Does Legally Blonde Save the Cat?
Welcome to the first instalment of Does X Save the Cat a series in which I will be breaking down popular movies using the Blake Snyder beat sheet, popularly known as Save the Cat. This is a structure made up of 15 ‘beats’, which Snyder boldly claims, when used correctly, make up the ingredients of a perfect screenplay.
I am here to test that theory by seeing, firstly, how well popular movies break down into the Snyder ‘beat sheet’, and secondly to analyse what effect that might have had on the final outcome and critical reception. I will give the movie up to 1 point for every beat it hits, and score it at the end.
(I will not be going over the summary of the beats here, so please check out the original blog post if you’d like a quick refresher on them.)
In today’s blog I will be focusing on the 2001 classic feminist rom-com Legally Blonde, starring Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Ali Larter, Victor Garber, Matthew Davis, Holland Taylor, Linda Cardellini, as well as the ever charming Jennifer Coolidge.
To set the scene for this movie, Elle Woods (Witherspoon) is a girl from Bel Air who lives a charmed life. She has everything she could ever want. She is President of her Sorority, the most popular girl at CULA, and has a 4.0 GPA. The only thing missing is a six-carat diamond ring from her future senator hunk of a boyfriend, Warner Huntingdon III (Davis).
However, Elle’s world comes crashing down around her when Warner dumps her because she’s… too blonde?! Determined to win him back, Elle enrols in the same class as Warner at Harvard Law School in order to prove she’s smart enough for him to marry.
The movie was written by Karen McCullah, Kirsten Smith and Amanda Brown, and directed by Robert Luketic. Becoming a star-making vehicle for Witherspoon, as well as raking in $96.5M at the US Box Office from a modest £18M budget, it’s safe to say that it was a successful movie.
But does that mean Legally Blonde Saved the Cat? Let’s find out…
1 - Opening Image - we open in the Delta Nu House at CULA, a sorority filled with gorgeous women who excel at being hot, frivolous and fun. This is the ultimate stomping ground for women looking to get their MRS Degrees. (1 point)
2 - Set-up - Elle’s friends convince her that Elle’s boyfriend, Senator’s son, Warner Huntingdon III is going to propose to her. This is something Elle has been preparing for her whole life and so she heads out to find the perfect outfit. During this encounter a shop assistant tries to trick Elle into buying a last season dress for full price, but Elle is far too sharp for that, showing us that Ms Woods is a force to be reckoned with. (1 point)
4 - Catalyst - Warner and Elle head out for dinner, all the while she is mentally preparing herself for him to pop the question. However, in a turn of fate, Elle is dumped by Warner who claims she is too ‘Marilyn’ and he needs to ‘marry a Jackie’ to be taken seriously as a future Senator. Elle leaves the dinner heartbroken and at a loss for what to do. (1 point)
5 - Debate - Elle wallows in self-pity for a week, unsure what to do with her life, since her plans surrounded becoming the future Mrs Huntingdon III. Her friends take her to the salon in order to pull Elle out of her funk. By coincidence Elle reads a wedding announcement for Warner’s brother, who is marrying a girl from his class at Yale Law. This gives Elle the bright idea that in order to win back her beloved she needs to become ‘the kind of girl Warner wants to marry’. Elle convinces her that the only way to do that is to enrol in Harvard and become a serious Law student just like Warner. (1 point)
3 - Theme Stated - oddly enough this beat comes after the catalyst. The ‘nugget of truth’ that underpins the entire movie comes in the first time we meet Professor Stromwell (Taylor), who utters the words ‘the law leaves a lot of room for interpretation but little room for self-doubt’ right before ejecting Elle from her classroom for failing to prepare. This is important, because although it appears that Elle is completely confident in herself, her fatal flaw is failing to see how truly intelligent she is. She’s allowed the world to let her doubt her own potential. In this scene we also meet Vivian (Blair) who assists Stromwell in turfing Elle out of the lesson, nicely setting up an early antagonist for Elle. (1 point)
6 - Break into Two - after being ejected from Stromwell’s class, Elle meets Emmett, a TA, who gives her some advice about how to handle Harvard, setting him up as our story’s love interest. Technically this is also setting up a sub-plot, but since I don’t consider this to be the true ‘B-Story’, I will move on. In this scene, Elle meets up with Warner, who questions what she is doing at Harvard, but before Elle can fully explain, they are interrupted by Vivian. Here Elle learns that Vivian is now Warner’s fiancé. This once again throws Elle for a loop and she flees the campus to rally herself.
