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Reese Witherspoon's Best Onscreen Performances

After more than three decades in the public eye, Reese Witherspoon is nothing short of a Hollywood megastar. The popular actress has branched out in recent years, with everything from a clothing and décor line (Draper James) to a book club (Reese's Book Club), but she remains best known for her onscreen performances. Witherspoon also co-founded Hello Sunshine, a media company that has produced many great films and television shows, including many starring Witherspoon herself.

And while Witherspoon's acting career has not been without its duds — "Hot Pursuit" has an embarrassing 7% on Rotten Tomatoes — she has had plenty of hits, both in the critical and commercial sense. The actress can next be seen in Season 2 of "The Morning Show," and she has a number of exciting projects in the works including "Legally Blonde 3" and the live-action "Tinker Bell" movie. With an amazing screen presence and strong versatility, Witherspoon has earned her icon status. Here are some of Reese Witherspoon's all-time best onscreen performances.

The Man in the Moon

Witherspoon got her professional acting start at the age of 14 when she was cast in 1991's "The Man in the Moon." She played Dani Trant, a teenager in 1950s Louisiana dealing with family drama and the complexities of her first love. Sam Waterston and Tess Harper appeared as her parents, and Jason London depicted Dani's love interest, Court Foster. "The Man in the Moon" was a small film, but it was instrumental in Witherspoon's development as an actress. "I learned everything I needed to know about being a film actor, how to hit marks, how to perform for a camera, how to get emotional," she recounted in an Instagram video in 2020.

The critics enjoyed the film, which was the final movie directed by Robert Mulligan, who also directed "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "Summer of '42." They also appreciated Witherspoon's performance as a young girl struggling to find herself within the confines of a strict family and the shadow of her older sister. In her review, the New York Times' Janet Maslin wrote that the director "gets an outstandingly natural performance out of Miss Witherspoon, who has no trouble carrying a lot of the film single-handedly." Witherspoon also earned her first award nomination for the film, a Young Artist Award nod (per Good Housekeeping).


Witherspoon continued to get work in the years following her debut, but her next great role didn't come until 1996, when she starred in the black comedy "Freeway," a warped take on the classic "Little Red Riding Hood" fairytale. Witherspoon appeared as Vanessa Lutz, a poor girl on the run from her social worker, Mrs. Sheets (Conchata Ferrell), after the arrest of her mother Ramona (Amanda Plummer). As in the classic fairytale, Vanessa is on her way to her grandmother's house, and in pursuit of her is a dangerous wolf — in this twisted tale, taking the form of a pedophilic serial killer named Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland).

While the film isn't one of Witherspoon's more well-known flicks, it was critically well-received and further solidified Witherspoon as an actress to watch. Her performance as an illiterate, delinquent teenager played against type, and Witherspoon showed comfort with the darkness of the material. San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle said, "Witherspoon is dazzling, utterly believable in one extreme situation after the other," and famed critic Roger Ebert compared her to "a young Jodie Foster."


Two years after "Freeway," Witherspoon appeared in "Pleasantville" as Jennifer, a sex-obsessed teenager growing up in the 1990s who, along with her brother David (Tobey Maguire), finds herself transported into a 1950s sitcom. As Jennifer and David pretend to be Bud and Mary Sue Parker, they make their mark on the small town of Pleasantville with their modern, evolved behaviors — and, as changes occur, the black-and-white sitcom world starts to change to color. The movie, which pokes fun at traditional values and indirectly explores issues such as segregation, is both quirky and provocative.

The inventive fantasy dramedy was nominated for a variety of awards, including multiple Oscars. And while Joan Allen (who played the teens' Pleasantville mom, Betty Parker) received much of the attention in terms of awards notice, the entire cast was praised in most reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and called it "the kind of parable that encourages us to re-evaluate the good old days and take a fresh look at the new world we so easily dismiss as decadent." As a key member of a cast that CNN called "stellar" in their review, Witherspoon was a huge reason the film worked.

Cruel Intentions

In 1999, "Cruel Intentions" — an adaptation of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" set in an elite New York City high school — brought Witherspoon a heightened level of fame and attention. Witherspoon starred as good girl virgin Annette Hargrove, who gets caught up in a sexual wager between stepsiblings Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont, played by Witherspoon's real-life then-husband, Ryan Phillippe. The film has become a cult classic and one of the most memorable teen movies of all time.

