On Sunday night, Reese Witherspoon won an Emmy for executive producing the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies. “It’s been an incredible year for women in television,” she said, breathless on stage. She implored the audience to, “bring women to the front of their own stories. Make them the hero of their own stories.”

Witherspoon’s speech, delivered with trademark enthusiasm and earnestness, was a poignant milestone in her career. For an actress that has been working for more than two decades, Reese has done a remarkable job of making a lasting, positive impression on popular culture through her craft.

Her win this weekend at the Emmys is representative of just one of her many accomplishments, and reflects a new phase of her career as not just an actress, but a leader in her industry with a distinct focus on women’s stories. But how did Reese Witherspoon end up here? A look back at Reese’s career reveals that this focus has always been there, leading the way.

The Ingénue

1998 was a breakout year for Reese Witherspoon. She starred in three films – Twilight, Overnight Delivery, and Pleasantville. Gary Ross, the director of Pleasantville, stated, “I think she’s going to be an enormous movie star.” He wasn’t wrong; the very next year, Reese starred in two films that would go on to earn cult status in pop culture – Cruel Intentions and Election.

Cruel Intentions is a modernization of the 18th century French novel Dangerous Liaisons. It’s a story that’s been adapted a few times for the big screen, but Cruel Intentions is the only one to center around teenagers. While Witherspoon is only a supporting character in the film, her role is essential to the story’s dramatic tension.

While the other actors around her are given the opportunity to play wicked characters full of drama and deceit, Witherspoon is tasked with displaying far more restraint.

Alexander Payne’s film Election stars Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, a precocious and determined high school student running for class president who is derailed by a meddling social studies teacher. Unlike Cruel Intentions, Election demanded a much flashier performance from Witherspoon and she delivered ten-fold.

Her performance exhibits a remarkable precision; one combines a deep understanding of the material and a self-awareness of what she must bring to the role. She went on to earn a Golden Globe nomination for this performance.

Only a few years later, Reese Witherspoon starred in Legally Blonde, a film that would launch her into stardom. It’s not unfair to say Legally Blonde is the movie that made her into a household name. Reese played Elle Woods, a fashion-merchandising student in a sorority who decides to go to law school to show her ex-boyfriend she can be as serious as the girls he wants to marry.

Reese Witherspoon’s performance in Legally Blonde is the perfect union of actor and character. She brought the unbridled positivity and passionate determination required by the role and turned it into an unforgettable and lasting phenomenon.

In more ways than one, Reese’s early roles set the tone for her career. Sure, she has a proclivity for playing upbeat, bright-eyed blondes full of ambition and charisma, but it’s more than that. Reese brings a profound sincerity and compassion, demonstrating far more than a superficial charm, but rather an intense force of personality that registers with audiences.

The Oscar Winner

In 2005, Reese’s skill for connecting with audiences with honesty and authenticity led her all the way to an Oscar. She won Best Actress for her role as June Carter in Walk the Line. After spending a great deal of her young adult life in Nashville, the role of June Carter was significant for Witherspoon. She went on record several times discussing how badly she wanted the part and the work that went into preparing to play the character.

The role of June Carter allowed her to show off her trademark zeal and enthusiasm, but also gave Reese the opportunity to deliver a much weightier and more harrowing performance. Walk the Line featured Reese’s most emotionally charged and challenging performance. It connected with critics and audiences alike.

On stage accepting her Oscar, Reese said, “People used to ask June how she was doing and she used to say, ‘I’m just trying to matter.’ I know what she means, you know? I’m just trying to matter and live a good life and make work that means something to somebody.” It’s this kind of heart-on-her-sleeve vulnerability and unconcealed passion that give Reese and her performances an extra dimension.

The Heroine of Romantic Comedies

While Reese Witherspoon’s dramatic endeavors are of considerable import, her contributions to the modern romantic comedy are essential to her career. The year after Legally Blonde, Witherspoon starred in Sweet Home Alabama, a movie about a New York socialite that returns home to Alabama to get a divorce from her husband.

While the film was not entirely well received by critics, it performed incredibly well at the box office, more than tripling its budget in revenue. The movie cemented Witherspoon as an actress that audiences liked who could also carry a film.

Ever since Sweet Home Alabama, Witherspoon has made it a part of her career to continue making romantic comedies. She starred in How Do You Know, This Means War, and most recently, Home Again, written by Nancy Meyers.

Reese has a unique star power that allows her to sell even the most wild or unconvincing of plots. For example, This Means War puts her in a love triangle with two CIA agents. Yet somehow Reese is able to thread the needle for the audience, humanizing both her character and the story.

As romantic comedies have fallen by the wayside over the past several years, Witherspoon is one of the few high profile actors still keeping the genre alive. Moreover, the films show her interest and prioritization of stories that focus on women.

The Producer

Reese Witherspoon’s Emmy win for Big Little Lies is significant, not just for her work on the series, but for the subtle but important transition the actress has made into the role of producer. Beginning in 2014, Witherspoon began working as a producer. She produced and starred in both Hot Pursuit and Wild – she earned a Best Actress nomination for the latter. She also produced Gone Girl, another film that earned a Best Actress nomination.

The thread connecting all of these projects is, of course, the focus on women. Not only are women the focus of the stories themselves, but also all of these projects include women behind the scenes. Both Gone Girl and Big Little Lies are stories originally written by women. Gillian Flynn wrote the script for Gone Girl, Anne Fletcher directed Hot Pursuit, and all of the projects have several female producers.

Going into 2018, Reese Witherspoon is set to produce five different projects, including a live action Tinker Bell movie, a film adaptation of best selling novel Luckiest Girl Alive, and a TV show starring Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston about a morning news show.

Reese Witherspoon’s win at the Emmy’s on Sunday night is worth far more than the one project to which it was awarded. It represents a career full of deliberate choices predicated on the belief that stories about women matter and deserve to be told. Reese Witherspoon may have begun her career as a blonde ingénue, but more than two decades later she’s proved herself as a formidable cultural force.

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