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— Ryan J. Downey


Reese Witherspoon, America's sweetheart. The marketing plan behind her latest film, "Sweet Home Alabama," is just the latest salvo in a long-running media campaign geared toward driving that particular designation home: Reese Witherspoon, America's sweetheart.

 'Sweet Home Alabama' photos
And sure, Reese is cute, she's huggable, she's bubbly. But what sets her apart from the handful of better-known and certainly worthy "sweetheart" title holders, from Meg Ryan to Julia Roberts?

"She's America's sweetheart, but with a bit of an edge," offered Patrick Dempsey, who stars opposite the blonde superstar in "Sweet Home Alabama." "I mean, look at 'Election' [and] 'Legally Blonde.' She's a strong, powerful, smart, opinionated, talented, beautiful woman."

"She chooses her material brilliantly," said former "Murphy Brown" star Candice Bergen, who plays Reese's potential mother-in-law in her latest flick. "She doesn't make a false step. You look at the list of Reese's movies and she's a very smart young woman and just is really in charge of her career in a way that's really impressive."

"You know, everybody talks about how smart she is," director Andy Tennant agreed. "She's a bright girl. She's kind of a combination of Meg Ryan and Jodie Foster. She's got the adorable, cuddly, lovable part that is Meg. But she's also fiercely intelligent and very good with material and looks at the world pretty seriously. And that kind of combination is for me really, really attractive."

What does Reese make of the comparison?
 "I try and just challenge myself and do something different ..."
"It's very flattering, and I love Meg Ryan," Reese said. "But I don't really think of myself as one thing or the other. I try and just challenge myself and do something different and pick roles that I like to play and be in movies [that] I want to see. So I just kind of focus on that."

And while last year's "Legally Blonde" certainly had a few things in common with a movie called "Clueless," Witherspoon's careful choice of roles during her decade-plus ascent to marquee status has proven her to be anything but. An actress from the age of 14, Witherspoon displayed strength and versatility in the 1996 teen stalker flick "Fear" and a taste for the strange in the decidedly adult "Freeway."

Even in movies like "Cruel Intentions" and "Pleasantville," which targeted youthful audiences, it was Reese's spot-on performances that combined with the filmmakers' meticulous execution to bring a subtle sophistication to the films.


NEXT: Reese can do 'perky,' she can do 'bitch.' She can even save an innocent woman from jail ...
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Photo: Buena Vista Pictures


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