When Reese Witherspoon scooped up her award at The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment breakfast on Dec. 11, she used the moment to tell a particularly jaw-dropping — if not amusing — story about what the industry was like for women when she was getting her start. The Big Little Lies producer and star accepted the day's headline Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, while journalist Ronan Farrow was awarded with the Equity in Entertainment Award, and political powerhouse Stacey Abrams gave a stirring keynote speech.
Reese, who brought her daughter Ava, eldest son Deacon, and husband Jim Toth with her to accept the honor, told the crowd that she wished her 22-year-old self could have gotten a glimpse of herself standing on the stage.
She remembered being a new mom to Ava — under pressure to support her young daughter — at that very age. And while she had the critically beloved movie Election under her belt, in which she played ambitious high-school politician Tracy Flick, she was having trouble booking new role . . . particularly at one studio in town.
"I finally called my agent and said, 'Why do I keep getting vetoed at this studio? And he said, 'Oh. Here's the thing. That exec thinks you ARE Tracy Flick. He thinks you're a shrew!' I'll never forget that he used the word shrew because it sounded Shakespearean — and important. By the way, the definition of the word shrew as it pertains to a woman is technically a woman of violent temper and speech. . . . So I'd just like to say, thank you, I am a shrew," she said, before asking a question that elicited loud whoops and raised hands from the audience: "Anyone else who thinks they might be a shrew?"
Long story short, Reese's agent helped her arrange a meeting with the exec. And it did not go well. When he asked what she wanted out of her career, she answered that she wanted to give performances like her idols Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep. "He said, 'Well, not that many women get to be the lead in movies. And also, Meryl Streep is completely over.' I'm not kidding! This actually happened to me in real life!"
Reese admitted she couldn't remember what she said to him in the moment because she was so stunned. But if she could go back in time? She'd say: "First of all, sir, I am not actually Tracy Flick, that's a character I played in a movie. That's how acting works. And one day, in December of 2019, I'll be sitting in a room at Milk Studios with so many women who are leading our industry by producing and creating film and television and shows on every platform for millions of people who really want to see better stories about women in film. There will be so many of us you won't be able to write us off. And also, you don't ever get to talk about Meryl Streep like that, okay?"
But as maddening as that story might be to hear, Reese told us it had a happy ending. "For those of you wondering, this executive left the studio shortly after and I haven't seen or heard of him ever since," she said. "However, earlier this year, I had the distinct privilege of working with Meryl Streep, and it turns out Meryl is doing just fine."
Reese's award was presented by her Little Fires Everywhere co-collaborator Kerry Washington, who congratulated her for elevating women — "and not just women who look like her."
Gretchen Carlson, who helped spur the ouster of Roger Ailes from Fox News, presented Ronan Farrow with his award. He used his moment to read the names of many of the women who came forward to serve as sources for his reporting on sexual harassment and abuse by now-shunned power-brokers like Harvey Weinstein, before signing off. "As a man on this stage," he said, "I am very aware of the importance of shutting up and listening."
The awards, sponsored by MoroccanOil and Fiji Water, among others, celebrated the women of The Hollywood Reporter's annual Women in Entertainment Power 100 list — as well as many young women who could be the future of that list.
Next to Reese's rallying cry of a speech, one of the most moving parts of the morning came when scholarships were bestowed on a number of high school girls who take part in the Women in Entertainment Fund's mentorship program. Several of the honoree's brought Charlize Theron to tears. And as Mindy Kaling presented one of several life-changing scholarships, she said, "I didn't expect to cry in my quiche!"