Reese Witherspoon did some serious fangirl-ing as she sat on the stage and gushed about Oprah Winfrey during a stop in Charlotte to celebrate this week’s release of her first book, “Whiskey in a Teacup.”
She practically squealed when explaining how she signed on to co-star in the 2018 film adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time” without reading the script, simply because Winfrey had already been cast. She spoke reverentially about how Winfrey had scones flown in to their movie set from Napa. And Witherspooon seemed barely able to contain herself over the fact that she has Winfrey’s cellphone number.
Yet on Wednesday night at Belk Theater — as a sold-out, mostly-female crowd hung on the 42-year-old actress/producer/entrepreneur’s every word, each person clutching a pristine copy of her pretty-in-pink tome — it was hard to ignore this fact: Witherspoon is a quite a bit like the woman she so idolizes.
“Best crowd everrrrrrrrr!!!,” Witherspoon shouted in an Oprah-esque tone after being welcomed by a standing ovation, and the three exclamation points are probably still a few shy of adequately reflecting her enthusiasm. Someone in the back called out, “We love youuuuu!” Without missing a beat Witherspoon responded, “It’s mutuaaaaaal!,” while pitching her neck forward and grinning and squinting those deep blue eyes.
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Furthermore, consider that the most expensive tickets entitled the most ardent fans to a limited-edition Draper James tote bag (Draper James is Witherspoon’s clothing line, named for her grandparents, Dorothea Draper and William James Witherspoon) that came “filled with some of Reese’s favorite products.” Sounds like something Oprah would do, eh?
Truth be told, Witherspoon is probably even more pop-culturally relevant and influential than Winfrey at this particular moment in time.
She was nominated for an Emmy in 2017 as an actress, but wound up winning as a producer (for HBO’s “Big Little Lies”).
Her Southern-inspired lifestyle brand, Draper James, makes preppy clothing that would be right at home in a modern-day Elle Woods’ closet, and recently launched a dinnerware collection at Crate & Barrel.
And the new book — subtitled “What Growing Up in the South Taught Me About Life, Love, and Baking Biscuits” — is destined to debut on the New York Times Best Sellers list whether or not she continues to promote it at all. (Of course, she will: The book tour continues in Birmingham, Ala., Thursday night and hits four more Southern cities before month’s end.)
But Witherspoon actually might have just as much in common with her Elle Woods character from “Legally Blonde” as she does with Oprah.
When she explained on Wednesday night, for example, that Elle “is put-together, (likes to) get her nails done, loves to read Vogue magazine, but also is fiercely intelligent, knows her worth and demands her worth,” she might as well have been talking about herself. Because underneath the effervescent sorority-girl sheen — the good looks, and the flirty, flouncy, flowy teal-with-black-polka-dots dress she wore for the event — is a strong woman with a zero-tolerance policy for men who think they’re superior.
“If you watch a movie that’s even five years old, there’s a girl that always turns to a guy in the third act (and says), ‘Well, what should we do now?’” Witherspoon told her guests, feigning a damsel-in-distress before getting serious: “I have never, in any crisis situation, turned to a man and said, ‘What should we do now?’”
After seeing so many of these female characters, she said, “I was like, ‘Hold on. I’m gonna make my own movies.’” And the crowd went wild.
The whole thing, as a matter of fact, was a dream come true for Reese Witherspoon fans.
With New York Times best-selling author Curtis Sittenfeld (a former Charlotte Observer intern, circa 1997) there to steer the conversation, the star was fairly judicious in her promotion of the book; instead, Witherspoon used the bulk of her time regaling the audience with warm, freewheeling reflections on everything from her biggest roles and her girl crushes on Dolly Parton and Jennifer Lopez to her scrumptious pre-show meal.
“I ate fried chicken salad today and I was living my best life! Then I had birthday cake afterwards ... and it’s not my birthday!” she said at the very beginning of the show, after revealing that 1) this was her first-ever visit to Charlotte and 2) she’d eaten those treats at Kindred in Davidson.
Over the next hour, Witherspoon tried on her best impression of “Big Little Lies” co-star Nicole Kidman’s Australian accent, much to the audience’s delight; she confirmed rumors that she can read four books a week, and over the course of the show recommended four good ones (“The Husband’s Secret” by “Big Little Lies” author Liane Moriarty, “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt, Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair,” and Delia Owens’s “Where the Crawdads Sing”); and she explained how her mom convinced her to try to befriend the girl who lived across the hall at Stanford University, how that girl became (and remains) her best friend, and how she “made her every Southern casserole there is” for that friend when that friend had a baby.
Maybe it was just me, but it actually seemed like Witherspoon — who was born in New Orleans and spent much of her childhood in Nashville — slipped deeper and deeper into her Southern drawl the more she talked. By the end, she almost didn’t even sound like Reese Witherspoon anymore.
Sadly, that end came too soon: Just over 50 minutes after Witherspoon walked out onto the stage, moderator Sittenfeld sheepishly told the audience at 8:38 p.m. that they’d run out of time. When she did, there was a smattering of groans.
But the groans quickly were overwhelmed by thunderous applause and a big old helping of Southern hospitality. That’s surely what Reese Witherspoon expected from her fans in Charlotte.
And definitely what she deserved.