Audiences enjoyed the film, as evidenced by its success at the Teen Choice Awards and MTV Movie Awards and its 81% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, but critics were mixed on the movie. Nonetheless, it has its fans and received positive reviews from The Los Angeles Times, TIME magazine, Variety, and more. Salon praised Witherspoon's performance and the way that she inhabited the character before and after the sexual bet. Most reviews focused more on Gellar and Phillippe; still, we think this is one of Witherspoon's best takes on a character and one that solidified her standing in young Hollywood at a time when teen movies were all the rage.


Witherspoon also appeared in "Election" in 1999. While the movie did not have the widespread box office appeal of "Cruel Intentions," the actress's performance was widely hailed as fantastic. Witherspoon starred as Tracy Flick, an ambitious overachiever in a race for high school class president. Not only does Tracy have to deal with her competitors, but she also finds herself at odds with a disgruntled civics teacher (Matthew Broderick as Jim McAllister) who will stop at nothing to ensure she loses the race.

Roger Ebert declared that Witherspoon "(hit) her full stride in 'Election'" and Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote that "the production benefits terrifically from Witherspoon's great, steely performance." The satire allowed Witherspoon to shine in a new way, earning her nominations for a Golden Globe Award and an Independent Spirit Award, as well as recognition from many critics associations such as the National Society of Film Critics. "Even the usually sexed-up or underused Witherspoon is born-again as an actress of fierce, head-turning revelation in a hell-for-leather funny incarnation of snappy drive that finally releases her from the remuda of her pony-actress peers," wrote Wesley Morris in his review for the San Francisco Examiner.

Legally Blonde

Of all of her movies, Witherspoon is perhaps most associated with "Legally Blonde," and this is because of her deeply memorable, highly enjoyable characterization of the iconic Elle Woods. As Elle, Witherspoon also appeared in a sequel film, and a third "Legally Blonde" is due out next year. It's in the original that Witherspoon shines the brightest as the lovable, determined Elle. In "Legally Blonde," sorority sister and girly-girl Elle embarks on a quest to get into Harvard Law School so that she can win back her college lover Warner (Matthew Davis), who is now involved with the more "serious" Vivian (Selma Blair).

When the people at law school agree with Warner, convinced that Elle is all pink fluff and no substance, she vows to prove them wrong. As Elle shows the other characters that she is far smarter than anyone has ever given her credit for, Witherspoon shows the audience that she knows how to go deep with a character, even when playing it light for laughs. The actress earned her second career Golden Globe nomination for the role (in the category of Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical/Comedy) and proved she could carry a movie at the box office.

A relatively consistent fan of the actress, Roger Ebert commented that "Witherspoon effortlessly animated this material with sunshine and quick wit" and even though he wrote that "'Legally Blonde' is not a great movie," he followed it up with "Witherspoon is a star." Many other critics were equally enthused with the performance, such as the BBC's Ben Falk and Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum. "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," wrote Schwarzbaum.

Just Like Heaven

"Just Like Heaven" is not one of Witherspoon's best movies — it's pleasant enough but has little depth — but good performances often happen in subpar movies. And in terms of the romantic comedies in which Witherspoon appears, "Just Like Heaven" is head and shoulders above some of the others, like "This Means War" or "Sweet Home Alabama." Here, Witherspoon shines as Elizabeth Masterson, a doctor who begins appearing as a ghost in her old apartment after a terrible accident and ends up striking up a romance with its current resident, David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo), who is the only one who can see or hear her.

Audiences enjoyed the film more than critics, but the film had its fans (such as critic Richard Roeper), and Witherspoon herself did receive critical praise. The consensus seemed to be that the actors lifted the somewhat cloying and schlocky material. For example, the BBC's Stella Papamichael wrote, "Witherspoon and Ruffalo bring depth to what is otherwise a fluffy yarn and ensure that, while it lacks the impact of 1990 classic 'Ghost,' it wins the day with plenty of soul." Similarly, in his negative review for the Boston Globe, critic Wesley Morris praised the actors, stating that Ruffalo and "Witherspoon demonstrate screwball-comedy teamwork, with him providing the laid-back bafflement and her bringing the pluck."

