Reese Witherspoon: The most expensive actress in Hollywood

Even if she doesn't get an Oscar on Sunday, Reese Witherspoon can console herself with stealing Julia Robert's crown as 'Hollywood's most expensive actress'. David Usborne on the $29m blonde
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It was one of those sweet Hollywood moments when love and togetherness trumps ego inflation. Ryan Phillippe, the actor, was preparing to unseal the envelope at an awards ceremony a couple of years ago, when he suddenly turned to his wife, standing next to him, and said, "You earn more than me, you open it."

His missus is Reese Witherspoon, who, on Sunday, hopes to find her own name in an envelope when she, and the rest of us, will discover whether she has won an Oscar for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in the country-music biopic, Walk the Line. But win or lose, Phillippe was so right about the money thing.

In fact, Phillippe, who, with his angel-face looks, is not so shabby on the screen himself - he is perhaps best remembered for his supporting role as an American interloper pretending to be a butler in Gosford Park - had better get used to earning the smaller of the two pay cheques in his household.

We learn this week that Ms Witherspoon has now reached the pinnacle of celluloid celebrity, establishing herself as the most expensive actress in Hollywood. Knocking Julia Roberts from the top of the money-mountain, she will be paid $29m to star in a new horror film, Our Family Trouble.

The preternaturally perky Witherspoon, who is only 29, is the favourite to win on Sunday, although some soft-hearted critics are rooting for Felicity Huffman, a co-star of the TV satirical saga Desperate Housewives, who does a deeply empathetic turn as a man trying to become a woman in the low-budget independent film, Transamerica. She is also competing with Dame Judi Dench and Keira Knightley.

If Witherspoon does win the Oscar, we'll ask if she couldn't have had the decency to wait a while before achieving such obscene dollar-power. That, after all, is what Roberts did - it was only after she won her Oscar for Erin Brockovich in 2001 that she pierced the earnings stratosphere, bagging $24m to co-star with Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles in 2004's Mona Lisa Smile.

The parallels between the careers of Witherspoon and Roberts are already being pored over by the Hollywood myth-makers. Both actresses were burdened early in their careers with reputations for doing fluff and comedy. For Roberts, 38, there was Flatliners and Pretty Woman. Only after playing the real-life eco-campaigner Erin Brockovich did she establish herself as a "serious" actress.

For Witherspoon, the transition has been even starker. She first came to prominence in 1999 with the excellently witty but none the less daft high-school comedy Election. But as anyone's daughter will tell you, Witherspoon really burst through our cinema screens as the ditsy and saccharine Elle Woods in the campy box-office smash Legally Blonde, and its inevitable sequel Legally Blonde 2. She did also have parts in The Importance of Being Earnest and Vanity Fair, but few of us remember her in either.

Unlike Roberts, though, who has had her share of tabloid turmoil, with two failed marriages, including her ill-fated, 15-month coupling with the country star Lyle Lovett, Witherspoon is as skilled at image-control as she is at acting - or then she indeed has the perfect marriage and perfect life. She also has two young children - Ava, six, and Deacon, two - and, at least by her own accounting, she pulls off the trick of maintaining a happy home while conquering the heights of her profession, with all the travelling and pressure that entails. She may be only 5ft 2in, with a frame as thin as a bookmark, but apparently there is steel in this young woman.

She tells us that she has her roots and her own family to thank for her sense of balance and, as it happens, for helping her to fashion the character of Carter Cash.

A true Southern belle, she was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but was raised almost entirely in Nashville, Tennessee, the cradle of American country music. Her parents were themselves high achievers, even if they never enjoyed the floods of cash now swamping their daughter. Her father was a surgeon, while her mother, holding no fewer than six degrees, worked as a nurse and then a medical lecturer.

There was nothing in her household, therefore, that ordained that she should take the entertainment trail. But apparently she caught the bug very early and, although bewildered, her parents did nothing to discourage her. By the age of seven, Witherspoon had appeared in her first television ad, and at 10 was well on her way with a part-time acting and modelling career. She was in her first film, The Man in the Moon, at just 15.

