The Evolution of Reese Witherspoon: A Look Back At The 'Water For Elephants' Star In Photos

Robert Pattinson may be the main attraction in the period drama "Water for Elephants" (in theaters today), but his leading lady Reese Witherspoon has owned Hollywood's center stage for years. Giving a wide array of performances (it's rare to find someone who is as equally great at comedy as she is at drama), Reese has all but taken the silver screen by storm. Now the New Orleans-born beauty will be adding another impressive turn to her continually evolving resume. Let's look back at how Reese came to be one of today's biggest stars.

Born Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon on March 22, 1976, no one would have suspected this Southern belle would become an actress. After all, both of her parents worked in the medical field (her father John was a physician and her mother Betty a pediatric nurse). Still, Reese caught the acting bug early. At the age of 14 she she landed her first role, the lead in a coming-of-age drama called "The Man in the Moon."

While Reese lived the normal teen life (she was a cheerleader at her high school), the following years were anything but. With a few bit parts after "The Man in the Moon," Reese really caught the eye of audiences—and Mark Wahlberg, for that matter—in the 1996 thriller "Fear." That same year she earned raves for her work in the crime dramedy "Freeway."

Those films paved the way for the critically acclaimed "Pleasantville" in 1998, in which she played a bratty teen whose world gets turned upside down (and black and white) when she finds herself living in a 1950s sitcom.

The year that followed would be an especially life-changing one for Reese, both personally and professionally. For starters she starred in the twisted, dark comedy "Election," in which she played the type-A high-schooler Tracy Flick, a performance which earned her endless praise and her first Golden Globe nomination. Tracy's become one of the most iconic (and lovably hated) characters in comedic cinema history.

And she also appeared in the sexy drama "Cruel Intentions," in which she played a virginal teen who finds herself in the crossfires of a manipulative step-brother and sister. Not only was the film a success and something of a pop-culture phenomenon, but it's where Reese first worked with then-boyfriend Ryan Phillippe. Their real-life romance (they wed that year) translated into sizzling on-screen chemistry. While the pair didn't last (they split in 2006) they did have two beautiful children together, Ava and Deacon.

Reese proved the comedic chops she flaunted in "Election" were no fluke when, in 2000, she appeared as Jennifer Aniston's snooty sister Jill on "Friends." But it was in 2001 that she turned out one of her funniest, most memorable characters yet.

"Legally Blonde" hit theaters that year and since it would seem wrong to say a star was born, considering she already was one, it's safe to say her turn as lovable-ditz-turned-Harvard-law-student Elle Woods sent her to another stratosphere. Not only was the flick adored by moviegoers, but the performance earned her a second Golden Globe nomination. Thanks to Reese's memorable turn (which garnered her MTV Movie Awards for Best Comedic Performance, Best Dressed and Best Line) the film became so popular it spawned a sequel in 2003 and a Broadway show.

After performances in films like "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Vanity Fair" (in which she played, interestingly enough, the mother of RPattz), she appeared in the 2004 Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line." Reese took on the not-so-easy task of bringing the legendary June Carter Cash to life. Not only could Reese sing like country star, but she also captured the amazing story with grace and depth. Her work in the film not only snagged her a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe, but she walked away with Best Actress at the 2005 Academy Awards.

After her Oscar victory, Reese slowed her pace, only appearing in one film a year. From 2006 to 2010 she starred in so-so reviewed flicks such as "Just Like Heaven," "Four Christmases," "Monsters vs. Aliens" and "How Do You Know." Her personal life, however, became front and center when she dated actor Jake Gyllenhaal from late 2007 to 2009.

Now, just four months in, Reese is already having a big 2011. In late March she married entertainment agent Jim Toth, and now she appears in the long-awaited big-screen adaptation "Water for Elephants" alongside Robert Pattinson. Later this year she'll be seen in "This Means War."

Click on any of the photos above to see even more pics from Reese Witherspoon's stellar career.

What's your favorite Reese Witherspoon movie, Crushers? Let us know in the comments section below and on Twitter!