Playing It Straight

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. (Left, By Mark Seliger; Above, By Suzanne Tenner -- Twentieth Century Fox)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 13, 2005


The room feels chilled, the blinds drawn, perfect for preserving cut flowers, and here Reese Witherspoon is arranged, back straight, legs crossed at the ankles, hands folded primly upon her lap. She is wearing a vintage dress from the 1940s, a black-and-white print, with a cashmere sweater wrapped around her slight shoulders. There are diamonds on her ears, around her throat -- a cross -- and on her ring finger, the big rock, a four-carat Asscher-cut stone. She is blond again, but you're drawn toward her forehead, a prominent feature, as white as bone china, and there, just beneath the translucent skin, a delicate blue vein.

Reese Witherspoon looks? Crisp. Not brittle, not breakable. But as neat as ironed sheets, and there is something formidable about the way she holds her small self, turns her chin and narrows her eyes to examine a question as if it were a thing laid before her, and she might choose it, or not.

She explains that she does not "suffer fools." She warns against "false praise" and the nonsense of "sycophants," and we take her meaning. Born Laura Jean Reese Witherspoon, of the Nashville Witherspoons (an ancestor signed the Declaration of Independence), she was a model at age 7, winner of the Ten-State Talent Fair at 11, former cheerleader and graduate of Harpeth Hall school for girls. She radiates not hothouse flower, but a certain species of Southern woman, the steel magnolia already at age 29, porcelain doll on the outside, quarry stone inside.

This is not the Witherspoon that most movie audiences are familiar with. They know her best from the covers of fashion magazines and her comedies: Looming largest is the confection of a character Elle Woods, of the "Legally Blonde" franchise, and closer to her Southern roots, Melanie Smooter of "Sweet Home Alabama," the popular romantic comedienne, as light and easy as a kiss on the cheek.

Now Witherspoon has ventured into deeper, darker waters in her turn as country music legend June Carter Cash, starring opposite Joaquin Phoenix, who plays a tormented Man in Black in "Walk the Line," which opens nationwide Friday.

It is a most unusual love story of a most unusual couple -- unusual in the sense that the two lovers come off as friends and soul mates more than hot bed partners. Though some of his rougher edges are sanded down, the film tells of the reckless genius of Johnny Cash as he rose from the Arkansas cotton fields to the Grand Ole Opry and of the twice-married mother he vowed to have as his own, June Carter, a daughter of the first family of country music.

June was the woman, Cash wrote in his 1997 autobiography, "who could see the kernel of me, deep inside, beneath the drugs and deceit and despair and anger and selfishness, and knew my loneliness." It was June who saved him, when Cash was just "leather and bone, nothing in my blood but amphetamines."

Mrs. Cash, of course, had her passions, too. Remember it was June, not Johnny, who wrote their love song "Ring of Fire" ("I fell for you like a child, oh, but the fire went wild . . . and it burns, burns, burns. ") The movie is generating early Oscar buzz, especially the performances of Phoenix and Witherspoon, who not only play the country music royals but sing the hit songs themselves.

The film's writer and director, James Mangold, says his casting choice was intuitive. "What I knew about Reese, what most people know about Reese, is she's got this almost copyrighted character she can do at the drop of a hat. And she has her trademark kind of movie, a Reese Witherspoon movie, about this sassy, confident, young, beautiful girl who can march into any situation and make it her own with this naive jujitsu."

But, Mangold says, Witherspoon shares "more than you know with June. There's another side to Reese. She's incredibly sharp, incredibly well-read. She's a mother of two, a wife, so many things that an actress in her twenties in L.A. is rarely. And that each of those choices about her life makes her a vulnerable and feeling and maternal figure. You're struck by what a woman she is."

Mangold explains, "What I mean is that most women of her age are playing girls. And we haven't seen Reese as this woman before in the movies. We've seen her playing, one way or another, a kind of girl." Witherspoon's June, Mangold promises, "is going to blow people away."

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