7 - B-Story - shocked and appalled to find out that Warner is now engaged to Vivian, Elle heads out in search of a little creature comfort in the form of a Beauty Salon. Here she meets Paulette (Coolidge), a down on her luck nail technician, who Elle bonds with due to their boy woes and mutual love of dogs. Though many would probably class her love story with Emmett as the B-Story, Elle’s relationship with Paulette is more impactful on the story and gives her the most opportunity for growth. (1 point)
8 - Fun & Games - oddly enough, the Fun & Games portion of this movie is extremely long, probably taking up a good 60% of the runtime. In this section Elle first struggles at Harvard as she is not taking it seriously, however when she is invited to a fake costume party thrown by Vivian, Elle learns that Warner still doesn’t take her seriously DESPITE them both having got into Harvard Law. Now Elle has got an axe to grind and will prove Warner wrong by getting a coveted spot on Professor Callahan’s summer internship.
Due to her friendship with Paulette, burgeoning romance with Emmett and determination to prove all the mean Harvard students wrong, Elle starts kicking Harvard’s ass. Far surpassing her peers and proving to everyone she’s more than just a ‘dumb blonde with daddy’s credit card’. Elle’s hard work pays off and she is given a spot on Callahan’s internship alongside Warner and Vivian.
On her first day of the internship, Elle makes friends with their client, a previous Delta Nu and fitness entrepreneur, Brooke Wyndham, who is accused of murdering her rich husband. Callahan tries to convince Brooke to take a plea bargain due to the fact that Brooke won’t give them the alibi that will prove her innocence. However, the invariably perky Elle is steadfast in her belief that Brooke is innocent, immediately winning over the trust of their client.
Elle earns Brooke’s trust enough to find out the alibi, but she refuses to tell Callahan due to her promising to keep it secret. While angering Callahan, this move helps Elle win over Vivian who deems it a ‘classy’ move, and the two women bond over Callahan’s blatant sexism and the fact that Warner isn’t as smart as he claims having been waitlisted for Harvard.
Elle manages to find evidence that help them along in Brooke’s case, even giving Emmett a tidbit about Javier, a major witness in the prosecution’s case, proving he was lying about being Brooke’s lover due to him being gay. This move further helps Elle in her cause to win over the Harvard students. It seems Elle might actually be suited for Harvard afterall… (1 point)
9 - Midpoint - here Callahan hits on Elle and she discovers she didn’t gain her place on the internship due to her ability, Callahan only chose her because of the way she looks. Once again reinforcing what Elle had always feared, despite having made steps to the contrary. (1 point)
10 - Bad Guys Close In - Although she rebuffs Callahan’s advances, Elle is still confronted by Vivian, who believes Elle used her sexual charms to get her spot on the internship - once again declaring them as enemies. This reignites Elle’s self-doubt and causes her to quit the internship altogether. (1 point)
11 - All is Lost - here Elle runs into Emmett and tells him what Callahan has done. Despite Emmett trying to convince Elle not to quit Harvard and the internship, Elle refuses him, stating ‘no one will ever see her as more than a piece of ass’. (1 point)
12 - Dark Night of the Soul - Elle returns to her safe place, the Salon, where she tells bestie Paulette about what happened with Callahan and that she is quitting Law School to go back to being a California Girl. Elle has given up. Even rebuking herself for thinking she could ever be more than the vapid party girl everyone expects her to be. (1 point)
13 - Break into Three - However, by a stroke of luck, Stromwell is also in the salon and overhears Elle’s defeated speech. Unwilling to let Elle undo all the good work she’s done, Stromwell gives Elle a short but sweet pep talk - ‘If you’re going to let one stupid prick ruin the rest of your life, you’re not the girl I thought you were’, before disappearing into the sunset. This comment gives Elle the renewed sense of hope she needs to carry on. (1 point)
14 - Finale - after Emmett reveals to Brooke and Vivian that Elle quit Brooke’s defence due to Callahan sexually harassing her, they hatch a scheme to get Elle back into the courtroom. In a twist of fate, Brooke fires Callahan and hires Elle as her Lawyer (with Emmett’s supervision, of course). After a rocky start cross-examining Chutney, Elle manages to find her feet by using what she knows best, beauty rules. After catching Chutney in a lie concerning a perm and a shower alibi, Chutney confesses to killing her father and Brooke is acquitted. Elle has overcome her self-doubt, as well as proved wrong those who doubted her. Suddenly Warner wants Elle back, trying to sweet talk her after her amazing victory, however, Elle is no longer interested. She chooses discovering her own greatness over this mediocre man-child. (1 point)
15 - Final Image - Elle graduates Harvard as the valedictorian. She has overcome her self-doubt, as well as the self-doubt of others, she becomes best friends with Vivian, she is a serious law student, she has her pick of professional jobs, and she even has her arm candy - the man who sees her for who she really is on the inside - Emmett. While the man who rejected Elle is left in the dust with no job offers, a subpar degree, and no girlfriend. Elle is just as happy as she was at the start of the story, but now she is truly living up to her potential. (1 point)
How Well Did it Save the Cat?
