Eight and a half years ago, Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar. It came for her leading performance as June Carter in James Mangold's Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line." But things fell off after that for a little while. Gavin Hood's "Tsotsi" follow-up, "Rendition," went nowhere with audiences or critics. James L. Brooks' "How Do You Know" stalled. Francis Lawrence's "Water for Elephants" didn't really move the needle. Holiday rom-com "Four Christmases" and spy caper "This Means War" completely bottomed out. And then early last year, that unfortunate Atlanta arrest incident.
But all the while, the actress, who has virtually grown up in the film industry, has been priming the pump with a few projects that will make it to screens this year. At the end of the season, she could well end up with as many as three Oscar nominations. The stage has truly been set for a career turnaround.
The groundwork had sort of been laid in the lead-up. Witherspoon has always made working with interesting directors a priority, whatever the outcome, from Alexander Payne to Mira Nair to the aforementioned Hood (who was at the time coming off an Oscar-winning foreign hit) and Brooks (a legend). Last year she delivered an exceptional performance on the periphery of Jeff Nichols' "Mud" and added Atom Egoyan to that string of interesting filmmakers with the nevertheless poorly-received "Devil's Knot." She also saddled up to another award-winning foreign filmmaker, Philippe Falardeau ("Monsieur Lazhar"), for the upcoming Warner Bros. film "The Good Lie." And she'll appear in a few scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" later this year as well, adding to her tally of impressive behind-the-camera talent.
In 2012, Witherspoon took on Gillian Flynn's best-selling "Gone Girl" as producer, eager to see it translated to screen. It was a project that launched a bidding war as 20th Century Fox finally got the honors, David Fincher agreed to direct and now the film is on a crash course with Oscar season. She was also nurturing a little story called "Wild," based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed about a woman trying to rebuild her shattered life by hiking the 1,000-mile Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert in California all the way through Oregon and Washington.
Witherspoon set that project up with good taste, landing Bill Pohlad as financier and Nick Hornby as screenwriter, then plopped herself into the starring role. "Dallas Buyers Club" helmer Jean-Marc Vallée is directing, yet another foreign talent that caught her eye (2005's "C.R.A.Z.Y."). And not that Witherspoon's recent career has been so disastrous as to warrant this dubious comparison, but "Wild" almost feels like it could be seen as a parallel, a woman working hard to get on with her life and discover the next phase.
The next phase for Witherspoon appears to be that of a power player as she continues to move with purpose into the producing and development realm. She most recently teamed with Nicole Kidman to option the rights to Liane Moriarty's recently published novel "Big Little Lies." The two Oscar winners will also star. She also produced and starred in next year's "Don't Mess with Texas."
But this year, should Witherspoon be recognized in the Best Actress category for "Wild" and should that film and "Gone Girl" end up with Best Picture nominations, that's an Academy hat trick for a multi-hyphenate very much in need of a new chapter. That's a heck of a story, and don't think that won't make for a perfect awards season narrative as the cards begin to fall.