Reese Witherspoon is in the national treasure stage of her career. There are other actors with greater range, and even more whose performances feel, well, naturalistic, but what Reese does is singular—signature, even—and enduringly, irrepressibly wonderful. It has just been over a decade since we’ve seen her at her Reesiest.
At last, in Big Little Lies’ Madeline Martha Mackenzie (a Reese character name if we’ve ever seen one), we have peak Reese, in all of her aggro-neurotic blonde glory. Nicole Kidman may give the most heart-wrenching performance in the show, but Reese’s Madeline is the show’s heartbeat. And nothing dictates tone and tempo like when Madeline stomps into a room, already mid-harangue.
To truly feel the amazing in Reese’s work on Big Little Lies, we have to of course call out Tracy Flick, Elle Woods, and even Melanie Smooter, her fashion designer from Sweet Home Alabama (in that movie, she was on the cover of, yes, W). These are three shades of the same Reese archetype: success-obsessed overachievers who appreciate deviations to their immaculate plans about as much as they appreciate hold-ups in the Otter Bay Elementary pick-up line. Or yellow tape. Or Sade.
In the 15 years since Legally Blonde, Reese has proved herself an excellent dramatic actress—as June Carter in Walk the Line, as Cheryl Strayed in Wild—without ever really giving us the full Reese until Madeline, the tightly-wound, meddlesome mother in Big Little Lies. Like the most beloved of Reese’s characters, Madeline is a little out of touch with reality, which lets Reese really flex her physical and facial comedic genius, whether it’s in the service of destroying a child’s birthday party, or literally vomiting in her daughter’s stepmother’s lap (and front, and face). The more time you spend with her (Big Little Lies is, of course, Reese’s prestige foray into TV), the more you realize that at the heart of Madeline’s charm is a contradiction: She is both neurotic and lacks self-awareness. You can laugh with her, and you can laugh at her. This is the essence of Reese’s appeal as a performer.
When Madeline learns that her daughter is going to live with her ex-husband, she says to her new husband, “She wouldn’t leave if she knew I had cancer.” “But you don’t have cancer,” Ed replies. “I’d be willing to get it,” she says.
Big Little Lies would be so much more depressing without her.
But what good is a perfectly varnished veneer if it doesn’t crack? Vulnerability, and the ability to flip the switch from comedy to melancholy with no lag time, is what makes Reese’s the most compelling performance on this show, and what has sustained her performances over her career. In the penultimate episode, Madeline and Ed are discussing their sex life, or lack thereof—a subject on which Madeline likes to treat Ed as a dumb puppy who needs to brushed off all the time. But then Ed delivers the devastating line: “That’s the secret behind every happy marriage, the ability to pretend.” Madeline’s face falls, her lip quivers, she leaves the room without stopping to get the last word.
I have nothing but praise for Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Celeste—she wields her character’s beauty like a sharp edge. Laura Dern even comes close to matching Reese for command of a room. But what you get from Reese is exactly what you want from Madeline: never cede a point (except when it makes you look better to do so), and never willingly lose a scene. Putting Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, and Shailene Woodley around her only ups Reese’s game. If you had to pick one person who is truly irreplaceable in this show, it has to be Madeline. There is no Big Little Lies without her. Let’s hope she survives Sunday’s finale.
Watch Big Little Lies stars Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley’s screen tests:
Reese Witherspoon’s Style Evolution, From Election to Big Little Lies
Witherspoon attended the 1991 premiere of her debut movie, The Man In The Moon, sporting an adorable daisy top, black skirt, and cowboy boots.
Witherspoon embraced true 90’s fashion at the Nowhere West Hollywood Premiere in clogs, choker, and an eclectic hairstyle in May1997.
The actress opted for a sheer, silver ensemble for a 1998 film premiere with complimenting bag and peep-toe pumps.
The actress tied together a pink maxi skirt and white top with a gold belt for the Cruel Intentions premiere in Los Angeles in 1999.
In true Elle Woods fashion, the actress attended the Legally Blonde premiere in a pink dress with tulle accents.
The actress stunned in a strapless, navy dress with gold accents at The Importance of Being Honest premiere in New York City.
Witherspoon toughens up a feathery, grey number with a velvet belt at the world premiere of Sweet Home Alabama in New York City.
A brunette Witherspoon opted for a pale blue Carolina Herrera number for the Venice Film Festival’s Vanity Fair premiere in 2004.
Back to blonde, the actress went for an embellished, tea-length Monique Lhuillier dress for the Just Like Heaven premiere in Los Angeles in 2005.
The actress opted for a bright red Caroline Herrera frock with an oversized black bow belt for the NYC premiere of Walk the Line in November 2005.
The actress shined in a Chanel dress at the 63rd Annual Golden Globe Awards, where she won Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for Walk the Line.
Witherspoon arrived at the 78th Annual Academy Awards in an embellished Christian Dior, later taking home her first Oscar that night for Walk the Line.
The actress opted for a yellow, strapless Nina Ricci dress with a contrasting red open-toed shoe for the 64th Annual Golden Globe Awards in January 2007.
Witherspoon dazzled with a futuristic, ruffled Rodarte frock with green accents– perfect for the Los Angeles premiere of Monsters vs. Aliens.
The actress wowed viewers in Zac Posen’s pre-fall 2012 peony taffeta bustier gown at the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards in 2012.
Witherspoon sparkled in a green and black sequin Louis Vuitton mini dress and Christian Louboutin pumps at the This Means War premiere in 2012.
Witherspoon posed with designer Stella McCartney, wearing her designs, at the Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in May 2014.
The actress picked out a classic LBD with a twist at The May Fair Hotel Gala Screening of Wild during the 58th BFI London Film Festival.
The actress wore a Balenciaga frock (in pink, of course) with nude pumps at the premiere of Inherent Vice in December 2014.
Witherspoon channeled old-Hollywood glamour in a strapless, sparkling Calvin Klein gown at the 72nd Annual Golden Globes in January 2015.
The actress went glam in a sleek, black and white, off-the-shoulder Tom Ford gown at the 87th Annual Academy Awards.
The actress sparkled in a silver embellished dress by David Koma to the 50th Academy of Country Music Awards in 2015.
The actress stunned in a strapless, red Jason Wu gown at Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala in 2015.
Witherspoon attended the opening of Draper James’ Nashville store opening in a lace dress by the brand.
Witherspoon wore a floral, J. Mendel dress with Tiffany & Co. jewelry to one of the brand’s Blue Book parties in 2016.
The actress was seen out and about in Los Angeles pairing a Draper James a-line skirt with pops of yellow and dainty jewelry in March 2016.
Witherspoon opted for a pink and silver off-the-shoulder dress with nude pumps to the Sing premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.
The actress let this black, embellished Elie Saab number steal the show with simple black pumps and minimal accessories at the Los Angeles Sing premiere.
The actress-turned-producer optde for a silver sparkling Elie Saab number for the premiere of her most recent venture, HBO’s Big Little Lies.
Witherspoon stunned at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in a black, embellished, long-sleeved Michael Kors number with simple black pumps.