Is Reese Witherspoon the next Julia Roberts? With a surprise hit, the $15 million star aspires to be America's newest ''Sweet'''-heart
Reese Witherspoon
Credit: Reese Witherspoon Photograph by Lorenzo Agius/Corbis Outline

There’s a new belle of the box office and her name is Reese Witherspoon. The actress’ ”Sweet Home Alabama” shucked $35.6 million in its opening weekend, trampling 1999’s ”Rush Hour” as the biggest September bow in history and even edging out Julia Roberts’ ”Runaway Bride” as the best-ever romantic comedy debut. Not bad for the story of a girl trying to flee her trash blanc past for a new life as a chic Manhattan designer.

Even more remarkable is that Touchstone’s $30 million-budgeted film was carried on the slender shoulders of a 26-year-old star whose biggest movie to date was 2001’s surprise hit ”Legally Blonde,” which grossed $96.5 million domestically. ”We hung everything on her,” says ”Alabama” producer Neal H. Moritz, noting that costars Patrick Dempsey and Josh Lucas were MIA from posters. ”That huge picture of her is what sold the movie.”

And Witherspoon almost didn’t get the role. ”We had talked about Reese early in the project,” recalls screenwriter C. Jay Cox. ”But there’s a limited list of actresses that Hollywood will make romantic comedies with. We said, ‘It’s too bad Reese isn’t on that list.’ Then all of a sudden, last summer — bam! — she was a movie star.”

While Witherspoon’s looks and talent recall an earlier generation of big-screen comedic blondes like Goldie Hawn, studio execs seem fixated on comparing the Nashville native to Hollywood’s OTHER steel magnolia. ”She is the next Julia Roberts,” says Billy Hopkins, a casting agent who hired Witherspoon for the 2000 satirical drama ”American Psycho.” ”In terms of what she’s getting paid, what she’s doing at the box office, it’s the same thing that happened with Julia Roberts and [also] Sandra Bullock in ‘Speed.”’

The proof is in the pay stub. After earning $5 million for ”Alabama,” Witherspoon negotiated a $15 million deal with MGM for ”Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde” — 15 times her reported salary for the original. She’ll also snag a producer credit for her two-year-old Type A Films shingle. Sources close to Witherspoon predict she’ll approach $20 million for the next project she signs. (The actress declined to comment for this story.) Even actor hubby Ryan Phillippe, her costar in 1999’s ”Cruel Intentions” and father of the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Ava, recognizes who the breadwinner is. Presenting an award at the 2001 Oscars, he let her announce the winner, joking, ”You make more than I do. Go ahead.”