In case you missed it, Reese Witherspoon and her husband Jim Toth were arrested on Friday April 19. This is one of the biggest, juiciest gossip stories to happen in a long time. According to police reports, as Toth was being arrested for a DUI, Witherspoon got out of the car and said to the police officer: “Do you know my name?” When the officer said that did not matter, Witherspoon responded: “You’re about to find out who I am.”
Oh my Reese. That is not how one of America’s sweethearts behaves.
Until this week, the most eventful (re: scandalous) thing about Witherspoon’s personal life was her divorce. Except that has hardly been scandalous. Compared to other former Hollywood couples, she and ex-husband Ryan Phillippe make co-parenting look easy. But now thanks to her arrest, any casual observer of celebrity culture will say that Witherspoon revealed her true colors. She is just another Hollywood A-lister who thinks she can get a free pass because of her name.
But is Reese Witherspoon really that entitled?
Since winning an Oscar in 2005, Witherspoon has starred in very few, mostly unsuccessful movies. She got saddled into unexciting projects like How Do You Know?, Water for Elephants, and This Means War. (MTV called these three movies her “Love Triangle Period,” though I don’t know how starring in three movies in just three years indicates a period.) She has a few projects in the works, including the recently released Mud and the upcoming Atom Ggoyan film Devil’s Knot. Futhermore, although Witherspoon earned $9 million in 2012, she doesn’t rank on any Forbes highest paid actor list. (In other words, Reese Witherspoon is probably not a big box office draw.)
With a less than overwhelmingly productive acting career, Witherspoon maintains a high profile elsewhere. First, she is producing the much-hyped screen adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. But more than any acting or producing role, it is her family and the occasional good gossip story, like letting a heartbroken Robert Pattinson stay in her home or vacationing with her equally A-list friends, that keeps Witherspoon in the media. Witherspoon and her children receive almost constant media attention. I know more about her son’s Deacon’s extracrricual sport activities than I care to admit.
All of this – the successful career, happy kids, high profile friendships – contributes to Witherspoon’s image as an American sweetheart who balances it all. Her career depends significantly on her being viewed as a “good girl”. This is why she can afford to appear in fewer movies; she doesn’t have to worry about being phased out. Reese is also someone who can share her advice to other actresses. Remember the speech she made at the MTV Movie Awards when she received a Lifetime Achievement Award? Reese presented her life and actions as an example to young actresses in Hollywood saying:
“I get it, girls, that it’s cool to be a bad girl. But it is possible to make it in Hollywood without doing a reality show. When I came up in the business, if you made a sex tape, you were embarrassed and you hid it under your bed. And if you took naked pictures of yourself on your cellphone, you hide your face, people! Hide your face!”
In other words, young Hollywood starlets, behave yourself and good things will happen. You’ll end up like Reese Witherspoon. You’ll successfully transition from a child star to a leading lady. The one day you will win an Oscar and show everyone how you balance your happy home life with a successful career. You won’t, at age 37, get arrested for hanging out a car window and yelling at a police officer. That is now how successful Hollywood women who have it all act.
Except that is exactly what Reese Witherspoon did. So now one question remains: How much will Witherspoon’s career and image as a good girl be affected by this incident?
The stakes for an actress after a scandal are much higher than they are for an actor. The public can be relentless in their scrutiny against any actress who makes one mistake. Just ask Gwyneth Paltrow or Anne Hathaway or Kristen Stewart.
I don’t think Witherspoon has much to worry about. Within two days of the incident, she issued an apology. Because she didn’t drive drunk, she has some leeway. While no apology will be enough to save her from the wrath of the public (the internet), she does not risk losing work. She’s not Kristen Stewart; she is not the star of a film franchise that depends on her maintaining a certain public image. As I mentioned, her upcoming projects are exciting and different enough from the crap films she recently appeared in. Good work can easily return her to the public’s good graces.
Most of all, do not discount the power of a good photo op with her children. On Thursday, this was one of the top headlines on People.com.
Already Reese’s children are being used as a pawns in the Hollywood gossip game. (Sorry kids.)
In her apology, Witherspoon casually reminded the public that above all else she is a dedicated mother. Now you should expect some candid family paparazzi photos very soon and maybe Reese will participate in a “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” PSA! Then Reese will get back to work and hit a few red carpets. (Lainey Gossip predicts she’ll get pregnant again soon.)
Ultimately, Reese Witherspoon will come out on top and this will hardly be a remembered as a real scandal. Because in the long run it is better to have always been a well-liked celebrity than to have ever been a widely hated one. (Right, Gwyneth?)