'Legally Blonde' oral history: From raunchy script to feminist classic

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'Legally Blonde' oral history: From raunchy script to feminist classic
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Amanda Brown, “Legally Blonde” follows Elle Woods (Witherspoon) from ditsy, sorority socialite to first-year law student in an effort to win back her ex-boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis).

by Ilana Kaplan

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In 2001, Reese Witherspoon was already on her way to becoming a household name. But it would be the feminist masterpiece “Legally Blonde” that would cement her status as a Hollywood star.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Amanda Brown, “Legally Blonde” follows Elle Woods (Witherspoon) from ditsy, sorority socialite to first-year law student in an effort to win back her ex-boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis). But what transpires next surprises everyone, including herself: The perky blonde with a tiny Chihuahua named Bruiser and a flair for pink discovers she is actually cut out for the courtroom.

It’s been 20 years since Elle, against all odds, got into Harvard Law, fended off a professor’s advances and came to the legal defense of a sorority alumna. She remains an emblem for challenging stereotypes and embracing female empowerment in the face of misogyny. By refuting the “dumb blonde” trope, Elle has become beloved for her sincerity and her insistence on unapologetically being herself.

In 2021, “Legally Blonde” is more relevant than ever. Years before the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the Robert Luketic-directed comedy tackled workplace sexual misconduct and power dynamics. High-profile fans like Ariana Grande and Kim Kardashian (who each paid homage to it in videos) have stoked its legacy, as have a 2003 sequel (and a third movie due next year), as well as a Broadway adaptation.

In advance of the July 13 anniversary of its release, I recently spoke with the film’s stars (including Jennifer Coolidge, Jessica Cauffiel and Matthew Davis), screenwriters and others about creating the “bend and snap,” Elle’s Harvard video essay and the movie’s enduring legacy. Here are edited excerpts from our conversations.

The original script was much raunchier.

KIRSTEN SMITH (screenwriter): We were sent a fiction manuscript by Amanda Brown (by) a couple of different producers and Marc Platt was one of them. It immediately struck us as one of the greatest movie ideas ever, and we pitched it as “Clueless” meets “The Paper Chase,” one of those law school movies from the 1970s. I might have worn a lot of pink in the meeting.

JESSICA CAUFFIEL (Margot, one of Elle’s best friends): The first script was very raunchy, to be honest, in the vein of “American Pie.” What we know now as “Legally Blonde,” and what it began as are two completely different films. It transformed from nonstop zingers that were very adult in nature to this universal story of overcoming adversity by being oneself.

KAREN McCULLAH (screenwriter): There were some differences in the manuscript. It wasn’t a murder trial, and she ended up with a professor, so we made some changes. It was a matter of finessing the details and adding a few characters, like Paulette and her friendship.

CAUFFIEL: Originally, there was a line when (her friend) Serena says, “What’s the one thing that always makes us feel better no matter what?” And I say, “Cunnilingus.” That was actually a line in the film. We thought when we went to the premiere that it was still that edgy, raunchy edit.

Reese Witherspoon was always the top pick for Elle, but other big names were thrown around.

SMITH: (Reese) was the first person who read the script. It seemed like she was just right on the edge (of fame). We didn’t send it to any other actors.

JOSEPH MIDDLETON (casting director): We did “The Man in the Moon” and “A Far Off Place” when she was really young, so when Marc was bringing up names, and it was Reese, I already believed so strongly in her.

McCULLAH: Christina Applegate said something about how she had turned down (the role of Elle). Marc once (mentioned) Britney Spears, and I was like, “No, that’s not a good idea.” I think she hosted “SNL” the night before, and his kids were into her, so he threw her name out there.

JENNIFER COOLIDGE (Paulette, Elle’s new friend and manicurist): I’ve heard rumors, and I don’t know if they’re true, that Courtney Love was up for (my) role. I heard Kathy Najimy was up for it.

SMITH: I remember talk about getting Chloë Sevigny to play Vivian (a rival law student). That didn’t work out, and we ended up with our queen Selma Blair. Selma and Reese were close, because they had done “Cruel Intentions” together. So their friendship is a great anchor for everything.

ALI LARTER (Brooke, a fitness instructor on trial for murder): They originally wanted me to come in for one of the sorority sisters. But when I read (the script), I just loved Brooke.

MIDDLETON: I loved Paul Bettany for the Luke role, but he was British, and they felt like it needed to be a real American.

McCULLAH: We always called (the love interest Emmett) “the Luke Wilson character” while we were writing it. They saw some other actors, and finally Joseph was like, “Maybe we should get Luke to play the Luke Wilson character.” I was like, “You think?”

There was a lot of field research done by the cast and crew: Smith and McCullah visited Stanford, while Witherspoon, Cauffiel and costume designer Sophie de Rakoff spent time with a University of Southern California sorority.