Walk the Line

Whereas "Just Like Heaven" is seen as a middling film, Witherspoon's other 2005 flick, the Oscar-winning "Walk the Line," is commonly regarded as a masterful gem. Witherspoon plays June Carter in the biographical film opposite Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash. It's the role for which she earned her Academy Award. As June, Witherspoon was at the top of her game, giving depth and layers to the role and even singing in the film. "Playing a leveling influence who's giddy during performances, Witherspoon has dark hair, some of her 'Legally Blonde' pluck and more vulnerable charm than she has ever shown," exclaimed critic Mike Clark in his review for USA Today.

In addition to the Oscar, Witherspoon won many other accolades, including Best Actress honors from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Roger Ebert wrote that Witherspoon "adds boundless energy" to the film, which he awarded three and a half (out of four) stars. The Los Angeles Times reviewer, Carina Chocano, called it one of the actresses best performances and said, "Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon do first-rate work — they sing, they twang, they play new-to-them instruments, they crackle with wit and charisma, and they give off so much sexual heat it's a wonder they don't burst into flames."

Water for Elephants

Witherspoon made some questionable choices in the years following her Oscar win, appearing in clunkers like "Four Christmases" and "How Do You Know," both of which were genuinely terrible films that were panned by critics. It wasn't until 2011's "Water for Elephants" that Witherspoon again starred in a movie even somewhat worthy of her immense talent. In the film, which is set in the 1930s, Witherspoon stars as Marlena Rosenbluth, the wife of circus ringmaster August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), who falls in love with a young veterinary student named Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson).

Despite a minor scandal about animal abuse related to the elephant that appears in the film (per Huffington Post), the film performed decently at the box office. And while reviewers were torn on the film as a whole, and especially on the romance between Witherspoon and Pattinson, Witherspoon's performance was generally well-received. USA Today said she "does her best to fill in (Pattinson's) blanks with her charisma" and while the San Francisco Chronicle found her miscast, their reviewer acknowledged that "she's actress enough to make it work and to emphasize the most interesting thing about the character, which is how she sees her husband — as someone sensitive and lost, not just dangerous."


In 2014, Witherspoon appeared in the biopic "Wild," which is based on the New York Times bestselling memoir "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," written by Cheryl Strayed. In the film — which Witherspoon developed through her production company — Witherspoon plays a woman (Strayed) who sets off for the Pacific Crest Trail after her divorce, despite not having any significant hiking experience. As she treks the 1,000+ miles, Strayed engages in an intense process of self-reflection, which includes flashing back to her childhood, reflecting upon her relationship with her deceased mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), and healing from painful choices she made in the aftermath of her mother's death.

"Witherspoon has felt a little lost in the wilderness, career-wise, since winning an Oscar for her brassier but similarly soulful work in 2005's 'Walk the Line,'" said The Atlantic's reviewer David Sims. "It's hard not to embrace the narrative of 'Wild' as Witherspoon's own personal triumph too, especially given her investment in bringing Strayed's memoir to screen." That "back to form" narrative was only bolstered by the fact that Witherspoon was widely nominated on the awards circuit. For "Wild," Witherspoon earned best actress nods at the Academy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, British Film and Television Academy (BAFTA) Awards, and Screen Actors Guild Awards.

The beauty of the environment could not distract from the strength of Witherspoon's performance as a woman struggling with divorce, addiction, and grief. IndieWire's Eric Kohn said that "Witherspoon excels as a committed figure battling through each rough day," while Vanity Fair had even stronger praise: "Witherspoon finds both a mature centeredness and a zen-like openness — it's been a long time since we've seen her this fluidly expressive, this connected to good material," Richard Lawson wrote for the magazine.

Inherent Vice

Unlike many huge celebrities, Witherspoon is not afraid to take the backseat by filling a supporting role in an ensemble film, which is exactly what she did in 2014's "Inherent Vice." Set in 1970, the film stars Witherspoon's "Walk the Line" co-star Joaquin Phoenix as Larry "Doc" Sportello, a private investigator working a number of criminal cases while he searches for his missing ex-girlfriend in the criminal underbelly of Los Angeles.

