The producers of the new film Mud, starring Reese Witherspoon, were probably hoping for publicity of a different sort for this week’s premiere. Instead of hitting the talk show circuit as planned, Witherspoon made the front pages after being arrested outside Atlanta for boozily mouthing off to a Georgia state trooper.
The officer had pulled over the actress and her husband, Hollywood agent Jim Toth, after seeing Toth driving erratically. As Toth was being arrested on suspicion of drunken driving, Witherspoon became unruly, belittling the trooper, refusing to stay in the car, and pulling out the classic ill-advised celebrity line: “Do you know who I am?” She was taken away in handcuffs, charged with disorderly conduct, and spent the night in jail.
What an embarrassment for Witherspoon, an actress of the American Sweetheart variety with now-punchline ironic credits such as Walk the Line and Legally Blonde. As a 37-year-old mother of three, she can’t claim youthful indiscretion for this performance. Witherspoon canceled several scheduled appearances to promote her latest movie and issued an apology through her publicist.
Conspicuous by its absence in Witherspoon’s mea culpa, though, was a lack of acknowledgement of the seriousness of her and her husband’s alleged actions. The truly problematic issue here isn’t the disorderly conduct charge, but the couple getting into a car allegedly – and in her case admittedly – intoxicated. “Friends” like E! Host Chelsea Handler downplaying the incident didn’t improve on the situation. Given the broader implications of the arrests, Handler and others would do well to steer clear of this mess.
THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Reese Witherspoon, from the arrest to the partial apology.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Note to celebrities: Sometimes it’s not all about you. Throughout this unfortunate episode, Witherspoon doesn’t appear to have thought about anyone else besides herself and her husband. Though she may be under a legal directive to say little given the pending criminal charges, one hopes her image rehab will involve admitting their lack of judgment and perhaps taking a visible stand against drunk driving. Fortunately for the tipsy couple – and everyone else on the road – the only damage done here was on the PR front.