The premise of Legally Blonde, a 2001 American comedy film directed by Robert Luketic, is honestly the sort of cringe-worthy Hollywood cliché that makes one want to run a mile. Elle Woods, a rich Los Angeles college student obsessed with beautiful clothes, pedicures and her tiny dog, is rejected by her law student boyfriend. To win him back, she impulsively applies to Harvard Law School to reunite with him and win him back.
While the basic premise sounds vacuous and unengaging, the film itself is a remarkable surprise. It is still a slightly unbelievable comedy, but it is gifted with an excellent central performance by Reese Witherspoon – the film effectively made her career – and a number of unexpected and refreshing story choices. It begins with a naïve stereotypical blonde woman trying to win back her ex-boyfriend, and ends with her realisation as a confident, intelligent professional. It’s a progression I did not expect from its basic premise. This film is a surprise.
Legally Blonde was also the feature debut of Australian director Robert Luketic. He had graduated from the Victorian College of Arts (VCA) in Melbourne with a highly acclaimed musical comedy short film under his belt. That film, Titsiana Booberini, was a critical success and screening at numerous film festivals including both the Sundance Film Festival and the Aspen Shortsfest, where it won Best Film. ‘All the praise and acclaim, but no cigar,’ said Luketic. ‘There were no job offers, and I had debts to pay. I ended up working for the Australian Film Commission answering phones.’[i]
With the exposure gained from his short, Luketic did eventually get the attention of Hollywood’s film studios. When MGM offered him Legally Blonde, he eagerly accepted the offer. ‘I’m unashamedly a commercial filmmaker,’ said Luketic, ‘and I was looking for a breakthrough film.’[ii]
Legally Blonde was based on a novel by Amanda Brown. Brown had spontaneously decided to attend law school herself, only to discover it was not the experience she had expected. ‘I was in my first week of law school,’ she recalled, ‘in 1993, and I saw this flyer for “The Women of Stanford Law,” so I was like, “I’ll go and meet some nice girls. Whatever.” I went to the meeting, and these were not women. These were really angry people. The woman who was leading it spent three years at Stanford trying to change the name “semester” to “ovester.” I started laughing and I realized everyone in the room took it very seriously. So I didn’t make any friends there.’[iii]
After abandoning her law degree Brown worked part of her experience into a novel. Her agent submitted the manuscript to both publishers and film studios simultaneously. While no publisher expressed any interest in the book, MGM was keen to sign up a film adaptation. It turned Legally Blonde into a slightly unusual project: an adaptation of a novel that had not been published.
The film was produced by Ric Kidney and Marc E. Platt. At the time Platt was working under a production contract with Universal Pictures, but after that studio turned the novel down he personally followed it to MGM. While there he supervised both Legally Blonde and the comic book adaptation Josie and the Pussycats simultaneously.
Platt was an experienced producer, having worked at Orion Pictures as Vice-President of Production where he oversaw numerous productions including The Silence of the Lambs and Dances with Wolves. In the context of those films Legally Blonde initially seems an odd choice, but then it seems Platt recognised a good script when he saw it – even the fairly uneven Josie and the Pussycats has merit in its writing.
Making his feature directing debut on a studio picture gave Luketic pause. ‘You know how scary that is,’ he said, ‘when [the studio] distribution [department] shows you a big chart on the wall and there is Legally Blonde and all around it is Julia Roberts [in America’s Sweethearts] and Planet of the Apes and the dinosaurs and A.I. It’s just absolutely petrifying.’[iv]
As with most character-based comedies, Legally Blonde’s success or failure rode to a large extent upon its star. ‘Legally Blonde is a film that I always believed in,’ said Platt, ‘and there was only one person that I wanted to play that role – period. It was Reese Witherspoon, and she was, at the time, not a star. She’s a very, very smart woman, very eclectic taste. And she wasn’t interested in Legally Blonde. And I pursued her and pursued her and convinced her that not only was she the only one to play this role, but by her playing the role she could create something quite memorable.’[v]
As it initially seemed unlikely that Witherspoon would accept the role of Elle Woods, Platt also approached Christina Applegate. The popular TV actress had recently completed shooting the long-running comedy series Married… with Children, and was worried that playing another superficial, seemingly foolish blonde would pigeonhole her career.
