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FILM: A novel challenge for blonde ambition

Reese Witherspoon achieved stardom by playing a blonde who was not as stupid as she looked. Now, in Mira Nair's rumbustious adaptation of Vanity Fair, she gets to play a blonde who is every bit as intelligent as she looks. This is progress in Hollywood.

It's difficult not to read Elle Woods, the prom queen turned legal ace of Legally Blonde, as a from-the-heart statement about the way blondes tend to get typecast in dithery roles. And by taking on the role of Thackeray's seductive social climber Becky Sharp, surely Witherspoon is making a tongue- in-cheek comment on the way that she is perceived in the media: blonde, aggressively ambitious, and a little hard-edged.

Waiting for the actress to show up for her interview appointment I keep thinking back to an anecdote I once read about her first major film role in the touching, but over-schmaltzy, 1950s adolescent love story The Man in the Moon. She was only 14, but the rest of the cast were so impressed by her bearing, her acting ability and her precocious confidence that she was given the on-set nickname "Little Meryl". Now, commercially, she's bigger than "big Meryl": in the current Hollywood-actress money- list she's up there with Nicole Kidman on $15m, just behind Cameron Diaz and Julia Roberts. She's the only actress under 30 in The Hollywood Reporter's 2004 top five.

When Reese eventually does show, she is neither hard-edged nor aggressive. She isn't even blonde. She's gone aubergine-tinted brunette for her role as June Carter Cash, the feisty wife of country singer Johnny Cash, in the upcoming biopic Walk The Line. Though she likes the fact that "people walk straight past me", Witherspoon admits that she is finally "getting tired of my brown hair... I feel more like a blonde". The effect is odd: undistracted by Witherspoon's trademark feature, one's attention somehow shifts onto the fragile petiteness of her features.

Still, there's nothing fragile about the way Witherspoon has constructed her career. Even her choice of name talks of a certain adolescent foresight. Reese was plain old Laura Jean Witherspoon until she replaced her Southern- belle moniker with her mother's maiden surname.

It's very easy to use hindsight to read patterns into an acting career; the least one can say of Witherspoon's is that - taking the looks as a given - it has been powered by equal amounts of solid acting talent, hard work, and blonde ambition. Having fluffed an audition for Cape Fear after a fellow passenger on the plane to New York told her, in great detail, who Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro actually were, and why she was quite right to feel terrified, Witherspoon got her head down and took on a series of small but demanding teenage parts in mid-budget movies like Wildflower and A Far Off Place.

It was Freeway that brought the now-mature actress back into critical, if not commercial, favour in 1996: this twisted road movie proved that she could stray into darker territory, and the promise ripened in her next two roles, as Tobey Maguire's randy sister in the moral-majority spoof Pleasantville, and as an ambitious, unscrupulous high school queen in Election.

But critical esteem was not enough, as Witherspoon readily admits: "When you're in movies that don't make any money, the studios don't want to hire you. I'd get into situations with directors who'd say "I really want you, but the studio won't let me, because you don't mean anything". So I had to take a little time to reconfigure my ideas about what I was going to do with my career, because if it was going to go anywhere I was going to have to start making commercial movies".

Everyone, Witherspoon included, was surprised by the huge success of Legally Blonde, her first headline role. Most Hollywood executives were convinced that it was Witherspoon's sparky and sparkling comic turn that brought the punters. Any actress who can turn a budget of $18m into box-office returns of more than $90m has got to be a good investment, and the former cheerleader from Nashville was suddenly catapulted onto the A-list. The healthy takings of Legally Blonde and Witherspoon's next rom-com, Sweet Home Alabama, gave the actress the freedom to call the shots. But she recognises that neither film is a masterpiece, coming over all defensive before I've even had a chance to attack.

"I wouldn't have been able to get the budget for Vanity Fair if it hadn't been for the commercial success of Sweet Home Alabama and Legally Blonde. It's a business, and you can't kid yourself that you can just... endlessly make artistic movies that don't make any money. Particularly if you have goals or ambitions or want to create opportunities for the rest of your career".

Witherspoon is part of the new proactive generation of Hollywood talent: actors who use their box-office muscle to raise funding for projects they are interested in. She has her own production company, Type A - a reference to her parents' affectionately teasing nickname for their goody- two-shoes daughter, "Little Miss Type A".