SMITH: We went to law school for a week right during orientation time. The scene where it’s a group of new students going around in a circle talking about it was from us eavesdropping on actual law students talking to each other for the first time.

McCULLAH: The criminal law and constitutional law classes were the two that we sat in. Criminal Law was pretty interesting. Constitutional law, I remember crying a few times because I was so bored. But I did start writing some of the scenes for the scripts in that class, so some good came out of it.

SOPHIE de RAKOFF (costume designer): (Reese and I) went to a sorority house for research while we were prepping. Everyone was wearing pink, so right then and there that gave us a throughline for the movie that became a huge part of the aesthetic and of Elle Woods’ personality and identity.

CAUFFIEL: We (talked) an entire sorority into going out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Reese offered to buy them free margaritas all night. She leans over to me as the drinks are on the way and goes, “We’re not drinking anything. We’re drinking water.” We stayed sober as they got tanked, and we took notes.

Elle’s Harvard video essay was supposed to have a Judge Judy cameo.

McCULLAH: There was an article somewhere that video applications became a common thing for a while (after the movie came out). We just did it because it’s way more interesting to watch than hearing someone read an application essay.

ALANNA UBACH (Serena, one of Elle’s best friends): Judge Judy is supposed to be this amazing icon that Elle absolutely adores.

McCULLAH: We wanted to shoot (Elle, Serena and Margot) chasing Judge Judy wherever she tapes her show and them being like, “Judge Judy! Judge Judy! Can we get an autograph?”

UBACH: They cut that scene. They just couldn’t get Judge Judy on board. And I thought, “Reese, what if Ryan Phillippe played a really famous judge who had his own show, and we have him on billboards.” She said, “Alanna, no one’s going to believe that my husband’s a judge. Are you kidding me?”

The idea for the “bend and snap,” the maneuver Elle says has a “98% success rate of getting a man’s attention,” was conceived while the writers were drinking at a hotel bar.

SMITH: Marc felt like we needed a big set piece in the second act, and we kept trying to think of how we could make it around Paulette and Elle. We were like, “Should the nail salon get robbed? Is there a mystery that happens?”

McCULLAH: I was like, “What if it’s as simple as Elle teaches her a move to help her get the UPS guy.” Then Kirsten jumped off her bar stool and said, “Ooh, like this?” and she did the move. I forget which one of us said “the bend and snap,” but we probably both said it at the same time.

SMITH: Karen is like, “Did someone teach you that?” I’m like, “No I made it up right now.” Then we went to Marc’s office, and I did the move. Toni Basil ended up becoming involved as a choreographer because once Robert read it, he got really excited to turn it into a full musical number. So, I found myself going to Toni’s studio and teaching her and a bunch of dancers the “step” I made up.

TONI BASIL (choreographer): I choreographed iconic things for David Bowie and Tina Turner. People interview me and they go, “You did the ‘bend and snap?” It’s like, what, a 1 1/2-minute number in the movie? But it was such an integral part.

SMITH: Toni would call (part of the step) “the little chicken wings.” She was like, “More chicken wings, more chicken wings.” Jennifer does great chicken-wing hands. She puts the spin of hilarity and awkwardness on everything she does in the movie.

COOLIDGE: Toni was incredibly frustrated with my ability to handle the choreography. Reese learned to “bend and snap” in about 10 minutes and I was the antithesis of that.

BASIL: Jennifer changed it around. She pushed up her (breasts) instead of snapping because that’s what Jennifer does, because that was right for the character.

COOLIDGE: One day I said to (Basil), “I’m not Elle, I’m the other character, Paulette, and I wouldn’t be really good at the ‘bend and snap.’ That’s not who I am.” And Toni said, “Jennifer, you need to learn this dance number and do your very best because even if you’re trying to do your very best, you will still be the worst dancer.” It was a very sobering moment. But she was right.

Raquel Welch, playing the ex-wife of Brooke’s dead husband, wanted special lighting.

ANTHONY RICHMOND (cinematographer): She knew how she wanted to be lit. I had two sets of lights where I wanted them and one set where she wanted them, so she could look at herself in the mirror. I would dim one set down slowly and bring my own ones up so she never knew it was being changed.

DE RAKOFF: She was obsessed with light. When I went through the fitting at her house, and we were talking about the courtroom scene, she was like, “I need to wear this hat.” It was a big, black straw hat; inside of that giant brim had a second layer of white straw that the light would bounce off so that she could get more bounce on her face. She basically created her own hat that had a built-in bounce board.

COOLIDGE: All I know is she didn’t need her own lighting. She looks strangely youthful and sexy. Her face and her tiny hands, she made a deal with the devil. She looks like a billion bucks.

