This Independence Day, the symbolic struggle being waged on thousands of screens across the Empire pits Reese Witherspoon against Arnold Schwarzenegger, gooey-sweet girl against impassive (but protective) male killing machine. Let film criticism stand mute before this clash, and also a little to the side, out of harm’s way. The opening-week box-office contest between Legally Blonde 2: Red White & Blonde and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines reveals nothing about their relative cinematic merits but may plausibly serve to gauge public attitudes. By the time you read this, either hot pink or blood red will have prevailed in the only plebiscite available to us, the one where votes are cast in green.
Most prognosticators have picked Reese to win in a landslide; and considering the screen persona she’s developed, I’ve looked forward to her victory. As you will recall, she began her political career in Election, in which she aspired, rather desperately, to preside over the student council in her high school. When the film was narrated by her civics teacher, Reese appeared to be a sexually alluring monster. When it adopted her point of view, you saw the shame and impecuniousness behind the cover-girl mask. Like all candidates, Reese wanted to win office as a way of getting something else–in this case, proof that she’d hidden every human failing.
You might say that she got what she wanted when she progressed from Election to Legally Blonde. In the character of Elle Woods, Reese suddenly was perfect, as perfection is defined by casting agents, the Condé Nast chain and America’s best retail merchants. The movie’s trick–or rather the trick of Amanda Brown, who wrote the source novel–was to take this young woman from her Bel Air home into a place of equal but different privilege, Harvard Law School, so that she became an underdog. Though now free of inner tension (compared to her character in Election) and safe from material risk, the Reese of Legally Blonde nevertheless faced a real challenge. She had to make good on her superficial virtues, converting perkiness into resilience, good cheer into generosity.
In this, she was irresistible. Not only did she redeem society from its bad judgment–its habit of prizing glossy yellow hair, big white teeth and pink skin for their own sake–but she also discovered the value of a couple of things that society often fails to honor in women: native intelligence and a readiness to co-operate with other women across class lines. Like the Reese of Election, the born winner of Legally Blonde was willing to work her brain hard. Unlike the Reese of Election, she was also willing to make common cause with an obese, battered hairdresser who lived in a trailer.
So I don’t need to see LB2 to endorse it over T3. I want Reese to eat Arnold like a canapé, finishing him off with the daintiest of burps and that eye-scrunching twinkle. Let Mr. Bush and his boys in Lubbock see that nightmare, advertised as “America’s number-one movie.”
As a professional, though, I had to lay eyes on my candidate. What I saw in LB2 made me walk out of the movie house muttering, “Lousy Democrats sold us out again.”
In this new adventure, Reese wangles a job as legislative aide to a Congresswoman (Sally Field) so she can push a one-item agenda: banning the testing of cosmetics on animals. (She’s adopted the cause on behalf of her little pooch, Bruiser.) Shoulders jiggling merrily in a seesaw motion, right hand poised beside her hip like a little tray, Reese tritzes with Bruiser up the Capitol steps wearing white gloves, pearls and a pink outfit with matching pillbox hat, making a smart contrast with that drab navy and charcoal on everyone else. She is bringing conscience and caring and fun to Washington–but most of all, as she and the rest of the cast say many, many times, she is bringing her own voice.