Arts & Entertainment

Reese Witherspoon’s Best Southern Roles

From “Felony Melanie” to June Carter Cash, the Oscar winner’s performances endure with humor, heart, and a heap of natural Nashville-nurtured talent


Witherspoon, wearing Draper James, photographed at the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia.

In her thirty-plus years of acting on screen, Reese Witherspoon has evolved from precocious Hollywood darling to a multimedia Hollywood powerhouse whose lists of current producing and acting projects on IMDb are so long you’d run out of breath trying to say them all aloud. That includes, this summer, the much-anticipated film adaptation of the best-selling book Where the Crawdads Sing

Add to all that her Draper James lifestyle brand and retail shops, her other Hello Sunshine development company projects (including mentoring programs for young female filmmakers), and her kingmaking—let’s make that queenmaking—Reese’s Book Club, and you begin to wonder how she also has time to, among other endeavors, run a completely charming Instagram account. But then you imagine her responding as her now iconic Elle Woods does in Legally Blonde: “What, like it’s hard?”

As many roles as she’s played over the years, though, her Southern performances have been few and far between. Yet the following five, which span her career, remain eminently rewatchable, with Witherspoon dialing up (or down) her natural Nashville accent to memorable and award-winning effect. 

The Man in the Moon (1991)

This coming-of-age drama may have been Witherspoon’s film debut, but she plays fourteen-year-old Danielle “Dani” Trant with such ease, you’d swear she was as seasoned as her acclaimed castmates Sam Waterston and Tess Harper. Dani, along with her older sister, falls in love with a new neighbor, the seventeen-year-old Court Foster, in a 1950s Louisiana farming community. No spoilers here, but the ending manages to be both heart-breaking and life-affirming thanks to Witherspoon’s harder-than-it-looks performance.

Sweet Home Alabama (2002)

Here Withespoon plays with aplomb “Felony Melanie” Smooter (or, as she’s known among the New York elite, Melanie Carmichael), a fashion designer who sneaks back down to her Alabama hometown to acquire a divorce from her estranged husband—only to get taken down a peg or two. Even if this early 2000s rom com deals in not a few Southern stereotypes—overdone accents and backward hicks and howlin’ hound dogs among them—an awful lot of this film’s humor rings true. After all, who among us hasn’t heard, “You’re lettin’ out all the bought air!” after leaving the door open?

Walk the Line (2004)

In one of the top biopics of the new century, Witherspoon embodies June Carter Cash down to the dulcet voice (no dubbing for her or costar Joaquin Phoenix, who plays her love Johnny Cash, thanks to six months of singing lessons with T Bone Burnett), talent on the autoharp (which she learned for the film), and equal parts sweetness and steely resolve. Carter Cash herself gave Witherspoon her blessing. No wonder she won her first (and so far, only) Oscar for Best Actress as a result.

Mud (2012)

This award-winning indie film became a critical darling thanks to strong performances by the entire cast, stacked with a who’s who of great Southern actors: the late Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon, and Matthew McConaughey as the titular “Mud,” a fugitive who befriends two Arkansas teens played by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. The youngsters pledge to help Mud make his way back to his true love, Juniper—aka Reese Witherspoon, who makes the most of (and shatters illusions with) her limited screen time.

The Morning Show (2019–)

With her portrayal of hard-hitting West Virginia reporter turned national morning show anchor Bradley Jackson on Apple’s Me Too–inspired drama series, Witherspoon manages to do what at this point in her career seems impossible: She makes you forget she’s Reese Witherspoon. She’s not blond (at least not initially). She’s not sparkly. She’s a dark and vulnerable but determined mess. And she’s never been better.