Platt’s perseverance with Reese Witherspoon ultimately paid off: she unexpectedly accepted the role, enabling the producer to push Legally Blonde into production. ‘I read the script and it reminded me a lot of Private Benjamin,’ said Witherspoon. ‘I just loved the idea of this woman being presented as somebody who is helpless and not so bright, and sort of turning the tables on everyone.’[vi]
While shifting from independent films to studio features seemed an unlikely move for Witherspoon, she did not personally see a problem. ‘This isn’t about reality and struggle,’ she said, ‘but you can do commercial movies, have fun making them, and still maintain your integrity. I take it as seriously as I would any other movie. You have to bring the same sort of passion to it.’[vii]
Amanda Brown’s novel had Elle attend Stanford University, which was Brown’s own alma meter. The University objected to the film’s screenplay and refused permission for the film to shoot there. The University of Chicago was investigated as a potential replacement, but the screenplay was ultimately rewritten to have Elle attend Harvard instead, after that university showed no objection to being featured. That said, budgetary considerations saw the film actually shoot at the University of Southern California, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and the California Institute of Technology. Harvard itself only appeared via establishing shots. Similar problems with script approval saw Elle’s sorority changed from the real-life Delta Gamma to the fictional Delta Nu.
With Reese Witherspoon cast, the supporting characters were quickly filled in. Matthew Davis was cast as Elle’s ex-boyfriend Warner. He had made his screen debut a year earlier in the Joel Schumacher drama Tigerland before co-starring in the horror sequel Urban Legend: Final Cut. Subsequent to Legally Blonde Davis co-starred in the TV series What About Brian and The Vampire Diaries.
Chloe Sevigny was offered the role of Vivian, Warner’s new fiancée, but turned it down. Selma Blair was cast in her place. Blair, a former child actor, had shot to fame co-starring in the 1999 teen drama Cruel Intentions. She is a fascinating actor, dividing her time between mainstream Hollywood productions – Legally Blonde, The Sweetest Thing, Hellboy – and edgier independent productions including Storytelling, Dark Horse and In Their Skin. As with Witherspoon, Blair brings more to her character than is potentially given to her in the screenplay and helps to transform Vivian from an unlikeable antagonist into a rounded, multi-dimensional person.
Luke Wilson was cast as Emmett, a young attorney assisting at the university who begins a romantic relationship with Elle. Like Selma Blair Wilson had balanced his career between commercial and independent projects, with projects like Scream 2, Blue Streak and Charlie’s Angels balanced by films including Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and Home Fries.
Callahan, the law professor who gives Elle a chance at interning on a real case, was played by Canadian actor Victor Garber. Garber made his film debut playing Jesus in the 1973 film Godspell, and subsequently divided his time between theatre, film and television. In 1997 he played a prominent supporting role in James Cameron’s Titanic. After completing work on Legally Blonde he co-starred in the J.J. Abrams spy series Alias from 2001 to 2006.
‘It was really in my wheelhouse,’ said Garber of playing Callahan, ‘because, you know, playing egotistical pricks is one of my specialties. I don’t know why. I don’t know why people cast me that way, but for some reason, I seem to be good at it! I love those kind of roles. I love playing those kinds of people that you just love to hate.’[viii]
Legally Blonde commenced shooting in Los Angeles and Pasadena. Both Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah Lutz stayed with the production during the shoot, regularly rewriting the screenplay as the director and cast refined and developed new ideas.
To reflect Elle’s personality, Reese Witherspoon’s hairstyle was changed for almost every scene of the film: 40 different styles in all. The production used colour to separate Elle from her fellow students. They are all deliberately dressed in dark, sombre colours, while Elle wears bright pinks and yellows. Even her laptop stands out: in an ocean of drab black personal computers, she uses a brightly coloured iMac.
Elle Woods is a beautifully developed protagonist. What initially appears to be stupidity is merely naiveté. She clearly has an exceptional intelligence – she gets into Harvard Law on academic merit – but she lacks any sense of self-awareness. She is constantly upbeat, and always seeking a bright side. She is a ridiculously difficult character to write well, and credit is due to Smith and McCullah Lutz for doing such a strong job within the context of the film and its genre.
We can mock films like Legally Blonde all we want to, but when we do that we’re usually mocking them for what they’re not. They’re not complex films, they are rarely nuanced, and they lack depth. They exist purely to entertain a mainstream audience. Judged purely on the criteria of its own specific genre of comedy, the film is perfectly pitched and remarkably well-written and performed. Legally Blonde is a film of subversions. It presents its audience with Elle, a stereotypical ‘dumb blonde’, although within the first three minutes of the film she’s already demonstrated herself to be much smarter and more perceptive than her appearance would suggest. It sets Elle off on a quest to regain her lost boyfriend, except at the 40 minute mark she realises the futility of that goal and focuses upon self-development instead. It features a seemingly vain and bitter antagonist in the shape of Vivian, only to transform her character from opponent to ally by the film’s climax. It features a warm and encouraging father figure, Callahan, who ultimately turns out to be a corrupt sexual harasser.
