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Remember that scene in the now iconic, Reese Witherspoon movie Legally Blonde, in which the nail salon where Elle Woods meets her friend Paulette, is robbed?
It never actually happened, of course, but that scenario was one that screenwriters Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah considered as they were writing the movie that, 20 years after it debuted in theaters on July 13, 2001, people continue to celebrate. The writing partners — who'd already penned the 1999 Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles flick 10 Things I Hate About You — were at the bar in the L'Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills, brainstorming a subplot for their next project: an adaptation of the novel Legally Blonde.
For a while, nothing seemed right. And then, just as suddenly as Elle is accepted into Harvard, it did.
"We came up with the notion that maybe Paulette" — perfectly played by Jennifer Coolidge — "has, like, a crush on someone, and Elle could give advice," Smith tells Yahoo Entertainment. "And we really came up with this in the eleventh hour."
McCullah remembers that she asked, "Well, what if it's something as simple as Elle teaches her a move to get the UPS guy?"
Her writing partner took it from there.
"And then Kirsten jumped off her barstool and was like, 'Like this?'" McCullah says. "And we were like, 'OK, that's it.' The bend and snap. And then we just started writing the scene."
The women pitched their idea to producer Marc Platt and then to director Robert Luketic, who decided it should be a musical number. The production brought in Toni Basil, a choreographer and the singer behind 1981's "Mickey," to work her magic.
"So I’m going and performing the move for her and then going to rehearsals and seeing this whole musical number come to life and everyone is doing this thing that was such a very random creation," says Smith, who noted that she had had "a couple of mojitos in my body" when she initially performed it.
"I don't know, it's like it came from some really weird, wacky part of my brain," Smith says. "I just sort of jumped up and did it. I'm not sure if it would be highly effective in real life. It has no basis in reality. It's been a thrill to see it be remembered over the years and emulated. And I'm still happily available to teach it to anyone if they would like any kind of private tutoring."
The scene turned out to be one of the most memorable in the hit, which earned $20.4 million in the U.S. in its opening weekend and more than $141 million worldwide over a 25-week run, according to Box Office Mojo.
And much of the reason people loved it so much was, of course, the main character: a blonde sorority girl from California who wore a lot of pink and carried her little dog around with her everywhere. It's easy to imagine Elle Woods as someone people dislike.
Smith says that they worked really hard to make sure audiences embraced her.
"We made her just like a really good friend to her friends and very generous in wanting to help people, like with Paulette and with David [Oz Perkins], the dorky guy trying to get the date, where she pretended that he had broken her heart. The greatest night of pleasure she'd ever known… little things like that to show that she was really, you know, a kind, good person.
"We showed that she was smart in the beginning by like knowing that the salesgirl at the boutique was trying to rip her off," Smith says. "Things like that, just showing that she was a good person and that she was just kind of one of those cheerful, optimistic people that believed what she wanted to happen was gonna happen and then she made it happen and realized she wanted something even bigger and made that happen."
Smith points out that the movie as a whole is a story of female empowerment.
"A man directed it, but a gay man directed it. And the way that he treated her femininity and her sexiness was like through a lens of real respect and adoration and appreciation that wasn't sexualized, so I think you can feel that in the movie," she says. You can feel that it's like a true, yummy, female world, because it doesn't have a gross, creepy male gaze to it. There are so many moments where she leaps out of a hot tub or she's sunbathing in a bikini. Those could have gone really wrong if the director had had any kind of lusty eye. He was celebrating her beauty in the way that a gay man's view can and did."
Witherspoon herself has talked about the movie's continued impact on women.
"At least once a week I have a woman come up to me and say, 'I went to law school because of Legally Blonde," she told the Wall Street Journal in November 2017. "It's incredible."
McCullah says people tell her that all the time, too.
"And every year there's always a lot of pictures on social media of girls with, 'What, like it’s hard?' on their cap and gown when they're graduating from law school," she says. "It's just fun that it's inspired so many people to do something that might not have occurred to them to try before. I like that part of it."
Smith and McCullah didn't work on the 2003 sequel to Legally Blonde, and it's not yet clear if they'll have any involvement with the third installment expected next year, although the script has reportedly been written by Mindy Kaling and Dan Goor, who's worked on Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
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