“Legally Blonde” opened in theaters July 2001, a pre-9/11 world. It was also a world that did not yet know the mega stardom of Reese Witherspoon. Since then, “Legally Blonde” has catapulted from fun summer rom-com to American popular culture mainstay. Decorated graduation caps feature Elle Woods’ quip, “What, like it’s hard?”. Ariana Grande included the movie in her “thank you, next” video, an homage to teen films of the early aughts. One reporter even wrote her university dissertation about the movie.
Witherspoon stole hearts as the hyper-feminine, excessively optimistic Elle. If you watch “Legally Blonde” with the ethos of Elle, you’ll understand she is more than a Barbie doll that stumbles into success at Harvard. She may begin the movie set on becoming Mrs. Warner Huntington III, but what Elle gets in the end is so much better than before.
From Elle’s sidekick chihuahua , Bruiser , to the iconic Bend and Snap, “Legally Blonde” is its own ray of sunshine in American pop culture. Elle’s story really began as the brainchild of Amanda Brown, the author of the “Legally Blonde” novel, which was published just a month before the movie. Brown’s experience at law school was the catalyst. To amuse herself, Brown wrote letters to her friends about her experiences, seeing it as an “anthropological study of the law school species.” A friend suggested she write a book.
“I just finished reading Scott Turow’s book, ‘One L,’” Brown said. “ ‘One L’ was about his first year at Harvard Law School and I thought it would be funny to write a parody of his book as an updated/female/west coast version.”
Brown was a 23-year-old law student when she started the book. By the time she sold it, she was a 29-year-old new mother. The story went through countless edits, the most major ones being driven by her desire to create a character she would be proud to tell her daughter she created.
“[Elle] needed an unshakeable and powerful belief in herself that would allow her to take risks and overcome obstacles, Brown said. “Whether her head was filled with legal jargon or pop trivialities, she had to have a heart that could take her anywhere.”
Before the book was even published, it was sent around as a manuscript for a movie. Producer Marc Platt sent it to writing partners Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah, who had recently written “10 Things I Hate About You.” They immediately saw what an incredible story “Legally Blonde” was.
“I think it was kind of our job to feather in as much as we could and embellish on her intelligence and embellish on her generosity and her optimism and her warmth,” Smith said.
Like any adaptation, “Legally Blonde” went through some changes from book to movie. Unlike the book, Elle falls for third-year law student and teaching assistant Emmett Richmond. Another addition was a scene in which Elle sets the stage for what type of lawyer she might be. It’s early in the film, before Warner breaks up with her.
“The shopkeeper calls her a dumb blonde with daddy’s plastic and she retorts in a way that really lands her intellectualism,” Smith said.
A fan favorite was a late addition: the Bend and Snap. Brown said it was one of her favorite moments that’s different from the book. After completing a couple of drafts for the script, Platt told Smith and McCullah there was something missing from the second act of the screenplay; they needed a set piece. They brainstormed for two weeks. One night, Smith and McCullah went to a bar. They were at a loss over the set piece.
“We had a couple of drinks and we were sitting there… and I was like, ‘Ooh! What if Elle, she teaches [Paulette] sort of how to do a move, like dropping and pencil, being like ‘the Bend and Snap,’ to get a guy’s attention,’” Smith recalled. “And I just did it randomly right there, I did the move. And Karen’s like, ‘Oh, I like that!’”
The Bend and Snap was a pivotal moment in the film for Elle and manicurist Paulette’s friendship as Elle guides Paulette into confidence. Elle teaches Paulette the move at the salon and by the end, a crowd of clients and nail technicians are communally bending and snapping.
In adapting “Legally Blonde” the musical, book writer Heather Hach said they knew the Bend and Snap had to be included.
“It was a tough one to nuance and get the tone right, to make it more about confidence and about ownership than necessarily bending over,” Hach said. “We knew we had to deliver on that because that was such a popular aspect of the movie and it was already a piece that wanted to sing and dance.”
