Inspired by Cash's music, strength

SPOTLIGHT

Spotlight: Reese Witherspoon

November 18, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Studio publicity states that June Carter Cash was an early inspiration for Reese Witherspoon, who plays Johnny Cash's true love and salvation in Walk the Line. That's surprising, considering Witherspoon, 29, is known for artistic independence (she heads her own production company, Type A), while Carter gave public statements like, "I find my happiness from trying to make John comfortable and happy. And I try to take everything off him that would cause him worry. And he does me the same way."

But over the phone from Los Angeles, Witherspoon says that growing up in Nashville, she knew that June, part of the Carter Family, played a key role both in popularizing country music and keeping it real. "I had to learn country music history in the fourth grade," recalls Witherspoon, "and the Carter Family is a big part of that."

As a character in Walk the Line, June Carter was inspirational - and not just because she rescued Johnny Cash from drug addiction and near-terminal malaise.

"People keep asking me what June got from him," says Witherspoon. "But look at his support of her and his encouragement of her artistry. He recognized the talents she had for writing and performance when a lot of people didn't."

The movie dramatizes how difficult life was for June long before she and Cash became a couple. Touring in shows with Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley as well as Cash "required a lot of self-possession from June. She had to command respect from talented, famous, popular men surrounded by sycophantic people, often women. She didn't suffer fools, she wasn't interested in unprofessional behavior. And she wasn't interested in a relationship with any of them," laughs Witherspoon, "except, from what I've heard, maybe with Elvis."

For a female country singer of that era, divorce was a moral stain. Carter had two failed marriages - to singer Carl Smith and to Edwin "Rip" Nix, a garage owner - and a daughter from each. (She and Cash would later have a son.) During one scene, where June confronts a country fan who dresses her down for being a scarlet woman, Witherspoon awoke yet again to "the struggle women have gone through to be equal in society. It could be suffocating. And here's a woman trying to break out and do things."

At the same time, she says, "June's restraint is what defines her in this film. She is so infatuated with this man that she is suppressing her will to be with him at every moment, because of the social impropriety and just the difficulty of being with such a large personality who's so troubled."

It was crucial for Witherspoon, her co-star, Joaquin Phoenix, and her director, James Mangold, to pinpoint when Johnny and June consummated their love. Mangold told The New York Times that June confessed it happened when Johnny was still married, after a show in Vegas. But it was just for one night. Then, Mangold said, "she put an end to it, and John went downhill from there with the drugs. And she gave up on him."

Says Witherspoon, "The moment when a woman decides she's going to be with a man is a huge thing, at that time, but even now. It's the moment in which there is no return. And it was important we knew why they capitulated to their infatuation. They had had this amazing night of performing on stage - there's video of it, and we watched it - and it was sexually charged."

Savoring the videos of Carter singing and spieling onstage unlocked the character for Witherspoon. "You could see her transformation. She starts out very conservative, in these tight-corseted clothes and tight hairdos in the '50s. But when she met John she evolved into a much more sexually liberal woman. It was almost like he freed her."

Witherspoon and Phoenix did their own vocals for the movie. "The singing part was really intimidating because when you go into these scenarios, you want to be as good as you can possibly be. ... T-Bone Burnett, who produced the album, encouraged us to tell a story, relate to your audience, and sing like you're singing to your children." (Witherspoon and husband Ryan Phillippe have two.)

Witherspoon's voice tenses over the phone only when she's asked whether it was a relief to play a fluid woman like June after a run of shrewd or calculating characters from Election through Legally Blonde 2 and even parts of Just Like Heaven.

"I know I don't play stupid well," she says. "I don't know how to do `I don't think.' I can't get that dumb, vapid look. If you want dumb and pretty, don't come to me."

But based on her galvanizing performance in Walk the Line, if you want ace instincts and savvy - grab her.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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