It is really hard to dislike Reese Witherspooon.
The Oscar-winning actor has made herself a giant in the industry by playing, and producing, women whose stories have a lot more depth than you would think. Despite her Academy Award for playing June Carter in Walk the Line, it’s Witherspoon’s earlier roles that point toward the independent and adventurous direction her career would take.
Her most iconic period is between 1999 and 2001 where she played three characters in three films that have remained surprisingly popular over the years: Cruel Intentions, Election, and Legally Blonde. The first two films gained solid reputations right away, but there was something too girly, too pink, about Legally Blonde that kept the story of Elle Woods’ firmly planted in the romantic comedy genre, and, thanks to genre snobbery at the time, away from the critical mainstream. In the last few years, Elle Woods has become a cult figure, the heroic version of Election’s Tracy Flick, and Legally Blonde has become something of a cult classic. I had to watch it.
Apart from Les Mis, I’ve had excellent luck when delving into films that I have discarded for one reason or another (systemic sexism being the biggest factor). Hating musicals on sight denied me the pleasures of Grease and Singin’ in the Rain, and hating romcoms (though thanks to my mum’s love of nice wee films, I’ve seen more than my fair share) has denied me the pleasure of Legally Blonde. It is a classic, after all, but not in the way that I expected.
The title says that I have a take on this fuzzy, frilly masterpiece, and that take is extremely masculine. That’s right, I’m going to do the impossible and guy up Legally Blonde (in the most stereotypically way possible), because Legally Blonde is a secret Western. A Western? I hear you shriek. He’s mad! Well, dear reader, that is neither her nor there, but it is up to me, the defendant, to convince you, the jury, that I’m not talking absolute shite.
Elle Woods is a classic Western hero. She is an outsider who comes to a small town (the insular community of Harvard Law School is the stand-in here) and changes everything and everyone around her for the better. Her carefully-selected outfits are as iconic as The Man with No Name’s poncho; she even has a noble steed in the shape of her little dog, Bruiser, and I’m nowhere near finished. This small town has lawmen – one who is corrupt, in the guise of Professor Callahan, whose misconduct is experienced and then exposed by Elle, and one of whom is Luke Wilson’s Emmett Richmond, who may be the lawyer who backs up Elle in the film’s climax but whose role is more akin to the put-upon local sheriff.
I’m still not done. Take Selma Blair’s Vivian Kensington. She starts off as a romantic adversary for Elle, but as soon as that plot is dropped in favour of Elle’s own personal ambitions, she and Vivian become friends. There is more than a whiff of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday to these two. Lastly there is Legally Blonde’s version of the quick draw: Elle’s “bend and snap” – though if used by a beginner could be just as dangerous as a gun.
Even without this dare I say masterful take on Legally Blonde, I would have enjoyed it purely because it doesn’t play by the normal rules of a romantic comedy. Romance (and hard work) is what gets Elle to Harvard but is quickly, and rightly, dropped in favour of a character study of an unlikely woman achieving her potential in an environment where she supposedly doesn’t belong. That’s the kind of message that anyone can get behind.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Elle)