Witherspoon appears in the film as Penny Kimball, a Deputy District Attorney who is in a sexual (possibly romantic) relationship with Doc and who provides him with access to confidential information. While Witherspoon's role in the Paul Thomas Anderson flick was rather small, she nevertheless managed to garner some attention. "Phoenix and Witherspoon, reunited from 'Walk the Line,' are a particular delight," wrote Ryan Gilbey in the New Statesman's review. Deadspin called the actress "great in a small part," and we can only agree with that assessment. 

Big Little Lies

Witherspoon fans are thrilled over her emergence as a stellar producer of content. Witherspoon has an eye for great material, and now serves as a producer on most of her projects, including "Big Little Lies," which is based upon a book that she optioned with Nicole Kidman (who also stars and produces). The two-season series ran on HBO from 2017 to 2019, and the strong performances from some of Hollywood's best actresses captured America's attention.

In "Big Little Lies," Witherspoon plays the uptight, judgmental Madeline Martha Mackenzie, who becomes embroiled in a mystery (and eventually a murder) after befriending a single mother new to her upscale Northern California community. The New Yorker called the role "a Reese Witherspoon character played perfectly by Reese Witherspoon" and Paste Magazine compared the character to a grown-up Tracy Flick (from "Election"). "Witherspoon, as lead Madeline, inhabits the unforgiving contours of a character who is relentlessly awful," Variety's Sonia Saraiya said in her review. "It would be simple to flatten this role into mere villainy, but in Witherspoon's hands, Madeline's rage is oceanic — seething and vast, concerned only with expanding its territory." Witherspoon was nominated for many awards for her Season 1 performance, including at the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild awards, and the Emmys, losing out to co-star Kidman all three times.

The Morning Show

With "The Morning Show," for which stars Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston both serve as producers, Witherspoon continues her quest to dominate television. While her co-stars Aniston and Billy Crudup have scored most of the awards attention, Witherspoon is nonetheless able to shine in her role as ambitious reporter Bradley Jackson. In Season 1, she unexpectedly finds herself in the anchor chair of The Morning Show, once co-anchored by Alex Levy (Aniston) and Mitch Kessler (Steve Carrell), after Mitch is fired for sexual misconduct.

It is all a big jump for Bradley, who was working in small-town news and whose biggest accomplishment was going viral for telling off a coal mine protestor on camera. For Witherspoon, however, it is just one more place to showcase her stellar acting chops. Season 2 of the program is upcoming, and Witherspoon's performance in Season 1 earned much acclaim. Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Idato said, "Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, playing two women whose lives intersect after a catastrophic scandal, are brilliantly cast and take strong but imperfect material and lend it a little old Hollywood gravitas." We are excited to see what Season 2 brings for the no-nonsense, in-over-her-head Bradley, but whatever it is, Witherspoon can handle it.

Little Fires Everywhere

Rounding out our list of Witherspoon's best onscreen performances is another streaming television endeavor that she produced, the 2020 miniseries "Little Fires Everywhere," which was based upon the popular novel of the same name (written by Celeste Ng). Witherspoon optioned the book before it was even released, chose it as one of her book club picks, and subsequently brought it to Kerry Washington, who signed on as a co-star and co-producer (via Deadline). "At Hello Sunshine, we strive to shine a light on female-driven stories that are rooted in inspiration, emotion, and truth — all of which form the bedrock of Celeste Ng's ingenious work, Witherspoon is quoted as saying in the Deadline article.

"Little Fires Everywhere" is about two mothers living in an Ohio suburb in the late 1990s, who are from very different worlds and who butt heads accordingly. Washington plays single mother and struggling artist Mia Warren, and Witherspoon plays Elena Richardson, who becomes Mia's landlord, and whose children befriend Mia's daughter. Elena's life is far removed from how she presents it on the surface, and Witherspoon shines in this Hulu limited series focused on issues of class, race, motherhood, and belonging — as does Washington. "Witherspoon and Washington turn in lovely performances," said Vox's reviewer Constance Grady.