It was her parents who insisted, however, that she finish high school and continue her studies, and it was only after she completed her first year studying for a medical degree at Stanford University in California that Witherspoon dropped out. Again, the acting urge got the better of her and she appeared in the 1996 film Fear, opposite Mark Wahlberg. Then there was no stopping her.

If professional success came early for Witherspoon, so, too, did love. It was on her 21st birthday in 1997 that she met Phillippe. The couple were engaged a year later and tied the knot in 1999, when she was already pregnant with their first child. Such is the glow surrounding their marriage, some are comparing them to that other golden couple of Hollywood, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

"We have a great relationship," she told one interviewer. "We have thrived, mainly because of hard work and our backgrounds. My husband and I both grew up with parents who have been married for over 30 years, and I think that has taught us both a lesson about commitment and how important it is not to just throw your hands up about this or that." She cooks and wipes bottoms. She told another reporter: "Our lives work as a family because I just pretend I'm not famous half the time. I just close my eyes and I don't look at people when I'm out with my children. I want my children to have my full attention."

The last remark explains why things got a little out of hand last year when a paparazzo tried to snap her while she was at Disneyland for Ava's sixth birthday. Witherspoon did not play nice with the snapper, Todd Wallace, who ended up being charged with child endangerment after knocking down two other children in his attempt to get close to the star. In a morbid coda to the story, Wallace was last month found dead in his LA apartment.

Walk the Line, hugely applauded by critics and audiences, tells the story of the alcohol-soaked and drug-addled Johnny Cash, played by a characteristically simmering Joaquin Phoenix - who himself is nominated for the Best Actor Oscar - and his tortured courtship with, and eventual marriage to, June Carter, herself a star of the country-music circuit. Witherspoon was sleeping off jet-lag in Berlin early last month, during a European promotional tour of the film, when her agent woke her to break the news of her nomination. In her dozy state, Witherspoon thought the overexcited voice of her agent was that of her daughter.

Sticking to her script as just an ordinary gal and mother of two, Witherspoon has not allowed herself to float to the clouds with anticipation. "Whatever happens, I've won plenty of awards for this movie already," she remarked a few days afterwards, with an air almost of nonchalance. Indeed, her performance has so far won her six major gongs, including at the Golden Globes and from Bafta.

And she has spun a good line in self-deprecation, describing what she says was a monumental struggle to bring her singing voice up to scratch for the part. Indeed, when she first signed on the dotted line to play it, she assumed that she wouldn't have to sing at all. She almost backed out there and then. "I called my lawyers crying and said, 'I'm not going to do it, can't you get me out of it?'. It was terrifying, it scared me to death." But Witherspoon, who says that her voice at first sounded like nails on a blackboard, took five months of singing lessons and finally nailed the Carter sound. Something else scared her: it was the first time she had been asked to play a real person. (Witherspoon never met Carter, who died in 2003, but not before she had given her blessing to the actress to play her on the screen.)

Of course, Witherspoon may be exaggerating about her early vocal ineptitude. Indeed, we are slowly learning that, in many ways, we have been duped by her all along. That perky thing. That Elle Woods thing. We thought she was blonde and pretty and dotty. Instead, she is a woman clearly in control - of her voice, of her career and, most certainly, of her public image. She even has her own film company, Type A Productions (her parents used to joke that she was a Type A American girl), through which she can assert control over her future career path. Its next project is a film called Penelope, now in production in England. It is described as a fairy tale about a pig-faced girl, played by Christina Ricci, who finds happiness. Witherspoon plays her best friend.

As for Phillippe, meanwhile, he has the consolation of being the perfect husband to the highest-earning actress in the history of Hollywood. Most of us could cope with that kind of shadow. And while he has no nominations going into Sunday's Oscars ceremony, he does at least have a stake of his own in how the night plays out. He had a small part in Crash, one of the contenders for Best Film.