it?).
A piece of Reese's mind: "Them's some big ugly (expletive) teeth you got, Bob."
Critical mass: "(Witherspoon) is as focused and tightly wound here as a young Jodie Foster; she plays every scene as if it's absolutely real." — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.
The story: Modern teenage siblings (Witherspoon, Tobey Maguire) are transported through a magic television to the sexually repressed, monochromatic 1950s. This collision of eras and morality is cleverly conveyed, with Pleasantville citizens gradually getting color in their cheeks by loosening up. Witherspoon's promiscuous Jennifer needs to tighten down.
A piece of Reese's mind: "I've had, like, 10 times as much sex as the rest of these girls, and I still look like this. I mean, they spend, like, an hour in the back seat of some car and all of a sudden they're in Technicolor?"
Critical mass: "Ms. Witherspoon turns in a deliciously naughty performance as the '90s renegade who loves shaking up Pleasantville, even if her own generation is also satirized here." — Janet Maslin, New York Times.
The story: High school go-getter Tracy Flick (Witherspoon) is a sociopath under that apple-polishing smile. Nothing will deter her from the class presidency she covets, especially the mild-mannered teacher (Matthew Broderick) counting the ballots. Witherspoon's performance earned the best actress prize from the National Society of Film Critics, her first major award.
A piece of Reese's mind: "You see, you can't interfere with destiny. That's why it's destiny. And if you try to interfere, the same thing's going to happen anyway, and you'll just suffer."
Critical mass: "A hell-for-leather funny incarnation of snappy drive that finally releases Witherspoon from the remuda of her pony-actress peers." — Wesley Morris, San Francisco Chronicle.
Legally Blonde (2001)
The story: Elle Woods (Witherspoon) is an incredibly perky So-Cal sorority queen who crumples like taffeta when her boyfriend leaves for Harvard Law School. Elle decides to enroll in Harvard — how hard can it be? — with her Pepto-pink wardrobe and chic chihuahua in tow. She's a sunny cousin to Election's Tracy Flick, in a lollypop hit entirely succeeding on Witherspoon's spunk.
A piece of Reese's mind: "I once had to judge a tighty-whitey contest for Lambda Kappa Pi. Trust me, I can handle anything."
Critical mass: "She may be follically blond, but as an actor of distinction who's all of 25, Reese Witherspoon reveals interesting dark roots even as she plays golden girls." — Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly.
Walk the Line (2005)
The story: The moth-and-flame romance of country music legends Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter (Witherspoon). Each actor did his or her own singing, and in Witherspoon's case that was a good idea. She also nailed June's stubborn support through Johnny's doubts and drug addiction. No one was surprised when Witherspoon accepted the best actress Academy Award.
A piece of Reese's mind: "All right, well, quit that clutchin' on me now and I'll sing with you, but you gotta quit clutchin' on me."
Critical mass: "The girlishness is an act. As the movie goes on her character deepens. Witherspoon, who's almost 30, can seem hopelessly jubilant in movies. And some might find her less convincing as Carter, who was quite womanly. . . . Still, the image of the actress alone on a stage, strumming an autoharp and singing Wildwood Flower is one that belongs in a locket." — Wesley Morris, Boston Globe
(Read Steve Persall's review of Water for Elephants on Friday at tampabay.com/features and on Etc, Page 2B.)
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.