HELLO, SUNSHINE! by Steffi Kammerer | 31st August, 2023 | Personalities
For decades, 40 was the age when an invisible ceiling suddenly appeared for women in Hollywood. Reese Witherspoon decided to fight back. She changed the game by finding ex-citing female authors and putting their heroines on streaming platforms. Her production company is valued at $900 million today – a force to be reckoned with.
The perky blonde girl next door. For years, this was Reese Witherspoon’s signature role.
Reese Witherspoon gives complex female protagonists a stage and is credited with having triggered a sea change in Hollywood.
Oscar winner, Stanford student, businesswoman, mother of three. That’s power woman Reese Witherspoon.
Reese Witherspoon had a dual role in the award-winning, dark HBO series “Big Little Lies”: actress and producer. Photo above: with co-stars Shailene Woodley and Nicole Kidman. All three play mothers whose children attend the same primary school in a small town in California – an idyll where rape, murder and blackmail lurk in the background.
It was just a brief question, but one that would end up changing her life: “What do we do next?” popped up in practically every script she was offered. It was unfailingly uttered by a woman, gazing helplessly at a man. What all these scripts had in common was that they were written by men. Reese Witherspoon met with studio bosses: “Which female leads have you got lined up?” “None at the moment,” was always the reply.
She realized then that she had to do something – produce the films that she wanted to act in herself. Witherspoon recounted this lightbulb moment in her acceptance speech at the 2015 Glamour Women of the Year Awards. Sitting in the audience was her mother, who had given her an invaluable piece of advice: If nobody else changes something then do it yourself. “I don’t believe that ambition is a bad word,” Witherspoon added. And because she has Southern charm in spades, it doesn’t sound like an all-out declaration of war. Beneath the polished, cheerleader demeanor, Witherspoon is a very savvy businesswomen and outspoken activist.
The 47-year-old has changed Hollywood like few women before her. She has opened up a stage for complex and nuanced female characters, shining a spotlight on women who are more than familiar with subtleties and the rocky depths of emotions, who acknowledge hate and greed as well as the more traditional loving and nurturing instincts. These are women who have a hidden side. A few years ago, she told Vogue: “I was sick of seeing scripts where there was one female role, badly written, and yet every actress in town wanted the part because there was nothing else.”
She founded her first production company in 2012, which four years later became the media enterprise Hello Sunshine, now one of Hollywood’s most prestigious companies and a powerhouse that produces prize-winning films and series that are equally acclaimed by critics and audiences. The company’s hits include “Big Little Lies” on HBO, “Little Fires Everywhere” on Hulu, and “The Morning Show” on HBO. The latter stars Jennifer Aniston and Witherspoon, and is a masterfully acted and written commentary on #MeToo. Hello Sunshine’s mission is unmistakably feminist; in fact, click on the company website and you are welcomed with the claim: “Changing the narrative for women.”
Reese Witherspoon grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, where she enjoyed a sheltered childhood. She was given her first film role at the age of 14, and her breakthrough came in 2001, when she was cast in “Legally Blonde” as a law student with a deep attachment to pink. Five years later she won an Oscar for playing June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line.” The trophy didn’t bring her much luck; instead, her career stalled. Witherspoon was trapped in a fluffy, but very narrow niche: America’s eternally cheerful sweetheart.
Her reinvention came in 2014, the year she produced two films: the psych thriller “Gone Girl” and “Wild,” both of which scooped Academy Award nominations in the category “Best Actress.” Witherspoon played the lead role in “Wild” – introducing moviegoers to a character at the opposite end of the sweetheart spectrum: a tough woman who seeks to overcome trauma and find redemption by hiking solo 1,100 miles across deserts and mountain ranges. A former heroin addict who doesn’t balk at ripping out her own bloody toenail. The male hikers she meets along the way are incidental characters, good at most for fast sex. The role earned her nominations for an Oscar and a Golden Globe. “Wild,” like nearly all films Witherspoon has produced, is based on a book, to which she secured the film rights even before it was published. Having studied English literature at Stanford University, Witherspoon has a fine instinct for a great story. One ray of Hello Sunshine is Reese’s Book Club, which has 2.6 million followers on Instagram. Every month, Witherspoon recommends a book, always one where a woman is the protagonist. Several dozens of her book choices have gone on to become New York Times bestsellers.
In the space of a few years, Reese Witherspoon built a media empire and a community, harnessing the power of all available channels: podcasts, YouTube, Instagram. People soon became aware of the goldmine she had built, and in 2021 she sold a majority share in her company – for the jaw-dropping sum of $900 million in a deal that made her the richest actress in the world. Despite being very much in the public eye, Reese Witherspoon has managed to shield her private life and her three children from media prying; she divorced twice, both times without making any ripples. Only when the Harvey Weinstein scandal surfaced did she break her silence. When Hollywood’s formerly most powerful man was convicted of rape, she made a personal statement, excoriating the “culture of silence.” For the first time, she revealed that she had also been abused by a film director: She was 16 at the time. Both her agent and the producer told her to remain silent.