Some of the cast had real-life crushes during filming.

UBACH: I discovered that (Matthew had a crush on Selma) during the trial scene. We could see that heart beating every time he was around her. He was so nervous, and I thought, “How could someone looking like that be as nervous as he is?”

MATTHEW DAVIS (Warner): I’ll adore her till the day I die. I will always cherish her taking care of me and looking after me because I was so damn green.

CAUFFIEL: I think (Matthew) had a crush on everybody. At one point, he had a crush on Alanna.

COOLIDGE: I had a crush on (Bruce Thomas, who played) my UPS man. But he was married and had a beautiful wife and children, so I had to shut that off. I didn’t have to act or get excited when he walked in — it was all true to life.

CAUFFIEL: Everybody had a crush on Luke, but Luke was dating two supermodels at the time.

Test audiences didn’t like the original ending, so it was reshot to show Elle at her law school graduation.

CAUFFIEL: The first ending was Elle and Vivian in Hawaii in beach chairs, drinking margaritas and holding hands. The insinuation was either they were best friends or they had gotten together romantically. The second or third ending was a musical number on the courtroom steps, and as Elle came out, the judge, jury and everybody in the courtroom broke into song and dance. I’ve been waiting for somebody to leak that for 20 years.

McCULLAH: We originally cut to a year later, Elle and Vivian were good friends, and Vivian’s now blond. They had started the Blond Legal Defense Club and were handing out flyers in the quad because that was the ending in Amanda’s manuscript.

SMITH: One of the versions ended with Emmett and Elle kissing. We screened the movie two or three times, and every time people didn’t want to end it with a kiss. They thought it wasn’t a story about (Elle) getting a boyfriend, which was really cool to have people say that.

McCULLAH: In the theater lobby of the test audience, Kirsten and I were like, “Why don’t we cut to graduation so we can do captions?” So we started writing that scene in the lobby with Marc.

SMITH: Reese was shooting a movie in England at the time called “The Importance of Being Earnest,” So, (her) reshoot was done in England, and she was wearing a wig.

McCULLAH: Luke had shaved his head for “The Royal Tenenbaums,” so he’s wearing a wig.

COOLIDGE: It was so good, (Elle’s) speech at the end, Donald Trump had to steal from it.

The cast and crew say the film has lived on because it’s become more relatable over time.

SMITH: It was the right feminist message and character to land when it did. It wears its desires on its sleeve: the contradiction (that) you can be a woman who’s fighting to be heard with a very clear point of view, who’s very strong and smart and also funny, fun and interested in different things, fashion and the law.

DAVIS: I’m certainly biased, and this might sound hyperbolic, but I think “Legally Blonde” was one of the last great films in the sense that we shot it on 35 millimeter. It really captured the spirit, the grandeur and the magic of Hollywood. Reese is such a magnetic superstar, and it was a showpiece for her. I think we really captured lightning in a bottle.

LARTER: You see this undeniable force, and that (Elle) never lets her self-doubt take her down. When you watch a movie like this, you believe in yourself a little bit more.

BASIL: (The movie) is more relevant in a deeper way now than ever before. Women, equal pay and the #MeToo movement, so much has come around in the last 20 years that did not exist when these girls were creating this movie.

Fans constantly remind the cast and crew how the movie affected them.

COOLIDGE: People come up to (Reese) and say, “I went to law school because of you.” People tell me that, too. I don’t think all these people could be lying: I think people really got inspired by that story.

DAVIS: My friend set me up on a blind date once, and they were like, “You’ll love her, She’s cool. She’s a lawyer.” We had a beer, and we hit it off. I didn’t really talk too much about my story of being an actor. By the end of the night, we started making out. Right in the middle she pulls away and says, “I have to tell you something: ‘Legally Blonde’ is my favorite movie, and that’s why I became a lawyer. I wanted to tell you that all night long.”

McCULLAH: When I was in Fiji, another guest told this honeymoon couple from Mexico who were lawyers that I had written “Legally Blonde.” The woman came running up to me, hugged me, and she’s like, “You’ve given me permission to wear pink every day of my life.” It was so cute.

COOLIDGE: I can be in some environment that is not a “bend and snap” environment, walking through some dark subway tunnel, and someone comes up to me and does it. I could be on an airplane, seat belted in, and they want me to get up and do it for them. Sometimes the requests are way more than you want to do during turbulence.

CAUFFIEL: There are such hard-core “Legally Blonders” out there. I’ll be ordering a pastrami sandwich, and they’re like, “Do you have your lucky scrunchie?” I have my hat and gnarly mom clothes on, and they want to take pictures and talk about it. I love those moments because I see how something that we were also blessed to be a part of touches people’s lives.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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