Reese Witherspoon's Performance in Little Fires Everywhere Feels Familiar, Because She's Been Perfecting It for 20 Years
After nearly three decades in Hollywood, and a gamut of performances that have earned her an Oscar, Emmy, BATFA, Golden Globe, and a SAG Award, Reese Witherspoon has established herself as one of America’s greatest working actresses. If Election didn’t secure your membership to the Reese Witherspoon fan club, maybe Legally Blonde did, or Walk the Line, or Wild, or Big Little Lies … Girl’s got IMDb credits — count ‘em.
Witherspoon’s range is undeniable — you can’t watch her go from showing the salon-visiting masses how to properly “bend and snap” to flinging her hiking boot off a cliff and disagree. But that said, there is one particular kind of character that she returns to over and over again: The outspoken type-A busybody you kind of love, but also kind of hate (and maybe kind of are?). Her latest role, as Elena Richardson in Hulu’s serial adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere, is the most recent example of Witherspoon playing the role she plays best.
Richardson is a journalist and suburban mother of four — the kind of woman who lives by a color-coded calendar, who throws a fit over adjustments to the dress code for a family Christmas photo, who vows only to have sex with her husband on Wednesdays and Saturdays (12:02 am on a Thursday will not do!). Though the series attempts to give Elena greater depth by peppering later episodes with flashbacks from her youth, she remains the kind of character you know upon the very first introduction. She means well, but the imagined confines of the by-the-book life she’s created for herself are too rigid for her to see her own short-sightedness.
As the bulk of LFE takes place in ‘97, Richardson’s children are immersed in the late ‘90s culture — one that Witherspoon herself was once synonymous with. While the Richardson kids gather to watch the Real World and draw style tips from Drew Barrymore, Witherspoon’s brand of ‘90s good girl is just two years away from hitting its mainstream stride. In 1999, Witherspoon would play the type of role that would make her the known actress she is today. With her turn in Election, Witherspoon embodied what is, in essence, a prototype for Richardson, or Big Little Lies’ Madeline [Martha] Mackenzie, and even, to a lesser extent, Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods.
Her Election character, Tracy Flick, is the definition of the stereotypical “good girl” whose own agenda compromises her morals and objectivity — her ideas of right and wrong morph to accommodate her own goals: In this case, the student body presidency. She’s willing to tear down opponents’ posters — but hers was ripped, so doesn’t it simply level the playing field? Like Elena, Tracy isn’t a bad person, but her self-focused tunnel vision (and the dedication to a carefully laid plan) feel déjà vu-like taken alongside LFE.
BLL’s Madeline is a less outwardly bubbly Elena and a more verbally aggressive Tracy, but she falls on their spectrum of women-with-a-color-coded-plan nonetheless. When Madeline’s daughter, Abigail (Kathryn Newton) tells her she feels “pressure to be perfect,” I can imagine Elena’s youngest daughter, Izzy (Megan Stott), saying the same words to her own mother. The Witherspoon women love hard, but sometimes end up transferring their own insecurities to their offspring. Madeline’s perhaps the most ethical of the bunch, but she’s not a member of the “Monterey Five” for nothing.
And Elle Woods? She hustled her ass into Harvard Law (FOR. A. MAN.) Yes, she ended up finding her passion, but that single-minded fixation is a Tracy/Elena/Madeline trait if I ever saw one.
There are nuances, sure, but most of the shades in Witherspoon’s oeuvre exist within this spectrum.
One could take Witherspoon to task for continuing to accept roles she knows how to play, but the fact is she plays this particular archetype better than anyone else could. So many of her roles could be described as “quintessential Reese Witherspoon” — and part of this is of course that she’s taken on so many similar characters, but perhaps it also hinges on who we imagine Witherspoon to be in real life.
We have the sunny Southern Draper James founder, the mother of three, the super-producer, the avid reader and face of her own book club, the respected actress. All of these things might require a personality akin to someone like Madeline or Elena or Tracy. I’m not saying Witherspoon plays herself, but her accomplishments are nothing if not on-brand.
“Quintessential Reese Witherspoon” is a lot of things (organized, abrasive, single-minded, well-meaning), but you’ve got to admit, you can’t stop watching.