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Sunday, November 4, 2007

The New You, Part 2 (originally published 2/99)

I believe it was H.G. Wells who was once quoted as saying that no passion on Earth, no love or hate, is equal to the desire to revise another writer's words. I'm not so sure, however, that this impulse is limited to writers. Some of us are susceptible to a similar impulse to reinvent the very lives of others, as is dramatized in the current box office hit "She's All That." Last week we saw that a number of movies through the years have been based on this makeover premise, including a screen version of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion," the classic play to which all such movies owe a debt of inspiration. Here are some additional makeover movies to look for on video.

"Easter Parade" (1948). In this classic MGM musical, Fred Astaire plays a hoofer whose dancing partner unceremoniously dumps him. In his pique, he vows that he will pick an unknown out of the chorus and be just as successful with her. He selects a youngster, played by Judy Garland, and proceeds to attempt to reinvent her as a carbon copy of his former partner. The act suffers from the makeover, however. Only when Garland's character stops trying to be someone else and allows her own natural talent to emerge does the new act begin to take off.

"Born Yesterday" (1950). There have been many actresses who have built a career on the "dumb blonde" stereotype, but Judy Holliday still owns the patent on the role. As Billie Dawn, she plays the painfully ignorant girlfriend of Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford), a crude, bullying junk dealer who has paved his road to success with shady deals. Although Harry is no Rhodes scholar, even he is embarrassed by Billie's lack of sophistication, so he hires writer Paul Verrall (William Holden) to tutor her.

"Funny Face" (1957). Once again Fred Astaire plays a character engaged in making over a woman's life. Here, as a fashion photographer (loosely based on Richard Avedon), he takes a young bookstore clerk and transforms her into a top Paris model. The object of his attention is played by Audrey Hepburn, which makes this picture doubly interesting in that it can be seen as a kind of rehearsal for Hepburn's memorable portrayal of Eliza Doolittle several years later.

"Vertigo" (1958). In one of director Alfred Hitchcock's most memorable films, James Stewart stars as Scottie Ferguson, a detective who falls in love with the woman he has been hired to investigate only to watch her fall to her death. When he subsequently meets a woman named Judy Barton (Kim Novak) whose resemblance to his lost love is uncanny, he sets about trying to reclaim the dead woman by proxy. Cajoling Judy into wearing similar clothing and hairstyles, Scottie tries to mold her into the exact image of the woman he has lost. If you don't know this film, seek it out. It is Hitchcock at his finest, a subtle, personal, and unforgettable piece of work.

"My Fair Lady" (1964). I began last week by saying that Shaw's "Pygmalion" is the modern literary wellspring from which all makeover movies flow. Having translated it to the screen more or less in its original form in 1938, Hollywood returned to it again nearly thirty years later. This time it was Lerner and Loewe's musical version that was committed to film. With Rex Harrison in the role of Professor Henry Higgins and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney girl whom he teaches to pass for aristocracy, this version has earned a place of honor in film history at least equivalent to that of the 1938 nonmusical version.

"Educating Rita" (1983). Rita, engagingly played by Julie Walters, is a working class English woman who enters college as an adult student. Under the tutelage of Professor Frank Bryant (Michael Caine) she discovers the exhilaration of cultivating a life of the mind. Soon, however, she finds herself adrift, having outgrown her home life, but not yet belonging to the academic world.

Rita is different from most other made-over characters in that she initiates her own makeover. As we've seen, most makeover plots involve subjects who are passive guinea pigs and, not coincidentally, most of the makeover projects involving them go awry. There is a lesson here for all would-be reformers: the only things worth changing are hearts and minds. Without them, all other change is window dressing.

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