Reese routs Ross

Actors rejoice as Reese routs Ross

Tom Hanks was only joking when he said he’d packed his bags, but the tension among Hollywood’s actors last weekend was deadly serious. The $115m sci-fi epic Final Fantasy descended upon US cinemas, introducing audiences to what studios hoped was going to be a new kind of movie star: Aki Ross, virtual-reality “synthespian,” each of her 60,000 hairs individually computer-generated. The recent actors’ strike threats suddenly seemed rather quaintly redundant.

Ranged against her were three generations of top-notch human talent in the Brando/De Niro/Ed Norton thriller The Score, plus a low-budget comedy called Legally Blonde. In blowing them all away, Aki was going to change the face of the industry forever. But analysts with long memories recalled summer ’82, when Tron opened on the exactly the same weekend, with identical expectations …

On Monday morning America did wake up to a new female star, but one made of the most old-fashioned kind of flesh and blood: Reese Witherspoon, whose Legally Blonde raked in $20.4m, outscoring The Score by $600,000. Final Fantasy limped into fourth on $11.4m, suffering the humiliation of losing the bronze-medal slot to the previous week’s champ, Cats and Dogs, a kiddie pic deploying old-school FX to make pets ‘perform’ kung-fu manoeuvres.

While MGM’s Erik Loomis gushed that Blonde “surpassed all our expectations,” a Sony spokesman plumbed new depths of understatement – the Fantasy takings were, he admitted “a little disappointing.” Blame was levelled at a misjudged ad campaign that underplayed the spiritual aspects of the Japanese-directed video-game adaptation in favour of ‘kickass’ elements: “They messed with the wrong species!!!”

The ‘wrong species’ turned out to be that most retro-chic of Hollywood staples, the ‘not-so-dumb’ blonde. While trade-bible Variety attacked the law-school comedy’s direction and script, they raved over Witherspoon’s performance as Elle Woods, ditzy fashionista who enrols at Harvard and proves an unexpected courtroom hit. “Beaming star wattage out of every pore, not to mention her hair,” they enthused, “Witherspoon once again proves herself worthy of comparison to such golden era greats as Carole Lombard and Ginger Rogers … At this point, Witherspoon is one of a very small number of actors one wants to see in everything she does.”

Witherspoon’s box-office coronation coincides perfectly with the publication of Maria di Battista’s study of Fast Talking Dames, in which current anodyne heroines are contrasted with the quick-witted leading ladies of the 40s. Like those ‘dames,’ Witherspoon and her characters have come up the hard way. Though she can ‘glam up’ when required, her Bette Davis looks and Kate Winslet figure mean she’s had to resist pigeonholing in ‘character’ roles – Blonde, which takes the gamble of putting her “seemingly at the centre of every frame,” is her first mainstream lead.

This is your typical five-year ‘overnight’ success: a cult favourite since 1996’s straight-to-video classic Freeway, the 25-year-old Nashvillean learned the Hollywood ropes via eyecatching parts in mini-hits Fear, Pleasantville and Cruel Intentions (where she met her current fiancé Ryan Philippe) before landing the plum role of force-of-nature highschooler Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne’s low-budget 1999 comedy Election.

While the public were put off by the script’s acidic political edge, Witherspoon’s hilariously terrifying performance attracted critical raves and a Golden Globe Best Actress (Comedy) nomination – Academy watchers reckoned she was cruelly pipped to Oscar nod by Meryl Streep’s fiddlestick antics in Music of the Heart. Legally Blonde may be too silly for voters’ tastes, but a repeat appearance on the Globes shortlist looks a cert. If she can edge out Renee Zellweger’s Bridget Jones, all bets are off – and if Witherspoon has learned anything from Tracy Flick and Elle Woods, her Oscar campaign will be a thing to behold.

As ever, much depends on the box-office. So far, so good: Legally Blonde has already recouped its $18m pricetag and thus eclipse Election’s worldwide box-office total. In a stroke, Witherspoon (currently clashing swords with Judi Dench’s Lady Bracknell as Cecily in Oliver Parker’s The Importance of Being Earnest remake) has at least quadrupled her fee. But in the wider context, she’s the reason why Hollywood’s acting community are breathing a collective sigh of relief, as Aki Ross and her pixellated ilk pack their virtual suitcases and reach for their synthesP-45s.

19th July, 2001
by Neil Young
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