Art & Culture

Dear Reese Witherspoon,

Although it may be sexist to suggest that you are as fluffy and unthreatening as Meg Ryan, I will only say in my defence that most of your films require us to believe that men find you irresistible. But you're not.

Don't get me wrong. I'm lost in admiration for what you have achieved in a career that has already lasted for more than 20 years. Given that you are small, skinny, and have a prominent chin, your success as a sex symbol, Oscar winner and frothy blonde is nothing short of astonishing. But just don't ask me to agree that you are the hottest thing on two legs.

Your good years came between 1998 and 2000. First of all, there was Pleasantville, a truly enjoyable film which treated the past (50's America) more subtly than either Back To the Future or American Graffiti. There was a great support cast (Tobey Maguire, Joan Allen, William H Macy), and you seemed a natural. After that came Cruel Intentions (an updated Dangerous Liaisons), American Psycho and – best of all – Election. There seemed little doubt that you had what it takes to play a range of characters, innocent, vicious, sweet-hearted or deranged. Then Legally Blonde happened. Now I'm not saying that it's a bad film (although it's not great), but its success took you down an entirely disastrous path, which has, over recent years, also been trodden by Renee Zellwegger, Kate Hudson, Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker.  The romantic comedy.

The romcom is one of the hardest genres to do well, but it is unfortunately one of the staples of modern American cinema, which has sustained the careers of some of the above for several decades. Strangely the romcom does not require that the female half of the duet is especially sexy and dynamic. The reason is simple. Romcoms are made for women, and they need to fulfil their fantasy by imagining they are you, which is easier to do if you (the female lead) are no more than averagely attractive, and not dangerously erotic. Legally Blonde led to Legally Blonde 2, Sweet Home Alabama and even, Gawd Help us, Just Like Heaven. None of these are fit to clean the shoes (or the teeth) of the great screwball comedies of which they are a pale shadow. The plots are ridiculous, the men bland and dumb, and the message underlying the Girl Power bullshit is retrograde, conservative and just plain depressing.

And then there's the other peculiar deviation – into classic period drama/comedy. I may be mistaken (I'm not), but I doubt that Oscar Wilde or William Thackeray had you in mind when they respectively composed The Importance of Being Earnest or Vanity Fair, since both parts require a degree of Englishness that you lack. And don't go talking about Gwyneth Paltrow because not only is she more English than you, but also a lot sexier.

Yes, I know what you're going to say. Don't forget the Oscar. Well, I have one word for you – Transamerica. If there was any justice in the world of the Academy Awards (and we know there isn't), then Felicity Huffman would have had that Oscar. But the whole sentimentality about Johnny Cash and country music, not to mention your considerably higher profile, meant that you got the nod ahead of her. More power to you, but where have you gone from there (now 7 years ago)? The combined Witherspoon output in that time including the quite stunningly bad Four Christmases hardly suggests an actress who is about to disturb Meryl's supremacy any time soon.

And although it's unfair to talk about age, that's what happens in Hollywood (and those who live by their looks, die by their looks). You're 35 this year. Younger than Aniston, but less user friendly; younger than Parker (and less scrawny); even Diaz is 40, and the botox smile gets more fixed every year. But you share with them the same problem. Where do you go from here? The Mincing Machine likes its blondes to be young, and even film stars, hard as they try, can't reverse that process. Of course it's unjust that ageing prunes like Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford and Dustin Hoffman can go on forever, but there you are. Sooner or later, you won't be able to pretend that Tom Hardy and Chris Pine are so smitten by your charms that they will duel to the death. Then what?

Tough call, but it's coming down the line.

Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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