In the musical, “Bend and Snap” became its own song. Indeed, the song is about getting a man’s attention, but at its core, Elle and the ensemble are encouraging Paulette to have some self-esteem. At the scene’s crest, they cheer her on: “Go Paulette! Go Paulette!”
Like Smith and McCullah, Hach wanted to stay true the heart of “Legally Blonde.” Hach did a lot of analysis about what made Elle so special. It was clear what was important was to maintain her positivity (“Positive” is even the name of a song.).
“She never vindictively went after [enemy-turned-friend] Vivian, unless she was kind of attacked, and then she did fight back,” Hach said. “But she always believed in herself and she always believed in others and she led with kindness and positivity and energy.”
Legally Blonde: The Musical premiered on Broadway on April 29, 2009. Between then and its closing on Oct. 19, 2008, there were 595 performances. The musical was nominated for numerous Tony Awards in 2007, including “Best Book of a Musical.” By the end of the run, the musical grossed over $56 million.
When it came to bringing Elle alive on Broadway, Hach said it was about bringing the magic of the movie into a new format. There was a fine line between delivering what people loved about the film, but also sharpening and reinventing the story.
For Laura Bell Bundy, the original Elle on Broadway, she never had to work hard to understand who Elle was. She made sure each lyric and costume piece aligned with Elle’s character. Bundy worked with the creative team to ensure this success. When given painted theatrical shoes, Bundy knew Elle would never wear them. Her solution was to get nice, designer shoes— she would just have to learn how to dance in them. In becoming Elle, Bundy said she put her on like a coat.
“Every day of rehearsal I wore pink walking down Times Square and I got looks from people,” Bundy said. “I wanted to feel what it felt like to get those looks, to walk into Harvard and be wearing the pink and have people look at you like you’re crazy.”
Elle comes from a world of privilege as an affluent Malibu-bred white woman. Still, her story is progressive, highlighting sexual harassment as a major societal issue more than a decade before the #MeToo Movement. In writing the screenplay, Smith said Elle’s final obstacle needed to be authentic.
“[Professor Callahan] sexualizing her at that point in the story would ultimately be so devastating,” Smith said. “It was something that we had experienced in different ways and forms, just that terrible moment where your boss hits on you and you feel like, you kind of turn inward and the self-doubt begins to creep in.”
Hach is shocked by how ahead of the times Legally Blonde was.
“I just can’t believe that where we are now in #MeToo, you know no one thought Callahan was going to go on and be president,” Hach said.
What’s more, Elle is never apologetic about who she is. Bundy said Elle’s enthusiasm for life makes her fun to watch; we see someone who had it all become vulnerable, and then rise to the occasion.
“It’s about a young woman who has been told that her value is in getting the love of this man. And her value is in how she looks and if she is desirable enough,” Bundy said. “We get to see this woman on this journey trying to after this prince… And then in the process of doing that, realize that she doesn’t need him because she can put the value in herself and her value in her mind.”
As “Legally Blonde” has unfolded across entertainment mediums, Smith sees the development as a circle of female creation. “All these female interpretations of the same very, very female story is really cool,” Smith said.
Like Elle, Brown had few supporters in the beginning. She said it is astounding to see “Legally Blonde” still relevant 26 years after the story first popped into her head. Her expectations were surpassed when Elle transcended beyond popular culture.
“One might not expect including [Elle] being mentioned by former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in his commencement address at Stanford,” Brown said. “I have to admit, that one made me smile and I believe it made Elle Woods proud.”
For Hach, Elle is a terrific post-feminist heroine.
“I think in the cynical world of everyone kind of moping and bitching and sniping on social media, you see an Elle Woods with her sunshine and gifts, it’s a breath of fresh air. Now more than ever,” Hach said. “ There’s going to be a part three, which I’m thrilled about because it only means she’s gonna live on as an iconic figure.”