Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick
|First appearance||Election (novel)|
|Created by||Tom Perrotta|
|Portrayed by||Reese Witherspoon|
|Occupation||High School Student|
Tracy Enid Flick is a fictional character, subjected in the 1998 novel Election by Tom Perrotta and portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the 1999 film adaptation of the same title. Tracy is a smart, ambitious high school student, whose quest to win a school election is nearly derailed by her own ruthlessness and desperation. In both the novel and the film, she is the main protagonist.
Witherspoon's performance as Tracy was widely acclaimed by critics and garnered her multiple awards and nominations, including a Golden Globe nod. The character has since become an icon, as her driven, focused personality and unpopularity among her peers have led to comparisons with many real-life public figures, particularly female politicians such as Hillary Clinton.
Tracy is an overachieving high school junior, preparing for an easy election to the office of student body president after three years of extracurricular toil. Her assumptions of an unopposed victory are dashed when two unexpected challengers enter the race: friendly and popular athlete Paul Metzler, sidelined from the football team by a skiing accident, and Paul's younger adopted sister Tammy, a moody, sarcastic rebel. Paul has been coaxed into running by election supervisor Jim McAllister, a well-liked civics teacher nursing a deep resentment towards Tracy since her affair with Jim's best friend and fellow teacher cost the man his job and family.
As the race continues and Paul's effortless popularity continues to jeopardize Tracy's once-sure victory, Tracy's frustration drives her to commit an act of sabotage against Paul's campaign by ripping down his posters right before election day. Despite Jim McAllister's conviction of her guilt, she escapes punishment again through a stroke of pure luck when Tammy claims responsibility for the crime and is subsequently expelled, which was her objective in "confessing." Tracy wins the election and goes on to attend Georgetown University, her dream school, though she later has difficulty fitting in and becomes disenchanted with her schoolmates. She is later seen in Washington, D.C. working closely alongside a Republican congressman from Nebraska.
Film adaptation of Election
In the late 1990s, following her starring roles in the 1996 dramas Fear and Freeway, Witherspoon found herself in an unexpected career slump that led her towards a change in direction. "All my serious dramatic performances suddenly weren't getting me the jobs or opportunities that I really wanted," she said in a 2005 interview. "I have stacks and stacks of letters from great directors saying I can't cast you because you don't mean anything to the studios. That's why I turned the boat toward comedy."
Election's director Alexander Payne was eager to cast Witherspoon as Tracy, based on her performances in Freeway and the 1991 film The Man in the Moon, and Witherspoon was equally eager to sign on to the project—but not to play Tracy. Witherspoon was drawn to the part of Tammy Metzler, the cynical outcast who becomes the election's dark horse presidential candidate. Referring to the scene in which Tammy delivers a shocking campaign speech denouncing the school's administration and the entire concept of elected student government, Witherspoon said, "That speech alone made me want to play Tammy! So I was terribly conflicted."
To play Tracy, Witherspoon developed a distinct speech pattern combining strident intonations with a chipper Midwestern accent. She also worked on clenching her facial muscles and maintaining a clipped walking pace. "That was just Tracy, it so escapes me how it came out!" she said. "I just imagined how uptight people carry themselves, and they grind their teeth at night and they clench their jaw because everything has to be just perfect." Praising her performance, her co-star Matthew Broderick said, "From the first she knew exactly what she wanted—a very aggressive person in a small and cute package... she comes out very funny and very scary at the same time."
Witherspoon's performance as Tracy Flick received widespread critical acclaim, as well as her first Golden Globe Award nomination and several other accolades. However, she later said that her career struggles continued after Election due to public confusion between the character and the actress. "I'm not Tracy Flick. I couldn't get jobs for a year after that because people thought I was that crazy and angry and controlling and strange. But yeah, um, I'm not."
Roger Ebert began his review of Election by noting, "I remember students like Tracy Flick, the know-it-all who always has her hand in the air, while the teacher desperately looks for someone else to call on. In fact, I was a student like Tracy Flick." He goes on to compare Tracy to Elizabeth Dole: "a person who always seems to be presenting you with a logical puzzle for which she is the answer... She is always perfectly dressed and groomed, and is usually able to conceal her hot temper behind a facade of maddening cheerfulness. But she is ruthless. She reminds me of a saying attributed to David Merrick: 'It is not enough for me to win. My enemies must lose.'"
Awards and nominations for Witherspoon
|American Comedy Awards, USA||Funniest Actress in a Motion Picture (Leading Role)||Nominated|
|Chicago Film Critics Association Awards||Best Actress||Nominated|
|Golden Globe Awards||Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical||Nominated|
|Independent Spirit Awards||Best Female Lead||Nominated|
|Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards||Best Actress||Won|
|Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards||Best Actress||Nominated|
|National Society of Film Critics Awards||Best Actress||Won|
|Online Film Critics Society Awards||Best Actress||Won|
|Golden Satellite Awards||Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical||Nominated|
|Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards||Best Actress||Nominated|
|Teen Choice Awards||Film – Choice Hissy Fit||Nominated|
A 2006 profile of the character in The Washington Post called her "wonderfully monstrous." "In Payne's study of her pathologies, Tracy's will is so fiery and her perfection so total that no one dares stand against her in her goal." The Stranger wrote, "Like Humbert Humbert, the Reverend Harry Powell, and Baby Jane Hudson before her, Tracy Flick is a real and lasting contribution to the cinematic understanding of the villain, and the feather in Witherspoon's cap."
Tracy Flick has been a frequent point of comparison in commentary on real-world political figures. Hillary Clinton has more than once been compared to the character. In a January 2008 video mashup produced by Slate, campaign footage of Clinton was combined with clips from Election to draw a comparison between Clinton's and Tracy's feelings about the inferiority of their opponents. The video was widely circulated and praised.
A Christian Science Monitor review of Clinton's 2003 biography, Living History, quoted an excerpt in which Clinton discussed her participation during high school in a Cultural Values Committee and noted, "There is obviously some truth here, but the tone of the passage reeks of Tracy Flick, the overachieving, overly serious high school student from the film "Election." Not to belittle the efforts of the Cultural Values Committee, but a brief aside to show that Clinton understands that high school sociopolitics is not exactly on par with race relations would be nice."
Later in 2008, following Clinton's defeat for the Democratic presidential nomination, multiple commentators likened Tracy to the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Actress and comedian Tina Fey credited Witherspoon's performance as Tracy as an influence for Fey's extremely popular Emmy-winning impersonation of Palin on Saturday Night Live. Other political figures compared to Tracy include former U.S. Vice President Al Gore; Seattle City Council member Heidi Wills; Texas senator and Presidential candidate Ted Cruz; and New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, whom Maureen Dowd wrote was nicknamed Tracy Flick by her colleagues for her "opportunistic and sharp-elbowed" manner.
As a cultural icon
Tracy Flick has been included on a 2007 list on mtv.com of "our 10 favorite high school archetypes from the movies" (as "The Annoying Overachiever"); a 2008 New York Daily News list of "high-school fast-talkers before Charlie Bartlett"; and a 2008 E! Online list of "the top 9 creepiest movie bad guys." TV writer Dan Harmon has also mentioned in interviews and on his podcast that Tracy Flick was the inspiration for the character of Annie Edison on Community.
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