Legally Blonde at 20: “Any Cosmo Girl Would Have Known” the Film Would Endure

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What, like it’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) first got accepted to Harvard Law? Actually, yes — it is kind of hard to accept, but that’s exactly how much time has flown by.

In the two decades since the release of Legally Blonde (2001), the film has cemented its place as a cultural touchstone — something that’s as synonymous with the early 2000s as Nokia 3310 phones, the Garden State soundtrack, and the sting of snap bracelets. The ever-confident Elle stole the hearts of viewers all over the world and launched Witherspoon’s enduring career. Next year, Elle will return to the big screen in the third Legally Blonde film, but, before then, let’s take a stroll down memory lane. 

The Breakout Success of Legally Blonde: What, Like It’s Hard?

From the moment it hit theaters, Legally Blonde was applauded for its heartfelt narrative about coming into one’s own power. At first glance, the film is about a college student chasing after her boyfriend. At the onset, Elle does apply to Harvard in an attempt to stay with him, but, just like Elle, the film was full of surprises for viewers in 2001. 

 Photo Courtesy: MGM

Not only does Elle hold true to her identity and passions, but she also becomes a top-notch law student. Moreover, characters like Pauline (Jennifer Coolidge) and Emmett (Luke Wilson) taught viewers how to honor their genuine aspirations, while roles like Warner (Matthew Davis) and Professor Callahan (Victor Garber) exposed viewers to the dark realities of sexism and harassment.

Ultimately, Legally Blonde was marketed as a comedy, but that doesn’t make its stances on self-respect, empathy, feminism, and identity any less serious — or compelling. For example, the film confronted the media’s chronic objectification of women, presenting audiences with characters who became self-assured by looking inward. Even today, that’s kind of groundbreaking. 

While it wasn’t a hit with every critic, it was wildly successful at the box office. Over its first weekend, Legally Blonde made $20 million at the box office, going on to gross approximately $142 million during its run. Even now, the film continues to succeed in the era of streaming. When Amazon purchased MGM in early 2021, Legally Blonde was cited as one of the studio’s three crucial assets, alongside the James Bond series and Shark Tank.

Reese Witherspoon: How Legally Blonde Launched an Iconic Career

Although Reese Witherspoon acted professionally prior to her role in Legally Blonde, her portrayal of the witty Elle Woods is what turned her into a household name. Christina Applegate, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Alicia Silverstone were all considered, yet the role ultimately went to Witherspoon. Before starring in this now-classic, Witherspoon acted in films such as Jack the Bear (1993) and Pleasantville (1998), and while she enjoyed critical success, it was stepping into Elle’s stilettos that made her a household name. 

 Photo Courtesy: Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images

Witherspoon fully inhabited Elle Woods, capturing the character’s steadfast spirit, fierce compassion, and bubbly personality. She received a Golden Globe nomination for the part as well as nominations from pop culture-focused award shows, including the MTV Movie Awards, the Satellite Awards, and, of course, the Teen Choice Awards, among others.

Following her appearance as Elle Woods, Witherspoon landed career-defining roles in films such as Sweet Home Alabama (2002) and Walk The Line (2005) — and, as fans will recall, she won an Academy Award for her portrayal of June Carter Cash. In addition to acting, Witherspoon has gone on to start her own Oprah-style book club: Reese’s Book Club aims to elevate works and amplify writers Witherspoon finds essential. Recent picks have included everything from Leah Johnson’s 2020 YA debut You Should See Me in a Crown to Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing

Additionally, Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, hopes to change the Hollywood narrative for women by “put[ting] women at the center of every story we create, celebrate and discover.” While Witherspoon isn’t always onscreen in series and movies put forth by Hello Sunshine, the production company was behind some of her most acclaimed hits, including Wild (2014), HBO’s Big Little Lies and Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere.

Despite decades passing, Witherspoon has spoken numerous times about the ways playing Elle impacted not only her career, but the course of her life. In one Instagram Q&A, Witherspoon noted, “I owe so much to the creation of that character. She’s a big part of who I am as a person… a positive person who is trying not to let other attitudes bring her down.” Not to mention, Elle would be pretty proud of what Witherspoon has done to uplift others with her platform. 

Behind-the-Scenes of the Fabulous Flick

Did you know that Legally Blonde was spawned from a book of the same name? Author Amanda Brown wrote the YA novel in the form of letters, detailing her time at Stanford Law School. Unfortunately, Stanford didn’t want the movie on its campus, which led the studio to settle on Harvard — although, in reality, it was mainly filmed at a SoCal high school. And the namesake of Elle Woods? It’s none other than Elle Magazine.

 Photo Courtesy: MGM

With a rockstar cast and a great story, the film has plenty of fun, behind-the-scenes factoids. For instance, when Reese Witherspoon signed on to play Elle, she had her contract state that she would inherit all 60 of Woods’ iconic outfits. And that iconic final scene? It almost didn’t happen. Originally, the film cut off after Elle Woods left the courthouse following her big win. Audiences hated the abrupt ending, so the studio reshot the finale to include a graduation ceremony. 

This was also true of the iconic “Bend and Snap,” which wasn’t written into the script but was spawned in the writer’s room and later choreographed. We’d say all those rewrites and new ideas had at least 83% success rate.

Legally a Legacy: The Legendary Spin-Offs

Legally Blonde inspired plenty of spin-offs and projects. The original film was followed up by a 2003 sequel, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, & Blonde. Starring Reese Witherspoon and other returning favorites — including Luke Wilson and Jennifer Coolidge — the sequel follows Elle Woods, now a bonafide Harvard grad and lawyer, as she fights for animal rights in Washington D.C., going head-to-head with familiar faces from her past.

 Photo Courtesy: MGM

In 2007, Legally Blonde: The Musical premiered in California. Although its Broadway run didn’t initially succeed, it was later aired on MTV that same year. This helped the musical develop a fanbase — and gave it another shot at Broadway success. In the end, the show garnered seven Tony nominations, 10 Drama Desk nominations, and five Laurence Olivier Awards nominations. The musical’s catchy score included numbers like “Omigod You Guys” and, of course, a song called “Bend and Snap.”

In 2009, MGM released the comedy Legally Blondes. The film follows Elle Woods’ cousins, twins Izzy and Annie (played by Rebecca and Camilla Rosso), after they relocate from the United Kingdom to Elle’s home in Southern California. After their new school turns on them and they’re framed for cheating, they work to clear their names and restore their reputations. The twins’ “Flip and Wave” tactic pays homage to the “Bend and Snap.”

Most recently, in June of 2021, NewFest Pride hosted an all LGBTQIA+ reading of the original Legally Blonde script for Pride Month. All the proceeds from the reading went to the NewFest Future Fund, which aims to support and provide resources for LGBTQ+ youth and filmmakers. If you missed the live read, catch the all-queer cast, which includes stars like Alexandra Grey (Elle Woods) and Jen Richards (Warner Huntington III), on YouTube

Bend and Snap Back: A New Era of Elle Woods

Rumors of Legally Blonde 3 have drifted around for years. However, the film’s production was officially confirmed by Witherspoon in 2018, when she publicly shared that she would be reprising her iconic role. 

 Photo Courtesy: MGM

Although the COVID-19 pandemic put the film’s original plans for release on hold — it had been slated for theatrical release in 2020 — MGM recently shared that the film is on course to hit theaters in May of 2022. Will it live up to its long-anticipated hype? With Witherspoon returning, we know it’ll have all Legally Blonde fans racing to theaters to see their favorite Gemini vegetarian one more time.