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In Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon's Elle Woods became a role model for teenage girls everywhere. Two years later, with Legally Blonde 2, Nick Roddick discovers that that's only the start of her real-life fan-base, when he meets Witherspoon - and others from the movie.

Even in a business as driven by envy as the movies, there is a kind of courtesy that governs public statements about other actors. Anyone talking about his or her co-stars generally finds that they were 'great to work with', sometimes 'challenging', always 'professional'. Seasoned interviewers, meanwhile, learn to detect the real truth from the tone of voice with which these politely neutral judgements are delivered.

"Teenage girls, of all agesÖ and all sexes"

Then there is Reese Witherspoon, who is something else altogether. Every single person I talked to who worked with Witherspoon on Legally Blonde 2 is on the same and palpably sincere song-sheet. To call it a love fest suggests insincerity, and there is no insincerity here: they all clearly love Reese. Them and the several million teenage girls who saw Legally Blonde 1. Or rather, as Legally Blonde 2 director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, puts it, "teenage girls, of all agesÖ and all sexes".

Witherspoon herself - blonde, charismatic and, when she shows up in London in mid-June to promote the new film, five months pregnant - reckons its appeal is the same as the first, only more so. "Thereís no sex - well, one kiss and even that's on the border," she says. "I like the idea that itís about a woman and her conscience and not necessarily anything to do with her romantic relationships. Sheís not fretting the whole time about ĎOh, do the boys like me?í Itís really just about her life and her ambition and her accomplishments."

Many of the cast of Legally Blonde 2 were in the original movie, which came from nowhere to dominate the summer of 2001: in addition to Witherspoon herself as Elle Woods, the Bel Air blonde who doesn't so much confound prejudice about blondes as blast it out of the water, boyfriend Emmett (Luke Wilson), manicurist extraordinaire Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge), hyper-active shopaholic sorority sisters Margot and Serena (Jessica Cauffiel and Alanna Ubach) and, above all, Bruiser the chihuahua (played by Moonie the chihuahua) are all along for the second ride. And the only one not to weigh in with fulsome praise of Witherspoon is Moonie, whom British quarantine regulations prevented from making the trip to London, where his on-screen owner is currently shooting a very different kind of film: Vanity Fair, adapted from Thackeray's novel by Gosford Park Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes and directed by Mira Nair.

"Itís really fun for me to do. It's a lot darker"

Witherspoon plays the novel's manipulative heroine, Becky Sharp, an immoral, money-driven schemer who is about as unlike Elle Woods as it is possible to be. But, she says happily, "Itís really fun for me to do. It's a lot darker."

So there is a darker side to Reese Witherspoon after all?

"Well, I have grumpy moments," she laughs, "but Iím pregnant: Iím allowed!" [her second child is due in the Northern Hemisphere autumn, which is pretty well now, September in Australia].

Comedy legend Bob Newhart, who plays a friendly doorman in Legally Blonde 2, can't say he saw many grumpy moments on set. Newhart's dry humour is hardly given to hyperbole, but he pays Reese what, for him, is obviously the highest of compliments. "She knows instantly who Elle is and what she would do," he says, "and that's a very, very important quality in an actress."

Writer Kate Kondell echoes the point. "Reese had a lot of smart ideas and a real respect for the character," she says. "If you donít have that, Elle can come across as a parody of something. She has a real emotional life and substance, and I donít think there are a lot of actresses that could make that character appealing: itís a very fine line."

Co-stars Cauffiel and Ubach, meanwhile, have clearly spent their time together on set developing a double-act and, in sharp contrast to Newhart, they don't do dry. "Nobody deserves success more than Reese does," says the former. "She's like a cross between Jessica Lange and a little blonde Buddha," adds Ubach.

Legally Blonde 2 follows straight on from the first film, but manages the neat trick of recreating essentially the same story in an entirely new setting: Washington. Having graduated top of her class at Harvard Law School, Elle Woods has landed up in dullsville: she's a corporate lawyer - a job from which her outspokenness will soon get her fired. But a new mission in life is not far away. By chance, Elle discovers that Bruiser's mother is being used to test cosmetics in a sinister veterinary laboratory and, loading up the pink car with enough changes of clothes and make-up for the duration, she heads off to Washington to act as an aide to Congresswoman Rudd (Sally Field), a known supporter of legislation to ban the testing of cosmetics on animals.

