Pour a glass of red and fire up Facebook Live, because Reese Witherspoon has a mystery she wants you to solve! For over a year now, the Oscar-winning actress has been dropping hints about an in-demand script she was sent that was so puerile—”maybe the worst script I’ve ever read in my entire life,” she’s said—that it hastened her successful foray into producing her own material. Now, big stars get sent bad scripts all the time, but Witherspoon says this one was an especially awful case: According to her, several hot actresses vied to be in the project despite its more-than-evident drawbacks, and the film was eventually made with two Oscar winners in the cast, a distressing example of how rough it is to make good movies these days in Hollywood.
This week, in a Hollywood Reporter roundtable, Witherspoon dropped another helpful clue about the worst script’s identity. But first, let’s revisit what she said about the project in March of last year, during an Entertainment Weekly interview:
About four years ago I got sent an awful, terrible script. And this male star was starring in it, and there was a girlfriend part. And I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. No, I’m not interested.’ They said, ‘Well, this actress is chasing it: three Oscar winners and two huge box-office leading ladies.’ And I thought, Oh, that’s where we’re at? You’re fighting to be the girlfriend in a dumb comedy? For what? And by the way, two Oscar winners did it.
Okay, let’s break down the information Witherspoon gives on the project here.
1) Since this interview was done in 2016 and Reese says she was sent the script four years before, the bad movie in question was likely released in between 2012 and 2016. There’s a little bit of wiggle room here—our memories can play tricks on us, after all—but Witherspoon did indeed start her own production company in 2012, so this timeline checks out.
2) The role Witherspoon was offered was a “girlfriend part”—in other words, a fairly thankless love interest meant mostly to prop up the male lead.
3) The movie is a “dumb comedy.”
4) Two Oscar winners appear in the film. Now, this is the tricky part! Witherspoon never comes out and says that the actress who took the girlfriend part is one of those two Oscar winners, though you would certainly get that impression from her level of disgust. Anyway, it’s a fair place to start when trying to untangle this mystery, so let’s.
When I put this question to Twitter last year, some people thought Witherspoon might be referring to The Dilemma, a quickly forgotten Vince Vaughn–Kevin James infidelity comedy that did indeed star an Oscar-winning actress, Jennifer Connelly, in the thankless “girlfriend part.” And since Witherspoon co-starred with Vaughn in Four Christmases, it’s reasonable to expect he would have sent her this script, asking her to play his romantic partner once again.
However, it’s not a perfect fit. Witherspoon says “two Oscar winners” did the film, and while there are two other Oscar-nominated actresses in The Dilemma, Winona Ryder and Queen Latifah, neither actually won. She could be referring to the film’s Oscar-winning director, Ron Howard—after all, she never explicitly says that the Oscar winners are actors—but if the worst script Witherspoon ever read was eventually directed by an Academy Award winner, don’t you think she would have emphasized that in her blind item? And finally, The Dilemma went into production in 2010 and was released in 2011, which places it somewhat outside the timeline Witherspoon has offered for when she read it.
One recent film that did star two Oscar-adjacent actresses and could be deemed a comedy is 2013’s American Hustle, David O. Russell’s double-crossing hit with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence. But let’s be honest, Reese totally would have done that movie, and even if you’re not a fan of the film, it’s hardly a script so egregious that it could be deemed the worst thing ever written. One movie that could fit that bill is 2015’s Mortdecai, a Johnny Depp bomb co-starring Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow. The only fly in the ointment here is that Depp has never actually won an Oscar, though it’s possible that since he’s a three-time nominee, Witherspoon thinks he must have picked one up along the way. (This is a crucial question to ask when trying to solve the mystery: How much of an Oscar buff is Reese Witherspoon? Sure, she’s won one herself, but might she wrongly assume other nominated veterans have, too?)
Before moving on to my best guess, let’s revisit what Witherspoon said this week in the Hollywood Reporter:
I started a production company five years ago because I was looking at maybe the worst script I’ve ever read in my entire life and it had two parts for women. I called my agents and said, ‘This is such a terrible script.’ They said, ‘Well, seven women want it so … you’re the only one who’s not vying for the part.’ And I thought, God, if this is what we’ve come to, I have to get busy. Because you can either complain about a problem or you can be part of the solution.
At first glance, this wouldn’t appear to offer much new information, but it does continue to nail down the timeline: A year ago, Witherspoon said she read the script four years prior, and this year, Witherspoon says she read the script five years ago. This tells us that Witherspoon is not just throwing around vague estimations, hand waving that something happened “a few years ago” when it was anytime in the past decade. No, Reese Witherspoon read this script in 2012 and she remembers it clearly! She also says the movie had “two parts for women,” though again, those weren’t necessarily the roles filled by Oscar winners. We’ll come back to this one.
So what dumb comedy script was making the rounds in 2012 and eventually went into production with some Oscar winners attached? Most likely, Witherspoon is referring to A Million Ways to Die in the West, a vanity project that Seth MacFarlane started prepping for himself after his comedy Ted became a surprise hit in the summer of 2012. It’s exactly the sort of puerile comedy you can imagine offending Witherspoon’s sensibilities, and while she would have balked at playing second fiddle to someone like MacFarlane, who had never led a live-action movie before, other actresses weren’t so discerning: Oscar winner Charlize Theron, who was eventually cast as McFarlane’s love interest in the film, says she “begged” for the part. That syncs up with Witherspoon’s clue that the hotly pursued role had several actresses fighting for it.
Now, in the Hollywood Reporter blind item, Witherspoon says the film has “two parts for women.” If you’re feeling charitable, West has three notable female roles: Theron’s, an ex played by Amanda Seyfried, and Sarah Silverman’s prostitute. Would that disqualify it? Not necessarily. I’d wager that if Witherspoon was sent the script, it was to gauge her interest in playing the roles filled by Theron and Seyfried, with the Silverman part likely off the table. Thus, there were really only two bad female roles on Witherspoon’s radar.
But the real clue that pays off here is the one about the two Oscar winners. There’s one obvious one in the cast, Theron. Another West co-star, Liam Neeson, is the kind of person who seems like he ought to have an Oscar, even though he doesn’t. But it’s likely Witherspoon is referring to a deep-cut cameo from the movie: At the end of West, Oscar winner Jamie Foxx shows up, essentially reprising his Django Unchained role. You might not expect Witherspoon to be invested enough in Jamie Foxx to clock his career lows, but guess who presented her with the Academy Award when she won for Walk the Line? Yup. So while Witherspoon might be too polite to ever name the worst script she’s ever read, it’s fair to assume that if you go West, you’re heading in the right direction.