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For a recent New York Times oral history, various cast and crew members spoke about the film, which has not only remained timely 20 years after its release but continues to be heralded for its messages of female empowerment. The various interviews revealed previously unknown details about the film’s early scripts, casting and production, including the movie’s American Pie-like first draft.
According to writer Kirsten Smith, they initially pitched the film as “Clueless meets The Paper Chase,” the 1973 comedy-drama about a first-year Harvard Law student and a demanding professor. But unlike the story about smashing stereotypes and being who you are that made it to the screen, Jessica Cauffiel — who played Elle’s friend, Margot — says the movie underwent a great transformation, with the first script being both “edgy” and “raunchy.”
“The first script was very raunchy, to be honest, in the vein of American Pie,” she told the Times. “It transformed from nonstop zingers that were very adult in nature to this universal story of overcoming adversity by being oneself.”
Calling the earlier version and final version “two completely different films,” Cauffiel said they by the time the premiere rolled around, some still thought the movie’s more explicit humor — which included a cunnilingus joke — had still made it in.
“Originally, there was a line when [her friend] Serena says, ‘What’s the one thing that always makes us feel better no matter what?” And I say, ‘Cunnilingus.’ That was actually a line in the film. We thought when we went to the premiere that it was still that edgy, raunchy edit.”
Co-writer Karen McCullah said that the murder trial, which serves as a key part of Elle’s plot to prove herself, also wasn’t featured in earlier scripts. “It wasn’t a murder trial, and she ended up with a professor, so we made some changes,” she said.
What didn’t change from the beginning, according to writer Smith and casting director Joseph Middleton, was the preference to have Reese Witherspoon in the leading role, with Middleton saying he “believed so strongly in her” after her performances in The Man in the Moon and A Far Off Place.
“[Reese] was the first person who read the script. It seemed like she was just right on the edge [of fame]. We didn’t send it to any other actors,” she said.
But other names were thrown in, and not just for the role of the perky and passionate Elle. Britney Spears was casually considered, while McCullah recalled Christina Applegate saying “something about how she had turned down” the part of Elle.
Jennifer Coolidge, who plays the film’s beloved but insecure manicurist and Elle’s confidante Paulette, told the Times that “Courtney Love was up for [my] role,” and that she heard that Kathy Najimy was also up for her career-defining part. Perhaps more surprisingly, Chloë Sevigny and Paul Bettany’s names were also in the running for key roles.
Sevigny was being considered for Vivian, Elle’s rival law student and new girlfriend to her ex-Warner. “I remember talk about getting Chloë Sevigny to play Vivian,” Smith said. “That didn’t work out, and we ended up with our queen Selma Blair.”
Bettany, according to casting director Middleton, was up for law school teacher’s assistant and Elle’s love interest, Emmett Richmond. The role ultimately went to Luke Wilson, who McCullah revealed was “always called ‘the Luke Wilson character’ while we were writing it.”
“I loved Paul Bettany for the Luke role, but he was British, and they felt like it needed to be a real American,” Middleton said.
The oral history uncovered another Legally Blonde hopeful: Judge Judy. With Alanna Ubach, the actress who played one of Elle’s best friends Serena, calling the TV judge an “amazing icon that Elle absolutely adores,” writers Smith and McCullah were hoping to have scenes of Elle, Serena and Margot “chasing Judge Judy wherever she tapes her show and them being like, ‘Judge Judy! Judge Judy! Can we get an autograph?'”
“They cut that scene. They just couldn’t get Judge Judy on board,” Ubach said. “And I thought, ‘Reese, what if Ryan Phillippe played a really famous judge who had his own show, and we have him on billboards.’ She said, ‘Alanna, no one’s going to believe that my husband’s a judge. Are you kidding me?'”
As for that famous bend and snap scene, choreographer Toni Basil was behind it, to the continued disbelief of some. “I choreographed iconic things for David Bowie and Tina Turner. People interview me and they go, ‘You did the ‘bend and snap?'” she said. “It’s like, what, a one-and-a-half-minute number in the movie? But it was such an integral part.”
That integral part was something that Coolidge and others said she had to be convinced to do.
“One day I said to [Basil], ‘I’m not Elle, I’m the other character, Paulette, and I wouldn’t be really good at the ‘bend and snap.’ That’s not who I am.’ And Toni said, ‘Jennifer, you need to learn this dance number and do your very best because even if you’re trying to do your very best you will still be the worst dancer.’ It was a very sobering moment. But she was right.”
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