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Witherspoon Walks The Line

Actress Reese Witherspoon arrives at the AFI Fest Opening Night Gala presented by Audi and screening of "Walk the Line" at the ArcLight's Cinerama Dome November 3, 2005 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI)
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CBS News Sunday Morning contributor David Edelstein is mesmerized by Reese Witherspoon's performace in the Johhny Cash biopic "Walk The Line."



It was nine years ago when -- I have to be honest -- I was whacked-out on painkillers from dental surgery and turned on the TV and saw this actress. I thought I was hallucinating. Keifer Sutherland was a serial killer who picks her up in his car, but this little spitfire, well, the idea of being murdered just offends her. The psycho doesn't have a prayer.

The movie was a campy thriller called "Freeway" and the actress, with the colorful name of Reese Witherspoon, wasn't a hallucination or a fluke. In 1999, she became a critics' darling as another incorrigible female, the scary high-school overachiever Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne's "Election." Tracy sits in class with her legs primly crossed while her hand shoots up like a rocket. Matthew Broderick's protagonist doesn't have a prayer.

The jokes were more low brow in "Legally Blonde," but it was the part of the pink princess who barrels her way through Harvard Law School that made Witherspoon a star. And with those glamour close-ups you could see what a great camera face she had: both gorgeous and funny looking, with acres of cheekbone and a strong jaw ending in a goofy little chin. But anyone who laughs at her gets incinerated by that laser stare.

Since then, Witherspoon has carried such formula chick flicks as "Sweet Home Alabama", but she bombed in her most ambitious role: the scheming Becky Sharp in "Vanity Fair." She was costumed to conceal her pregnancy and didn't have her usual snap and the film defanged her by making Sharp a dull feminist victim.

Now, Witherspoon wows us again as June Carter in "Walk The Line," the Johnny Cash biopic she all but steals from the star, Joaquin Phoenix. No, that's not fair -- he's terrific; he drops his voice so low he makes you believe it comes from that skinny frame. But Cash's trajectory into booze and speed is a long, long downer, and Witherspoon provides the helium. She gives every scene a lift.

She's marvelous showing Carter playing Carter, inventing a sassy, countrified caricature to cover for her lack of confidence as a singer. This is Witherspoon the brilliant comedian getting inside the head of another brilliant comedian. The surprise is her intensity when Carter is offstage, watching the man she loves in freefall. The character is a mite too wholesome, but the actress is on fire. When Cash beholds Witherspoon's Carter, he thinks he's hallucinating.

I know just how he feels.