Viewer Guide: Legally Blonde and Ladies in Black

March 13, 2020 | Richard Peña


Legally Blonde (2001)

This week’s classic is Legally Blonde, the 2001 romantic comedy directed by Robert Luketic.

Starring Reese Witherspoon in one of her career signature roles, Legally Blonde also gives Hollywood’s obsession with quote/unquote “dumb blonde” a refreshing update with a welcome feminist spin. Witherspoon plays Elle Woods, president of the Delta Nu sorority at “California University LA,” who’s looking forward to graduating with a major in fashion merchandising—and, more importantly—getting engaged to Warner Huntington III, a Harvard Law-bound preppie prince played by Matthew Davis. At first glance, it seems that Elle is the ultimate Barbie princess whose every airheaded dream is destined to come true. Except this time around, Elle abruptly finds herself the underdog when Warner announces he wants to break up, given that his career goal to become a senator by the time he’s 30 will require him to “marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” But as the saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover, and Elle soon hits on a plan to win Warner back: why not use her 4.0 GPA, savvy intuition and innate sense of ethics to apply to Harvard Law herself? Elle’s seemingly unlikely strategy actually pays off, and Cambridge here we come! But once at Harvard she encounters a whole new set of obstacles: east coast snobbism, sexual harassment, and worst of all, Warner’s snooty new girlfriend Vivian, played by Selma Blair. Furthermore, Elle realizes there’s a lot more to this law school thing than she first thought—including the dawning realization she might actually be good at being a lawyer.

Also featured are Luke Wilson as a sympathetic third year student, Jennifer Coolidge as a downtrodden manicurist, Holland Taylor and Victor Garber as Elle’s law professors, Ali Larter as a fellow California U grad framed with a murder charge, and Raquel Welch in a cameo appearance as an embittered ex-wife.

Legally Blonde was adapted from the novel of the same name by Amanda Brown, an autobiographically inspired account of Brown’s experiences at Stanford Law. Brown circulated her book manuscript to agents—you guessed it—on pink paper. Determined not to play Elle as a two-dimensional cliché yet still embody the script’s frothy characterization, Reese Witherspoon embarked on an “anthropological study” by visiting sororities and infiltrating their hang-outs to immerse herself in the culture, but also to gain insights beyond first impression stereotypes. Born in New Orleans and raised in Nashville, Witherspoon’s early life growing up immersed in the region’s “southern belle” gentility also informed her performance, with the star relishing costume designer Sophie De Rakoff’s inspiration to model Elle’s fashion sense on Dolly Parton. A sleeper hit generating a worldwide box office of over $140 million, the film’s success generated a sequel in 2003, Red, White & Blonde, as well as a hit Broadway musical in 2007. And yes, there’s a third installment of the franchise in the works with Witherspoon slated to return as Elle.


Ladies in Black (2018)

This week’s indie is Ladies in Black, a nostalgic 2018 comedy-drama directed by Bruce Beresford.

Adapted from the novel by Madeleine St. John, Ladies in Black is set in 1959 at the fictitious “Goode’s Department Store,” a high-end retailer catering to the upscale post-war clientele of Sydney, Australia. The “ladies in black” of the title are the all-female sales clerks, unobtrusively dressed in black to avoid upstaging the merchandise while retaining an understated air of elegance. Entering into this refined world with its unspoken code of conduct is Leslie Miles, a naïve 16 year-old played by Angourie Rice who’s been hired to help out during the Christmas rush. A bookish only child trying to negotiate her father’s approval to apply for a scholarship to the University of Sydney, Leslie is pressed into service to assist Fay and Patty, two established sales women played by Rachael Taylor and Alison McGirr, both of whom are coping with their own after-hours personal issues. For Fay, despite her classic Grace Kelly beauty, her romantic life seems to have mysteriously stalled; and as for Patty, her husband’s frequent absences have begun to take a toll on her marriage. But the reigning Queen Bee of ladies evening wear is the commanding Magda, a Hungarian refugee played by Julia Ormond, who wears her European flair like the latest Dior gown. Ignoring the grumbled objections about Magda’s “immigrant” status, Leslie blossoms under her tutelage, creating a new identity for herself as she begins to emerge from her ugly duckling phase of adolescence.

Also featured in supporting roles are Vincent Perez as Magda’s husband, and Ryan Corr as another Hungarian expat looking to start a new life “down under.”

The director of such high profile critical and box office successes as Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy, Australian director Bruce Beresford had long sought to adapt Madeleine St. John’s 1993 novel for the movies, having been a friend of St. John’s at the University of Sydney. Already adapted into a successful Australian stage musical in 2015, the novel’s fictitious “Goode’s Department Store” was modeled after such actual Sydney retailers as the Mark Foys and David Jones department stores. Infused at times with perhaps a too-good-to-be-true nostalgic glow, Ladies in Black nonetheless registers some quiet observations on the growing consciousness among the women of their social status along with an awareness of immigrant rights, two issues that remain very much at the forefront of contemporary life. And any Marvel Comics fans watching may recognize young Australian star Angourie Rice from her recurring role in the latest Spider Man reboot, starring Tom Holland.

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