It appears Legally Blonde hits all of Synder’s beats during its modest 136 minute runtime giving it an incredible 15 points. Despite this, there are some minor deviations from Snyder’s beat sheet, since the last 5 beats take place within the last 10 minutes of the movie. However, when you think about the content of the movie it makes sense why Elle’s final ‘battle’ plays out like this. It would probably have been quite boring if the last 30 minutes was just Elle in the courtroom.
In reality, Elle doesn’t have a true human antagonist, the foes she encounters (Vivian, Stromwell, Callahan, the Harvard Students) are all just threads in the greater tapestry of Elle’s real nemesis - being underestimated. This explains why so many of the beats happen so quickly. Elle has defeated each obstacle, culminating in the final showdown against sexism (Callahan & Warner), jealousy (Vivian), Intellectual Superiority (Harvard Students) and Self-doubt (Stromwell).
Since Legally Blonde quite evidently does Save the Cat, let’s look into what this did for it’s critical reception and Box Office performance.
Critical Reception & Analysis
As previously mentioned, Legally Blonde made $96.5M at the Domestic Box Office and $45.2M from the rest of the world - grossing a whopping $141.7M, well exceeding its modest $18M budget.
In terms of it’s critical reception, the movie also boasts a respectable 71% critical score and 72% audience score on RottenTomatoes.com, but only 59 on Metacritic and 6.4/10 on IMDB, giving Legally Blonde a rough average score of 66.5% in total. Making this enjoyable movie reasonably above average in terms of its score.
As we’ve already discussed, Legally Blonde fits within the Snyder beat sheet, hitting all 15 within its 136 minute runtime. It’s true that the movie deviates somewhat from the timings laid out by Snyder with the last beats occurring within 10 minutes of the movie’s finale, however, is this enough to warrant its score?
It could be argued that the critical response is a product of Legally Blonde being a little bit ahead of its time. Films in the early 00s, especially those starring pink loving blondes, were reasonably looked down on by ‘serious’ critics for being frivolous. Ironic considering the themes and message of the movie. It’s quite likely that this movie made today would have been given a much higher rating, particularly in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp.
On the flipside of this, despite early 00s critiques possibly being too pompous to really appreciate the message behind Legally Blonde, it’s hard to ignore what a thoroughly entertaining movie this is. You’d be extremely hard pushed to find someone who actively hated the movie, or was even indifferent to it, and it could even be described as astoundingly well-liked. Could this be attributed to the Snyder beats or is it more to do with a charming cast, a good script and good direction?
In conclusion, though there is not enough evidence yet to support whether or not the Snyder method had an effect on how well Legally Blonde was received as a movie, it is also not evident that his method hindered its success either. More research is needed - but it is interesting that a well-liked, some might say timeless, movie aligned so well with the Save the Cat method.
So where will Legally Blonde rank among the other movies that I will cover in this series? The movie earned 15 points from hitting every beat in Snyder’s list, however, since it did not abide by his strict timings I will give it a 5% penalty - giving Legally Blonde a 95%.
Combining this with the average critical reception and that gives us an 80.75% Save the Cat rating.
SAVE THE CAT LEADERBOARD
1 - Legally Blonde (2001) - 80.75%
Thank you for joining me on this journey, and please feel free to leave comments about whether or not you agree with my analysis of the movie.
Keep an eye out for the next instalment where I will be seeing if Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Saves the Cat.