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The Essential Reese

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Positioned precisely in the center of a Manhattan ballroom, Reese Witherspoon stands greeting admirers who’ve come by to gush about the premiere of her new film Sweet Home Alabama. When one woman asks her to pose with a smitten teenage fan, Witherspoon moves right in, offers a smile—then, when the flash fails, trots out her best southern manners. “Take it again,” she urges. Again, she poses; again no flash. When the woman finally gets off a shot, Witherspoon can’t resist getting off one of her own. “You are the worst photographer in the world!” she chides, charming them with a blast of laughter. “It’s a good thing that’s not your profession!”

At 26, Witherspoon has hooked Hollywood with that same blend of sugar and spice. Her comic turns in movies like 1998’s Pleasantville and 1999’s Election triggered talk of a modern-day Lucille Ball, and after last year’s hit Legally Blonde she commands $15 million a film. Now Alabama, which made $37.5 million its first weekend, is prompting even more heady comparisons—namely, to the reigning queen of romantic comedy, Julia Roberts. “She has charisma and that ‘thing,’ ” says Marshall Herskovitz, who directed Witherspoon in one of her early movies,’93’s Jack the Bear. “The camera loves her, she is down to earth and sexy, and she has a great dignity about her that you don’t see in people as young as she is.”

As for playing America’s New Sweetheart, Witherspoon is happy to oblige, if only in limited doses. “It’s so flattering, but I don’t think of myself that way,” says the actress, who shot her first TV commercial at age 7. “I think all the failures I’ve had the past 13 years have helped me appreciate the moment.” They also help keep her priorities straight. Less than an hour into the postpremiere party, she and her husband of three years, Igby Goes Down star Ryan Phillippe, 28, slip away together.

Much like her characters, Witherspoon is “wholesome, adorable and deeply smart—very, very smart,” says Holland Taylor, who costarred with her in Legally Blonde. She has learned from watching the pros. “Nobody made Julia Roberts a star. She busted her butt,” Witherspoon told Premiere. “She broke down stereotypes and believed in herself. That’s the kind of tenacity I think it takes to succeed.”

These days the newlywed Julia might want to rip a page from Witherspoon’s lesson book. In addition to preparing for Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, which starts shooting next month, Witherspoon is juggling the give-and-take of a high-profile marriage and the rigors of raising their 3-year-old daughter Ava in a town that offers little of the ease she recalls from her own Nashville childhood. “She wants to give her child the kind of upbringing she had and knows she’s going to have to work hard to achieve that,” says pal and author Jessica Teich. She seems to be hitting the mark. Ava, who recently began preschool (on day one Mommy cried, Ava didn’t), is oblivious to her parents’ fame. “She just thinks Mom is a goofy lady,” says Witherspoon, who attends a Mommy and Me play group with Ava. Even at work, she is very much the mom. Alabama costar Patrick Dempsey says that Witherspoon helped him and his wife, Jillian Fink-Dempsey, through their first pregnancy and continues to be a valuable resource. “Reese has a life outside the business,” he says. “That’s the priority. Everything else is just icing on the cake.”

Witherspoon inherited her values—and sense of humor—from her parents, Betty, 54, a professor of nursing, and John Witherspoon, 60, a surgeon, whom she calls “very eccentric,” adding that Dad “rides a Harley and wears camouflage gear.” Dubbed Little Type A—she still can’t walk by a Hold Everything container store and admits to being “obsessed with Tupperware”—Witherspoon made both her film debut in The Man in the Moon and her TV debut in the movie Wildflower at 14, while maintaining good enough grades to later get into Stanford University. Though she quit college after a year to pursue acting, she still writes letters to her favorite high school teacher and remains a voracious reader. When Kelsey Lowenthal, 7, who has a bit part in Alabama, asked Witherspoon for acting advice, “She told me to read a lot of books,” she says.

Witherspoon met Phillippe when a mutual friend brought him to her 21st-birthday party. At evening’s end, she told him, “I think you’re my present.” Two years later, after they had costarred in Cruel Intentions, he cooked her waffles with strawberries and cream, then served them to her in bed, along with a proposal. They married in June 1999 and had Ava three months later. Today Witherspoon makes only one film a year and is never away from Phillippe more than two weeks at a time. They spend off-hours cooking meals or watching DVDs—”I like thrillers like Seven and Silence of the Lambs, and Ryan likes documentaries,” she says—at their English Tudor-style house in the Hollywood Hills.

Not that they claim to have the perfect marriage. Phillippe recently told New York’s Daily News that they attend therapy. “The biggest mistake,” he said, “is not doing that, ignoring it and having the marriage fall apart because of laziness.” Witherspoon agrees. “I’m not interested in the fallacy of the Hollywood relationship: ‘We have perfect children who never cry; we never have problems; we never argue, we’re always best friends,'” she says. “That’s just not true. We’re normal people with normal problems.”

And lately normal injuries. On Sept. 29 the couple rolled up to an L.A. rape treatment center benefit looking like they’d just been in a scrap: Phillippe, who had cut himself getting out of the tub, sported a Band-Aid; Witherspoon, who had fallen at Ava’s 3rd-birthday party, wore a cast on her broken left foot. Not that it bothered her too much. Perfectionist she may be, but precious she is not. “She’s not taken with the movie star thing,” says her friend Teich, “On-and offscreen, she’s the real deal.”

Jill Smolowe

Todd Gold, Rachel Biermann, Kwala Mandel and Ruth Andrew Ellenson in Los Angeles and Liza Hamm in New York City