Tonight’s 2015 American Cinematheque tribute to Reese Witherspoon wasn’t just about her multi-faceted resume from Election to Wild. For those taking the podium at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza ballroom — many of whom heralded the actress as a sister, mother, boss, champion and crusader — Witherspoon’s near 25-year career has been about breaking ceilings both as an actress and producer. She stands as one of the few women lauded by the Cinematheque, her predecessors being Bette Midler (1987), Jodie Foster (1999), Nicole Kidman (2003) and Julia Roberts (2007).
“It’s important to talk about women in film and women playing leads. It’s a major objective of my company (Pacific Standard),” said the actress before the show, adding during her acceptance speech, “Women make up 50% of the population and we should be playing 50% of the roles on the screen. We need more female surgeons, Supreme Court justices, and soldiers — but on screen. Not just as the girlfriends to famous men.”
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Witherspoon shared the spotlight tonight with DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg who was bestowed by the Cinematheque with the inaugural Sid Grauman Award, an honor which goes to an individual who has made an impact on both the motion picture industry and theatrical exhibition.
Call it coincidence, but there was actually an early connection between Katzenberg and Witherspoon, as the actress regaled tonight: As a teenager, Witherspoon turned down a part on a Disney movie, due to her Southern mother’s insistence that she couldn’t break from school. This prompted Katzenberg to call the Witherspoon homestead. “I don’t think he had any idea who I was. I was just this actress who said ‘No’ to his movie. So he started pitching me….I said to my mother, ‘It’s Jeffrey Katzenberg. He says the movie is gonna be a home run!’ But she responded, ‘I don’t care! You’re not doing it!'”
Speaking to Deadline before the show, Witherspoon spoke about the tribute saying, “I was stunned when they asked me because I haven’t had a lifetime of achievement, I’ve only had a half of a lifetime of achievement.” As she later added, “I went through puberty on film. I don’t feel great about it, but I don’t regret it. It’s preserved forever.”
Election director Alexander Payne during his presentation couldn’t say it better, “We’re talking about the early part of her career…She will at 90 still be at the early part of her career.”
Having come to Hollywood via Nashville, Tennessee, if there was one thing Witherspoon learned early on, it was to be prepared. Very prepared. After accepting her Cinematheque award from her fellow Mud actor Matthew McConaughey, the actress said, “I brought my speech in case my prompter goes out, I’m so nervous.” She shared with the crowd a humble time when she flew to a New York City audition as a teenager. During the plane ride, Witherspoon innocently told the man sitting next to her that she was reading for Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. The guy didn’t do any favors for her, only making the young Witherspoon more anxious about the high stakes situation she was about to walk into. Witherspoon arrived to the audition a complete nervous wreck. The audition couldn’t have been worse with De Niro finishing all of Witherspoon’s lines.
Before the fireworks were shot off for Witherspoon, Steven Spielberg kicked off the night with a video message praising Katzenberg’s tenure, “He’s not just a producer. He’s truly a filmmaker. You look at the films he has his fingerprints on, from Disney’s 2D animation to the Dreamworks Animation company with the The Prince of Egypt as its first title; he started the digital animation revolution even up to when Shrek won the first Oscar in the first-ever animation category.”
During his speech, Katzenberg addressed how many have tried to predict the imminent demise of motion pictures.
“In the ’50s and ’60s it was TV, in the ’70s it was home video, in the ’90s it was the internet and today it’s mobile. These supposed threats don’t do much, but they do just the opposite….with more alternatives I want to emphasize that people always flock to theaters to see motion pictures,” said Katzenberg.
“We don’t applaud at our iPads or phones, we applaud after a good movie. That’s the power of the moviegoing experience. Today we live in an era where we can watch any movie. But in the movie theaters, it’s the movies that own us. This is why we support the American Cinematheque: They make sure movies are enjoyed in great theaters.”
Following Katzenberg, Jennifer Aniston took the mic as the first of several presenters to Witherspoon. The actress guest-starred on Friends, playing Jill Green, the sister to Aniston’s Rachel.
“Reese isn’t just an extraordinary actress, but she knows how to make a first impression. Her heroic origin story as a movie star started at 14. She auditioned for a bit part in a movie, but instead found herself cast in the lead role in The Man in the Moon…Her performance is absolutely extraordinary; already as a teenager, she’s luminous and wise beyond her years. Roger Ebert wrote about the performance, ‘Her kiss is one of the perfect little scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie.'” For Witherspoon, Man in the Moon, was more than just a lead role. It also marked the first time she ever kissed a boy, had her first crying scene, and her first nudity clause.
