She's proven she can do pratfalls, steal Johnny Cash's heart — and walk away with a little golden statue. Now, Reese Witherspoon takes her game to a whole new level in political drama ''Rendition''

By Benjamin Svetkey
August 17, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Legend has it Marlene Dietrich was banned from this restaurant for wearing pants. Humphrey Bogart used to eat here too — not to mention drink — along with Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Faye Dunaway, and just about every other A-list actor of the last 60 years. And now, on a balmy August afternoon, Reese Witherspoon (wearing a skirt, naturally) takes her place inside this sanctum sanctorum of the Hollywood elite, slipping into a corner booth at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills. ”Isn’t it great?” she gushes as a waiter rushes over to fluff her napkin and pour iced tea. ”It reminds me of where I grew up in Nashville — the way nothing about it ever changes.” She glances around to take in the splendor. ”They did switch the tablecloths once,” she adds sourly. ”That sort of bothered me.”

For someone who doesn’t like changes, Witherspoon’s undergone some big ones over the past couple of years, since picking up that Best Actress trophy for her turn as June Carter in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. For starters, there was the divorce from actor Ryan Phillippe, her husband of more than seven years — plus a rumored romance with a recent costar, and the inevitable tabloid scrutiny that comes from being hot and single in Hollywood (the new bangs haven’t hurt either). More to the point, there’s also been a major career reboot, with a slate of upcoming roles that could solidify Witherspoon, 31, as the most bankable actress in Hollywood. This October, for instance, she’ll star in Rendition, a sober political drama about a pregnant Midwestern woman who discovers that her Egyptian husband (Omar Metwally) is being secretly held by the U.S. government. (Jake Gyllenhaal plays the rookie CIA agent overseeing the interrogation, and Meryl Streep the official who orders the covert abduction.)

”It doesn’t smash people over the head with a message — you’re not even sure if the husband is innocent or guilty — which is one of the reasons I wanted to do it,” Witherspoon says. ”It represents different cultures in a real human way.”

In other words, it’s precisely the sort of complex, dramatic gig Witherspoon was rarely getting offered just a couple of years ago, when she was still considered mainly a comedic commodity (thanks to her Legally Blonde movies, which together grossed $267 million worldwide). But times, like tablecloths, change. With Julia Roberts now in semi-retirement and Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock in their 40s, Witherspoon is pretty much the only leading lady in her 30s with any measurable mass appeal. Certainly, among the actresses of her generation — Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet — she’s the only one with both a hugely successful comedy franchise on her résumé and a golden man on her mantel. ”Nobody else has her range,” says Mark Waters, who directed Witherspoon in her last comedy, 2005’s Just Like Heaven. ”Those other actresses are great, but you can’t see them doing pratfalls. Reese can win an Oscar and do a pratfall.”

NEXT PAGE: ”Actors have this influence — people ask about our clothes and things like that. I don’t want my politics to become part of that. It’s personal to me.”