by Christine Westwood

Author Glennon Doyle Melton (her bestseller was Love Warrior) had better be ready to step up to another whole level of celebrity and success as her latest book The Untamed was just selected by Reese Witherspoon for her April book club pick.

Published in Australia by Random House, The Untamed immediately grabs a potential readership of 1.6 million from Witherspoon’s Instagram audience at @reesesbookclub and, judging by the form of Witherspoon’s previous favourites, could well be headed for a film adaptation.

In 2012, Witherspoon’s agent set her up with Australian producer Bruna Papandrea and they founded the company Pacific Standard with one goal in mind – to feature dynamic women, Witherspoon stating that she was ‘tired of seeing only movies with a strictly male focus being produced.’

It all started with the big screen adaption of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. The story goes that Witherspoon received a galley proof that she read ‘in a sobbing mess’ on a flight from New York to LA. The actress played the demanding role of Cheryl, who had hiked the gruelling Pacific Crest trail in a bid to come to terms with her life and addictions. The film won Oscar nominations for her as well as Laura Dern in a delicate interpretation of Cheryl’s mother. Wild was followed by a film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl. Starring Rosamund Pike, who received a Best Actress Oscar nomination, the film grossed over $370 million at the box office and sent sales of the book soaring.

In November 2016, Pacific Standard became a subsidiary of Witherspoon’s new and prolific company Hello Sunshine, a joint venture with Otter Media, that still carries the mandate of telling female-driven stories.

Hello Sunshine had a recent smash hit with The Morning Show (Apple TV), Witherspoon starring with Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell. Meanwhile, the book picks continued to go from strength to strength with a TV series adapted from Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (2017). The HBO success led to a second series that followed the stellar female cast of Witherspoon, Dern, Nicole Kidman, Shaelene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz (and Meryl Streep in series two) as they negotiate domestic violence, relationships and the aftermath of a terrible accident.

Though Witherspoon’s formidable production power and scope is becoming widely recognised, we are most familiar with her career as an actor. Born in 1976 in the southern US state of Louisiana, her break out film was the comedy satire Election (1999), where she played the ambitious Tracy Flick, a career-defining role that won the National Society of Film Critics Best Actress Award, and Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award nominations. Director Alexander Payne said of her, ‘Nobody else is as funny or brings such charm to things.’

That charm and comedic talent drove the success of Legally Blonde (2001) and its sequels. Witherspoon starred as Elle Woods, a fashion-merchandising major who decides to become a law student in order to follow her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School. The film grossed $96 million in the US and earned the star comparisons with super smart comedic actors like Meg Ryan and Lucille Ball as she picked up her second Golden Globe nomination.

In 2004, Witherspoon was chosen to portray June Carter Cash, the second wife of country music singer-songwriter Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), in James Mangold’s Walk the Line. She performed her own vocals in the film in front of a live audience, with six months voice coaching, winning the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA and the Academy Award for Best Actress. In interviews about the role, Witherspoon revealed the themes that are close to her heart, themes that are consistent with her choices as a producer.

“This film … is realistic and portrays … a real relationship where there are forbidden thoughts and fallibility. And it is about compassion in the long haul, not just the short easy solutions to problems.” She adds, “[Carter] didn’t try to comply to social convention, so I think that makes her a very modern woman.”

In 2016, only 7% of filmmakers were women. An offshoot from this was a dearth of good scripts. Witherspoon’s husband since 2011, Jim Toth, an actor’s agent at Creative Artists, recalls her saying, “‘Everything I get offered is crap,’ and I told her, ‘There’s just nothing good out there.’” And this is where Witherspoon’s voracious reading habit came in. She reads morning and night, fiction and non fiction and cites her grandmother reading to her from an early age, with all the characters voices, as the main inspiration.

Of the many books Witherspoon has acquired the film rights to, several are well into production. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng was released last month as a TV miniseries for Hulu, Witherspoon producing and in a lead role. Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty of Big Little Lies looks set for screen adaptation, and YA novel The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin is in production.

Re-teaming with Chery Strayed and Laura Dern, Witherspoon is adapting Tiny Beautiful Things for an HBO series. The drama is based on the book of Strayed’s moving essays on life, romance, relationships and career.

The Luckiest Girl Alive, Jessica Knoll’s debut novel about a young New Yorker with a seemingly perfect life until trauma begins to resurface, was optioned for film rights by Pacific Standard in 2015 and is a slow burn movie project still in development. The original and funny Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is in development as Witherspoon teams with MGM to bring the story to the big screen. Another book heading to screen is Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Published by Random House, it was Witherspoon’s March 2019 book club pick and is now being produced by Hello Sunshine as a TV series, due to air on Amazon. And another project worth mentioning from Witherspoon’s extensive slate is Ashley’s War by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon that takes us inside the gripping story of a team of female American soldiers serving alongside Special Operations soldiers in Afghanistan­. The film especially honours Ashley White who died serving her country.

Women’s stories may have been neglected for far too long, but thanks to Witherspoon, her fans, colleagues, and the juggernaut that is Hello Sunshine, we are beginning to hear them loud and clear.


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