Top 10 Classic Movie Transformations

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Hollywood loves a good makeover.  Where else can we see boys turn into werewolves, nerds turn into princesses, and Patrick Swayze turn into…Whoopi Goldberg?  That last one from Ghost never stops disturbing me.

But this isn’t a modern phenomenon.  A long line of characters through decades of classic film have embraced physical and emotional makeovers and have endured painful transformations.  Even Dorothy and her pals had to be buffed, stuffed, and polished before seeing the Wizard of Oz.

My favorite top 10 classic movie transformations – the ugly ducklings, the plain-Janes, and all the cross-dressers in between  – are ranked from most subtle to most dramatic:

(Spoiler Alert: Crucial elements of the story lines of the 10 movies are disclosed. –Editor.)

10.  Judy Garland and Company, The Wizard of Oz (1939)

wizard-of-oz-before-makeover

Wizard-of-Oz

After a long journey over the rainbow, down the yellow-brick road, and through a poppy field, Dorothy and her friends deserve a little TLC.  Enter the Wash and Brush Up Co. in the heart of Emerald City.

Dorothy ditches the prairie-land braids and emerges with flowing curls while The Cowardly Lion embraces his feminine side bedecked with fresh ringlets and red bows.  The Scarecrow is stuffed to the seams, and The Tin Man is buffed and oiled.  Even Toto is looking refreshed.

That’s how they laugh the day away in the Merry Old Land of Oz… until the Wicked Witch writes a death sentence in the sky…

9. Natalie Wood, Love with the Proper Stranger (1963)

Angie Rossini (Natalie Wood) is a shy Italian salesgirl who’s tired of waiting for love to come galloping into her life on a white horse.  After a one-night stand with love-’em-and-leave-’em musician Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen), the only thing she’s left with is an unwanted pregnancy.

In Hollywood, that’s grounds for a makeover.

Let’s admit it doesn’t take much to glam up Natalie Wood.  A low-cut, figure-hugging black dress and a strand of pearls are enough to make Steve McQueen’s jaw drop.  “You look so…what am I gonna tell ya? You look like a woman,” he finally says.

Many a Wood character has undergone an emotional transformation via a physical makeover.  Good girl Deanie Loomis tried to turn bad in a sexed-up getup before her breakdown in Splendor in the Grass; Inside Daisy Clover’s titular tomboy washed clean for the big screen; Gypsy Rose Lee put it all on just to strip it all off in Gypsy.

8. Cinderella, Cinderella (1950)

One of the most beloved makeovers in cinematic history occurrs in the animated Disney classic, when scullery maid Cinderella is transformed into a dazzling princess with the tap of a fairy godmother’s wand.

But how drastic was it, really?  When your siblings are referred to as “the ugly stepsisters,” you have to know you’re the pretty one in the family.  In the original Grimms’ Fairy Tale, Cinderella has two stepsisters who are “fair and beautiful to look upon, but base and black at heart.”

But for classic Disney, the face of evil must be ugly and only the pretty get prettier.

7. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, Some Like it Hot (1959)

Life’s a drag for Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon)…literally.  After witnessing a mob killing, the two musicians try to disappear by blending in with an all-girl band.  But can two men stay women for long around Marilyn Monroe?

Lemmon and Curtis’s disguises in Some Like it Hot succeed because they are so intentionally awful.  The terrible makeup, the bad wigs, the high-pitched voices and phony mannerisms are all played to the hilt- a realistic outcome for two inexperienced cross-dressers trying to pass for women.

After all, have you ever seen a guy (one who’s not a transvestite) dress up as a woman for Halloween?  It’s pretty much the Lemmon & Curtis Beauty Academy.

6. Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young, The Enchanted Cottage (1945)

In this sentimental gem, two wounded hearts find love at an enchanted cottage where beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

Laura Pennington (McGuire) no longer dreams of being beautiful or of finding love.  Her homely appearance is a fact of life, and she’s learned to endure insults quietly.  Like a dog kicked one too many times, she doesn’t even have the strength to whimper.  As if this isn’t bad enough, she makes a living waiting on beautiful young lovers at a honeymoon cottage.

War-bound Oliver Bradford (Young) is too enamored with his glamorous fiancee to notice Laura until a disfiguring battle injury brings him to the cottage to heal in seclusion.  Her kindness and encouragement transform her plain features into perfect beauty in Oliver’s eyes, while his deformities miraculously disappear under Laura’s gaze.  Is it love or is it the enchanted cottage?

5. Greta Garbo, Ninotchka (1939)


Comrade Nina “Ninotchka” Ivanovna (Garbo) tries to resist the thrills and frills of Paris while on a mission to reign in three wayward emissaries in Ninotchka.