The film is also remarkably good-hearted. Elle seems to live her life purely to help others. She helps one awkward student in becoming more attractive to women. She helps her under-confident friend Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) take back her pet dog from an ex-boyfriend, and sets her up with the man of her dreams. Even when faced with an antagonist like Vivian Elle’s reaction is to find a way to be friends, rather than to fight or ridicule her. Films like Legally Blonde are actually quite rare: while there is conflict, almost all of the characters are revealed to be good-hearted people.
Of course not everyone was entertained or pleased by the film. Luketic recalled: ‘There was this [feminist] backlash that was saying we regressed [women] 20 years. I remember getting horrible letters signed by 20 or 30 people. I sent back a lovely Hallmark card.’[ix]
The film’s conclusion was originally scripted and filmed to show Elle and Emmett kiss on the courthouse steps, followed by a scene of Elle and Vivian setting up a ‘blonde legal defence club’ on campus. Test screenings of the film found that audiences were unsatisfied with that ending, and expressed a desire to see a final conversation between Elle and Warner, as well as Elle’s graduation from college. ‘It was just kind of a weak ending,’ said Karen McCullah Lutz. ‘The kiss didn’t feel right because it’s not a rom-com – it wasn’t about their relationship. So test audiences were saying, “We want to see what happens – we want to see her succeed.” So that’s why we rewrote for graduation.’[x]
The graduation scene was shot in two halves. One was shot at Dulwich College in London in early 2001, close to where Reese Witherspoon was shooting Oliver Parker’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The other was back in Los Angeles, where the film’s supporting cast were shot, and then edited in between shots of Witherspoon in London.
Legally Blonde was released into American cinemas on 13 July 2001. It topped the box office, overtaking rival opening films The Score and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and ultimately grossed more than US$140 million dollars worldwide. While critical reviews were mixed, almost all of them praise Reese Witherspoon’s performance. The film propelled Witherspoon from up-and-coming actress to bona-fide Hollywood mega-star. She was paid approximately one million dollars to make Legally Blonde. For 2002’s Sweet Home Alabama she was paid US$5 million; for 2003’s Legally Blonde 2 she was paid US$15 million.
In October 2001 the ABC television network purchased the rights to remake the film as a half-hour situation comedy; however the project never made it out of development. The 2003 movie sequel, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde, under-performed commercially and was loathed by critics. A 2006 Entertainment Weekly article cited it as one of the “25 worst sequels ever made”. A second sequel, Legally Blondes, featured an entirely new cast and production team and was released directly to home video.
More successful was a Broadway musical adaptation, which ran for a year before transferring to London’s West End for an additional three. Multiple productions of the musical have toured around the world over the past eight years, including seasons in France, Finland, Canada, Australia and the Philippines.
It’s been almost 15 years, yet Legally Blonde continues to cast a long shadow. ‘I’m reminded of it every day,’ said Luketic. ‘I fly to Australia and it’s on in theatres, it’s on at Broadway, I just can’t escape it. The other night I was watching television and a political commentator played a scene from it. It’s just pervasive in popular culture. When I was coming to the United States, they would always ask me what I do at customs and I would say I’m a film director and they ask what I have directed, and as soon as I say Legally Blonde it makes everything great, everyone knows about it.’[xi]
[i] Christie Leo, “Robert Luketic the accidental director”, The Star Online, 17 February 2014.
[ii] Andrew L. Urban, “Luketic, Robert: Legally Blonde”, Urban Cinefile, 11 October 2001.
[iii] Sam Whiting, “Blonde ambition”, San Francisco Gate, 13 July 2003.
[iv] Robert W. Welkos, “The summer of whodunnit”, Los Angeles Times, 22 August 2001.
[v] Samuel Hughes, “Passion Plays”, Pennsylvania Gazette, May/June 2006.
[vi] Tracey Bennett, “Legally Blonde”, Entertainment Weekly, 18 May 2001.
[vii] Liane Bonin, “Reese Witherspoon chats about Legally Blonde”, Entertainment Weekly, 26 July 2001.
[viii] Will Harris, “Random roles: Victor Garber”, AV Club, 24 August 2011.
[ix] Scott Holleran, “True Colors”, Box Office Mojo, 7 February 2004.
[x] Quoted in Screenwriters Roundtable, Vulture Festival 2015, New York, 30 June 2015.
[xi] Stefan Pape, “Director Robert Luketic on thriller Paranoia”, HeyUGuys, 7 March 2014.