Kate Hudson was actually at the premiere of The Man in the Moon. She was 11 years old. In fact, Hudson rode in the car to the premiere with her mom’s (Goldie Hawn) best friend, Beverlee Dean who was Witherspoon’s manager at the time.
Recalled Hudson, “I was very intimidated at the premiere: I kind of met my match. I watched this film and was mesmerized. I recognized her depth, her piercing eyes, her sass, confidence and her vulnerability. That performance marked the beginning of a true star. I continued to be in awe when I watched a 15-year old Reese work the after-party like a seasoned politician.”
Hudson joked how she often lives in Witherspoon’s shadow. Not only was Hudson on the third leaflet of the Vanity Fair Young Hollywood cover to Witherspoon’s first page, but “I would often hear that Reese has the offer, but if she passes, it will come to you. That’s been my life!” The Almost Famous actress continued to roast, “Reese is very bossy. She’s trumps everyone. At Reese’s Christmas parties, we sing carols. I’ll suggest, ‘Let’s sing Frosty the Snowman and she’s like ‘No, we’ll sing 12 Days of Christmas and you’re gonna be a maid.”
Taking a serious note, Hudson emphasized, “We have a habit of putting labels on strong women. Reese is determined. She knows what she wants. She doesn’t take ‘No’ for an answer. She’s animated, gutsy, a spitfire. She can inspire a movement. I’ve heard her discuss the power of women in film… (she asks) Why is there a low percentage of female politicians? We share a passion for feminism. She’s self-made and sufficient. She’s a fighter for all women to achieve, including myself. She’s the kind of cheerleader you want. She sends you flowers to remind you that your success is everyone’s success.”
Before Hudson, Payne recalled that after watching clips from Election, former Paramount Studios chief Sherry Lansing enthusiastically responded to Witherspoon’s performance saying, “‘She’s the news! She’s the news'” while David Denby wrote in his New Yorker review that Witherspoon’s performance of Tracy Flick is “‘a combination of Richard and Pat Nixon.'” Payne said that he’s continually approached by people, including President Obama, exclaiming that Election is their favorite title out of his canon. “I reject when people tell me that I put her on the map. She was going to get there without me,” said Payne about his young budding star. The two are currently collaborating on the director’s social satire Downsizing.
T Bone Burnett, who was the executive music producer on Walk the Line, told the crowd about Witherspoon’s determination to get the June Carter signature song “Wildwood Flower” down pat. Burnett recalled Witherspoon paining over the song for three hours until she dashed out of the house in a mad frenzy, slamming doors and letting out a huge scream in the backyard. “She then spun around like Rita Hayworth in Gilda and it was then I thought she would win the Academy Award… She said something like ‘I’m just clearing my throat’,” quipped Burnett who then took Witherspoon back into the studio to record the song. “She channeled June Carter and gave the most authentic reading of that song. We did it in one take and that’s the one in the movie.”
McConaughey was also floored by Witherspoon’s Oscar-winning nuanced turn, and he sought her out at an Oscar after party. For the Oscar-winning actor, Witherspoon’s Carter balanced both feminism and an unconditional love “toward her man in the movie”; facets that “not many actresses would embody” said McConaughey.
Those also lauding Witherspoon tonight included Diane Ladd, Laura Dern, Jennifer Garner, Wild director Jean-Marc Vallee, Witherspoon’s producing partner Bruna Papandrea, Hot Pursuit co-star Sofia Vergara and country star Kenny Chesney.
Last year when McConaughey received his Cinematheque tribute, it occurred at a prime time when his sci-fi epic Interstellar was in the awards conversation. But the Cinematheque honor, though it falls during the onset of the awards season, is never given to a potential contender merely to further boost their prospects.
In the last year, Witherspoon saw one low, her Warner Bros./MGM summer comedy Hot Pursuit ($34.6M). However, that was just a hiccup next to the benchmarks she notched during the 2014-15 awards season. Not only was her production of Gone Girl a huge global success ($368.1M), but the film earned a best actress nod for Rosamund Pike, while Wild, which Witherspoon produced and headlined, earned her a best actress nom and a supporting actress nom as well for Laura Dern. As McConaughey aptly observed about Witherspoon’s track record for riveting roles, “When she wasn’t offered them, she didn’t sit around, she showed up and put her producer’s hat on and found them.”
For Witherspoon tonight, it’s not only about resilience, but it’s also about an industry that has allowed her to take chances and improve the types of roles out there for women.
Said the actress teary-eyed tonight, “I was mentored and guided by studio executives. I had some movies that worked and some that didn’t work. But they always call you on Saturday morning whether the film was good or bad, to tell you that they believe in you. Thank you for always believing in me.”
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