Ninotchka pins all of her disgust for Parisian society on a silly hat in a shop window.  To her, it’s a symbol of the very downfall of society with all its excess and decadence.  It also becomes a symbol of Ninotchka’s transformation from “a tiny cog in the great wheel of evolution” to a woman who yearns for love…for pleasure…and for hats!

Ninotchka also marks a pivotal change in the career of its star.  Garbo was understandably nervous about appearing in a comedy, especially since the movie was promoted around the notorious tagline “Garbo Laughs!”

Although audiences laughed along with her, Garbo made just one more film (the comedy Two-Faced Woman) before disappearing into self-imposed retirement.

4.  Anthony Perkins, Psycho (1960)

Norman Bates enjoys the quiet life as caretaker of the lonely Bates Motel.  He likes simple pleasures like peanut butter sandwiches…taxidermy…spying on female guests…dressing up like his mother…and stabbing women in the shower.  But he wouldn’t harm a fly.

Norman didn’t really have a handle on the whole cross-dressing thing, what with the lop-sided wig and ill-fitting floral get-up.  Yet, there’s a terrifying hilarity to the reveal, something so bizarre you don’t know whether to laugh or scream.

3. Eleanor Parker, Caged (1950)

A recent viewing of Caged reminded me of a line from The Shawshank Redemption: “I had to come to prison to be a crook.”  In this critique of the women’s prison system, Marie Allen (Parker) enters prison as a frightened teenager and leaves as a jaded con determined to pursue a life of crime.

One scene in particular marks the loss of Marie’s innocence when a sadistic guard (Hope Emerson) gags her, straps her to a chair, and shaves her hair off before throwing her into solitary confinement.  Rather than don a wig, Parker sacrificed her own locks for the pivotal scene.

I love when Marie later tosses the line, “thanks for the haircut.”

2.  Audrey Hepburn, My Fair Lady (1964)

Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) is a murderer…of the English language – an offense Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) finds unforgivable.  He claims he can transform the uneducated flower peddler into a refined lady in just six months.

I didn’t grow up with this movie, which is based on the George Bernard Shaw play The Pygmalion.  I don’t know all of the songs, and it doesn’t hold a special place in my heart.  Some people love this movie for Audrey Hepburn.  Others hate it, because Audrey Hepburn isn’t Julie Andrews.  And then there’s me…wanting to like it despite the grating, faux-Cockney accent and overblown wailing of its star.

Regardless, My Fair Lady is the makeover movie – the standard by which all other makeover movies are measured.  Our modern-day Higginses don’t care much for preserving the English language, but their stories owe a debt to this well-loved (but not by everybody) classic.

1. Bette Davis, Now, Voyager (1942)

I struggled with my pick for the number one classic movie transformation.

Should it be Frederic March’s release of his inner monster in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?  What about the fate of Cleopatra, the beautiful but deceitful trapeze artist, in Freaks? I’m sure there’s a Lon Chaney character that could fit the bill.  After all, he did inspire the joke, “Don’t step on that spider! It might be Lon Chaney!”

Yet it’s more than the physical changes that make for a successful – and relevant – makeover.

Bette Davis wasn’t afraid to ugly herself up for a role (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, anyone?), including the meek old-maid Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager.

Charlotte’s whole life needed a makeover.  She was wound as tight as her spinsterish bun.  Her domineering mother constantly reminded her of her shortcomings, and her mirror constantly reminded her of her uni-brow.  She was plain from head-to-toe, and in misery from the inside out.

After suffering a nervous breakdown, Charlotte is forced to leave behind her old fears, along with her old clothes.  Someone is bound to notice her new confidence and stylish appearance…someone like Jerry Durrance (Paul Heinreid) aka The Un-Happily Married Man.  Can she find happiness in the shambles of someone else’s life?

Davis claimed she received more fan-mail for Now, Voyager than for any of her other films.

“The mail was really for Charlotte,” she said, from all the other unhappy Charlottes in the audience trying to find the courage to change.

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By Amanda Flinner


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5 Comments

  1. I love this list! Nice work!

    Another possible addition might be Jake LaMotta in RAGING BULL from a man in shape to a fat slob.

  2. My definite favorite has got to be “My Fair Lady” I’m glad it made it here. This list is rather good, now I want to check out the films listed here I haven’t seen yet.

  3. you should have had “the day the earth stood still”
    and “lost in space” as i thought they were both really good

  4. Soooooo, what was the transformation in “NV”? Bette Davis went from pretty good-looking to . . . rather good-looking.

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