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REESE'S PIECES; FROM `ELECTION' ROLE TO IMPENDING MOTHERHOOD, WITHERSPOON LIKES THE DIRECTION HER LIFE HAS TAKEN.

Byline: Bob Strauss Daily News Film Writer

Some people overachieve just to get attention. Reese Witherspoon generates attention without half trying.

In her latest movie, ``Election,'' the 23-year-old actress plays an ultra-ambitious high school senior, Tracy Flick, who will go to any lengths to become class president. In real life, Witherspoon says things like ``I'm only in this for as long as it's still fun, and then it'll be time to do something else.''

However unintentionally, Witherspoon has managed to create a stir quite a few times, starting eight years ago with her movie debut, ``The Man in the Moon.'' Her performance as a lovelorn pubescent was remarkable for its intelligence and emotional comprehension; even more so coming from a Nashville teen-ager whose only previous experience had been in local TV commercials.

The daughter of a doctor and a nursing professor, Witherspoon concentrated on her education (first at Haspeth Hall, Music City's toniest all-girl high school, then at Stanford) rather than join the legion of fast-flaming kid actors in Hollywood. The limited time she spent working was mostly spent on a handful of carefully chosen, artistically challenging film projects (Diane Keaton's ``Wildflower,'' the provocative ``Fear'' and ``Freeway'').

Over the last six months, Witherspoon's profile has been on an ever-rising trajectory. In the widely acclaimed 1998 release ``Pleasantville,'' she was a sexually aggressive '90s girl trapped in a 1950s sitcom universe. Earlier this year, she switched gears to play an outspoken virgin in ``Cruel Intentions,'' the controversial teen version of ``Les Liaisons Dangereuses.''

That film's February release was accompanied by the announcement that Witherspoon and co-star Ryan Phillippe, her boyfriend of two years, were expecting a baby (they plan to marry before the child's arrival).

Now the satiric ``Election,'' co-starring Matthew Broderick as an obsessed educator and marked by discussions of student-teacher sex so raw that it makes ``Never Been Kissed'' seem positively parochial, is bound to raise a few eyebrows. And the film Witherspoon is making now will likely raise roofs; it's an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' novel ``American Psycho,'' the tale of a yuppie serial killer that was published amid a firestorm of condemnation.

Despite all that, Witherspoon denies any desire for celebrity.

``As far as being in the spotlight and under public scrutiny, a lot of that's about how much you put yourself out there,'' says the actress, a petite blonde whose wide, saucerlike eyes and button nose enable her to still play convincing teen-agers. ``It's not like we go to every premiere and every celebrity function and every charity auction. We really just try to maintain our privacy and never let our public persona get out of hand.''

If anything, it's her work that sticks in people's minds. When ``Election'' director Alexander Payne was preparing his second feature (his debut was the similarly taboo-breaking, abortion conflict farce ``Citizen Ruth''), Witherspoon was one of the first actresses he approached.

``We had this weird meeting,'' she recalls. ``Then suddenly, the next week he offered me the role. He'd only seen `Man in the Moon' and he was sure I could do it! I didn't want to call him and say, `That was nine years ago, things have changed a little.' But it worked out.''

Payne's instincts were sound, according to those who know Witherspoon. Although she exhibits none of Tracy Flick's delusions or pretensions, she definitely shares a few personality traits with the furiously motivated achiever.

``She's a very smart, well-read, headstrong young woman who knows what she wants in life and knows what she wants in her career,'' says ``Intentions'' producer Neal H. Moritz.

``What I've always found the most attractive about Reese is her strength; she can handle everything,'' adds Phillippe (``54,'' ``I Know What You Did Last Summer''). ``Things just roll off her back; she just knows how to take care of business.''

When she got the ``Election'' job, Witherspoon plunged right in. She secretly enrolled in an Omaha, Neb., high school like the one where the film is set.

``I lasted incognito for about two days, then all the kids caught on,'' she says with a chuckle. ``But it was great. I had this great girl that showed me around who was an Omaha cheerleader and president of the student council. She was such an inspiration for the character.''

Tracy's darker aspects were informed by different sources: Witherspoon's fellow Stanford undergrads.

``College provided the prototype for this kind of person,'' she says, ``that is so ambitious and so determined to get ahead that they will do anything and everything to succeed. I met a lot of those kind of people at Stanford, people who'd worked so hard on their academic careers and worked so very little on their socialization.''

But wasn't a Southern girls school upbringing socially retarding in a different way?

``Nope, I loved it,'' Witherspoon says without hesitation. ``Loved my uniform, loved not having to compete for male attention, loved that we were able to focus on our work, loved not having the drama of relationships in high school - and it's not like we missed out on that stuff, we had plenty of it on the weekends.''

Witherspoon will next be seen in a film noir thriller, ``Best Laid Plans,'' scheduled for a September release. As for the complaints ``American Psycho'' is sure to generate - victims-rights advocates have already petitioned the Toronto city council to withhold permission to shoot the film there (their request was denied) - Witherspoon claims that it will be much ado about not much.

``The book is actually really different from the movie,'' she says. ``The script is not violent at all; there are probably two rough minutes in the movie, but all the rest of the graphic violence in the book has been omitted. It's really more of a satiric look at these young New York socialites in 1987, and how incredibly materialistic they are.

``It's really about the loss of the individual to the point where this guy has no identity and he wants to come out and tell everyone that he's done these awful murders, but nobody believes him.''

Sounds intriguing. But you have to ask if impending motherhood is possibly going to have a bearing on whether or not Witherspoon will make movies as provocative as ``Election'' and ``Psycho'' in the future.

``I don't know if my tastes will change after I have the baby,'' she admits. ``You just make decisions based on who you are as a person, but I don't know how that's going to affect me. I'm definitely happy with the way my career has gone, the success; but I even feel glad that I've experienced some failure in my life. That gives you perspective and humility about this business; it's good to realize that you're always just one movie away from not being in vogue anymore.''

That's prospect terrifies most actors of any age. But Witherspoon has other, more serious priorities.

``I'm very excited about the baby,'' she says. ``I realize no movie can ever be as important as the process and the journey we're going through now. I think that it's very easy to take time in your life to work on your career, but it's harder to take time to work on the quality of your life. But that's sort of what we plan on doing for the next year.''

CAPTION(S):

3 Photos

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) REESE'S thesis

Ms. Witherspoon on the `Election' results

Suzanne Plunkett/Associated Press

(2) no caption (Reese Witherspoon)

(3) In her latest movie, ``Election,'' which opens today, Reese Witherspoon plays an ultra-ambitious high school senior who will go to any lengths to become class president.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 23, 1999
Words:1271
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