On the surface, Witherspoon radiates a certain peppy, blonde innocence, and at first, that was how Hollywood saw her. It’s unsurprising that she played a stalking victim in “Fear” in 1996, or a rebellious teenager who ultimately chooses to stay in a simulacrum of the 1950s in “Pleasantville” in 1998, or a virgin initially intent on saving herself for marriage in “Cruel Intentions” in 1999, or even serial killer Patrick Bateman’s clueless fiancee, Evelyn, in “American Psycho” in 2000.
There were exceptions, like Witherspoon’s turn as a girl gone wild in “Freeway” in 1996. But for the most part, the entertainment industry seemed content to use Witherspoon to portray the kind of people who were untouched and traditional enough to follow the same trajectory Witherspoon herself did, married at 23 to a man she met at her 21st birthday party, and mother to a daughter later in the same year.
It was Alexander Payne who figured out that Witherspoon could do a whole lot more, casting her as aspiring student council president Tracy Flick in his 1999 adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel “Election.” As Flick, Witherspoon’s strong chin and sharp cheekbones became weapons, rather than photogenic angles; her ramrod-straight posture was an expression of will rather than model-perfect compliance; and her big, wide smile could seem like the result of painfully clenched teeth rather than joy or an eagerness to please.
The brilliance of “Election” is that the way people — especially teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) — react to Tracy teases out the ambivalence and anger that are often the responses to ambitious women without the movie requiring Tracy to be the sort of innocent that Witherspoon played in other circumstances. She does sleep with another teacher at her high school (though Jim’s fury at her for doing so never really acknowledges that Tracy is a minor). She does tear down one of her competitor’s campaign posters. She is brittle and entitled, though not without cause; Tracy is a serious and hardworking person, if not necessarily a charming one. In casting Witherspoon as a buttoned-up person with her entire life planned, Payne liberated her to be something other than persistently pleasant.
Two years later, in “Legally Blonde,” Witherspoon’s performance as Elle Woods went in an entirely different direction and broke open an entirely different female dilemma. Elle begins “Legally Blonde” as the inverse of Tracy Flick: Her only ambition is to please other people, particularly her dud of a boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis). But after years of throwing fabulous mixers and adhering to a rigid self-care mechanism, Elle has her life upended when Warner dismisses her as a blonde bimbo, too insubstantial to serve as the wifely accessory he believes is essential to his career in politics. No one can pout and cry and employ vocal fry the way Witherspoon can. She turns on the baby voice and the waterworks in “Legally Blonde” — and then forces the audience to overcome its surface objections to Elle’s exterior and respect her.
“Wild,” the 2014 adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, didn’t do anything quite as ambitious as “Election” or “Legally Blonde.” Even there, though, Witherspoon turned in a tidy, self-contained role as a woman who had blown up her perfectly serviceable life and gone off on her own to try to repair herself, if not the damage she’d done to others.
Witherspoon’s work in “Big Little Lies” reads like a mash-up of Tracy Flick and Elle Woods. Her character, the perfectly named Madeline Martha Mackenzie, is what Elle Woods might have turned out to be if she hadn’t gone to law school, or what Tracy Flick might have become if her ambitions were social rather than political, her intelligence curdled into meddling and the work she put into keeping up appearances concealing a thick layer of rot. Madeline is the sort of person who works herself into a perpetual state of irritation so that she has an excuse to intone things like “I just have a very low tolerance for injustice.” She judges everyone else, neglects her husband, Ed (Adam Scott), a beta with an aggressive streak, and projects wildly onto her two daughters. Madeline is the walking nightmare people intend to conjure when they invoke “helicopter parenting” or nasty suburban mommies. And in at least some of her conflicts with the other women in Monterey, Madeline happens to be right, even if she casts everything in terms so dire and extreme that she distorts her own best arguments.
All of the actresses in “Big Little Lies” are working in the same, subversive spectrum, particularly Laura Dern, who is following up the run of her HBO show “Enlightened” in spectacular fashion. But there’s something especially delicious about watching Witherspoon order chocolate bonbons over coffee and then spit poison at everyone else, especially her own pretty, perky facade. Sometimes, an actress doesn’t have to don a fatsuit or forswear makeup to go transportingly ugly.