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Reese is the new Julia

March 12, 2006 |  9:28 pm

On Oscar night, Reese Witherspoon emerged as more than just a best actress champ. To America's female filmgoers, she became the new Julia Roberts — a beauteous superstar simultaneously revered as a Hollywood goddess and beloved as just one of the girls.

Julia Roberts Reese Witherspoon

Reese's brilliant Oscar speech cinched her new lead role. It was a miraculous, last-minute rally. Reese's thank-yous at the SAG Awards and the Golden Globes had been boring bombs. When Reese's name was announced as Oscar winner, many journalists backstage winced, fearful that the girl from Tennessee would give them more dull homespun banalities not worth quoting.

Instead, when she opened her mouth at the podium, a superstar was born.

Reese gave another Oscar-worthy performance thanking her parents for their support: "It didn't matter if I was just making my bed or making a movie. They never hesitated to say how proud they were of me and that means so very much to a child." Her verbal twang gave the words southern comfort.

But her next words buzzed with dramatic intensity when Reese recalled how June Carter Cash used to say, perkily, "I'm just trying to matter!" — then Reese added humbly: "I know what she means, you know. I'm just trying to matter and live a good life and make work that means something to somebody and you have all made me feel that I might have accomplished that tonight."

Bingo. Reese said just the right poignant things, winning over the hearts of TV viewers while moving on up to the Oscars pantheon. There she will reign as a special Oscar champ, not just another Charlize Theron or Helen Hunt. No, no. Reese did what Julia and Nicole Kidman did. She made female film fans bond with her in an extraordinary way. She now represents them. They identify with her just like Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson and J.Lo on the pop culture scene — with several key differences: Reese is no bimbo, she's smart and she can act.

Photos: Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon are superstars who come across as every girl's best friend.
(Universal Pictures / Twentieth Century Fox)

And not just act, but Reese has demonstrated impressive emotional range. That's what all of the fuss has been about over "Walk the Line." The screen queen of such wry comedies as "Legally Blonde" and "Election" showed us how well she can handle drama.

Julia Roberts gave us glimpses of similar dramatic skill early in her career ("Mystic Pizza," "Steel Magnolias"), but then became a popular star performing comedies like "Pretty Woman" and "My Best Friend's Wedding." When she hit moviegoers next with the emotional wallop of "Erin Brockovich" — thus proving that she can, egads, really act — Julia grabbed an Oscar.

Reese and Julia not only have that career experience in common, but they both have similar personal lives as glamorous starlets with cute toddlers and hunky hubbies.

Next there are parallels between Julia's and Reese's regal paychecks. Reese denies the rumor that she'll be paid $29 million for starring in the horror film "Our Family Trouble," but it's clear she'll be paid a lot. The question is: Is it as much as Julia made for "Mona Lisa Smile"? ($25 million) Reese earned $15 million for each of her last two flicks: "Vanity Fair" and "Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde." Presumably, her new paycheck will be north of that.