"I taught Bruiser how to shop on line"

Before long, Elle is sponsoring 'Bruiser's Bill' - an Act of Congress designed to outlaw the practice. She proves every bit as much a surprise hit in Washington as she did at Harvard, despite initially being dismissed as 'Capitol Barbie'. "I taught Bruiser how to shop on line," she remarks to one doubter. "I think I can handle Congress."†

And indeed, by the end of the film, she has organised a 'Million Dog March' and is giving an impassioned speech in support of Bruiser's Bill. "I'd have to say in this case the cost of beauty is way too high," she tells the assembled solons. "I can't believe I said that, but it's true." And it's all, of course, done in the inimitable Elle Woods fashion. "You do it the Washington way," she tells arch-enemy (but soon-to-be-best-friend) Grace Rossiter, played by John Singleton regular Regina King. "I'm going to continue to do it the Elle Woods way."

There is more than a nod and a wink to such people-power classics as Mr Smith Goes to Washington, in which James Stewart similarly gave voice to the under-represented. But it's Mr Smith recast as a comedy, with a few nods along the way to other films about sisters doing it for themselves. "I'm going to get her and her little dog, too," mutters one opponent - before, inevitably, being won over along with everyone else.

Even Witherspoon was a little surprised by the success of the original Legally Blonde. "We made it for no money and I donít think anyone expected it to do well," she admits. "Then it came out in the summer and, all of a sudden, so many people went to see it. At the end, you feel like you can conquer things that you couldnít before. Itís inspiring, I think, for young women."

That, of course, is true - but itís only part of it. After all, the actress could hardly explain the whole equation without appearing distinctly immodest. The whole equation is that you can be gorgeous and blonde and care about make-up and clothes but that doesn't mean you're not smart. It's like telling teenage girls that being feminine isn't dumb.

"You can be strong and still wear heels and lipstick"

"There are a lot of very hopeful, idealistic young girls that look at Elle as a model," says screenwriter Kate Kondell. "You know, you can be strong and still wear heels and lipstick. Thatís not something you see very often: to have a message that you can still be a strong woman and also embrace things that are typically feminine. Also to see a female carrying a movie, thatís a positive thing."

And boy does Witherspoon carry the movie. It's a perfectly judged performance which is energetic and occasionally larger than life without ever going over the top. What is more, she effortlessly shifts gears along the way. Elle's campaign starts in comedy: she hires a top detective to track down Bruiser's father and mother so she can invite them to her wedding to Emmett, which is how she finds out about the animal testing. But, by the time Elle has overcome all adversity and got Bruiser's Bill on the statute book, there have been several moments of genuine uplift.

"I saw the opportunity to create a film that spoke to the disconnection that people are having right now from their government," says Witherspoon, who was involved in the development and has an executive producer credit. "Basically, you have that idea that youíre not a part of this life that you live in: that people are pulling the strings. You feel like you donít have any say in things any more and really, in a democratic society, we have the opportunity to speak up. I thought it was an interesting way to introduce those concepts to younger kids - and also to reinspire adults to think about ideas they hadnít thought about for a long time."

Director Herman-Wurmfeld, making his transfer to studio movies after the indie break-out film Kissing Jessica Stein, is equally insistent about the fact that there is an underlying message in Legally Blonde 2, albeit one that comes in a bright pink wrapper. "Really, we could use some more pink in politics right now!" he chuckles. "I felt that the way the story unfolded was sort of a manual for grassroots activism."

"Blonde is a way of being"

"Blonde is a way of being," adds Kondell, twisting her own blonde locks. "Itís truly not about having blonde hairÖ"

Reese Witherspoon: The Road to Elle

Born Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on March 22, 1976. Began her film career at the age of 15 in Robert Mulligan's The Man in the Moon, but began to attract serious attention in indie film Freeway and psycho thriller Fear. Turned down lead roles in Scream and Urban Legend to major in English at Stanford. But her studies were put on hold by motherhood - she is married to actor Ryan Phillippe, with a daughter, Ava, born on September 9, 1999 - and the growing momentum of her film career, with starring roles in Pleasantville, Election and American Psycho. Since Legally Blonde, she has starred in The Importance of Being Earnest and Sweet Home Alabama, and is currently shooting Vanity Fair for director Mira Nair.

Published September 11, 2003

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Reece Witherspoon
... in Legally Blonde 2

... in Legally Blonde

... in Sweet Home Alabama

... in The Importance of Being Earnest

... in Election

... in Pleasantville

... in Freeway

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