As I write this, my daughters are in the next room watching “Legally Blonde.” Two versions of the same story: dumb blonde gets educated, comes to question the shallow values of her former life, gains self-respect AND a new boyfriend who appreciates her. The end. A winning formula in 1950, with Judy Holliday in the blonde role, it seems to have lost something, alas, in the 2001 Reese Witherspoon update.
They both start out dumb. Holliday’s character, Billie, even admits that she likes being stupid: “I’m happy. I get everything I want. Two mink coats! As long as I know how to get what I want, that’s all I want to know.” But William Holden’s character—he’s adorable in his horn-rimmed glasses, by the way—starts her thinking. Does she know enough to know what she wants?
Witherspoon’s character, Elle, is equally clueless. She knows a fair amount about fashion, flirtation, and exercise; put her in any situation, and she’ll find a way to demonstrate her expertise. The exercise guru couldn’t possibly have murdered her husband, according to Elle. “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t kill their husbands.”
But here’s the thing. Billie doesn’t get a whole lot smarter, but she gains an appreciation for the American political system that leads her to challenge her fat cat boyfriend, to risk her safety for the sake of the moral principles she’s acquired under Holden’s tutelage. She is particularly struck by this assertion of his: “I want everybody to be smart. I want them to be as smart as they can be. A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.”
Elle masters the Harvard law school curriculum, but learns nothing by the end of the picture. Instead, she convinces the other lawyers that her sorority girl knowledge is worth something after all. Her final summation to the press, after she wins her case and gets the exercise guru off: “The rules of hair care are simple and finite. Any Cosmo girl would have known.” That’s it?
Granted, “Born Yesterday” has nothing to rival the Bend and Snap sequence in the beauty parlor. But you do get to watch Holliday play gin rummy.
(28 August 2011)