More than any other character in Vanity Fair, it was Becky Sharpe who engaged director Mira Nair.
"I think Becky is literature's greatest character," says Nair.
Reese Witherspoon, who gets about $15 million per film and is one of Hollywood's highest paid actresses, slashed her fee considerably so that she could play Becky -- and more important, she says, work with Nair.
"I have been a big fan of Mira," says Witherspoon who did her own bit of promotion for Nair's Monsoon Wedding, holding private parties to attract attention for Oscar nominations for the film, two years ago. "We have similar sensibilities about women."
Becky Sharpe, whose ambitions and aspirations hurt many, including her childhood friend the somewhat naïve Amelia, is not always likeable. But her fear of being forced into a world of poverty is something we can understand.
Witherspoon sees Becky in a more favourable way than many commentators and readers see the now fragile, now determined young woman. For the actress, the complex character of Becky is a modern phenomenon, too. "She had been deprived of parents and has no place to go in the world," Reese says. "And yet, she does not despair."
Whereas someone like Alistair Cooke, who presented the Masterpiece Theater on PBS, found Becky 'poor, but pretentious, genteel, but on the make,' Witherspoon finds her a refreshingly created strong woman character. "In a world that is so hard to negotiate, she does a fantastic job of managing. She figures out how to negotiate her way through society," she says.
For Reese, who has played a number of endearing roles in hit films like Sweet Home Alabama and the two Legally Blonde comic adventures, playing Becky meant a shot at the Oscar nominations.
Focus, the American distributor of Vanity Fair, plans to take a number of For Your Consideration advertisements in trade publications such as Variety starting in late November.
But a lot will depend on how the film is reviewed -- and how it has fared at the box office.
Anything less than $25 million at the American box office will be considered disappointing and may seriously hurt the Oscar campaign.
Though $23 million looks small compared to the $80 million average Hollywood movie budget, Nair says it was not easy to get the money. But having Witherspoon commit to the film helped considerably. Soon, a raft of seasoned British artists including Eileen Atkins (Matilda Crawley) -- considered by many the best of the English actresses apart from Vanessa Redgrave -- Bob Hopkins, Jim Broadbent and Gabriel Byrne rolled in.
Nair says the film was extraordinary lucky to have Reese play Becky because the star exudes warmth, wit and intelligence. "You cannot help but love her," says Nair, who has worked with top Hollywood talent. She directed Uma Thurman in the acclaimed hit HBO film Hysterical Blindness, and Angelica Huston and Marisa Tomei in the ill-fated Perez Family. Not to forget the young and promising Denzel Washington in Mississippi Masala.
But Witherspoon was something utterly special.
"She has the appeal which I had to have for Becky because I didn't want to see a movie where you hate Becky," Nair says. "It is easy to dislike Becky because she can be so manipulative and scheming."
"We needed an actress who was irresistible," Nair continues. "We wanted the actress to convey in a sympathetic way the rise and fall of Becky."
Despite the presence of many seasoned artists, especially Atkins, Witherspoon has a special presence in the film that just cannot be forgotten easily, says Nair.
"You will also be seeing her in a way she hasn't been presented on the screen as yet," the filmmaker adds. "You see a sensual and womanly side of her."
"It is a lovely journey Reese and I have taken together."