On-screen Makeovers

Bette davis | Gloria grahame | greta garbo | Joan Crawford


#1: From spinster aunt to Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (’42)

Charlotte Vale’s first appearance on the stairs provides clear evidence of maternal tyranny, of a life thwarted by its source. Bette Davis brings to flesh the agony of a woman cowed and made servile by her own mother.

Charlotte presents a complete fashion wince that magnifies a great inner turmoil. Charlotte’s limp-waved barnet hasn’t been popular since ladies won the franchise. Those eyebrows! They lend a wild, unkempt air of a shut-in, of one who shuns the mirror. A frumpy print on an ill-fitting dress occasions a style that blots a lady’s entire countenance.

Mother doesn’t approve of dieting, Charlotte says, which tells us that she doesn’t have the freedom to control her own body.

Claude Rains’ Dr. Jaquith diagnoses the psychological trauma Charlotte endures. He extricates the daughter from the destructive mother, played by Gladys Cooper. As Charlotte participates in therapy, she turns chrysalis and later spreads her wings, as symbolised by the butterfly cape with intricate beading that she wears on the cruise ship.

Charlotte’s style and self-confidence grow in tandem, even after she returns to the family home. She inhabits a makeover style graced with smooth rolled hair set with smart combs; hats to create an aura of mystery; elegant gowns embellished with a fresh corsage; skirt suits that affirm her place in the social registry; and most importantly, the walk. Charlotte takes the stairs as if they were a catwalk, spine-lengthened and keen hips, a full lady swagger.

Charlotte’s makeover led to the dual epiphany: she’s no longer afraid of her mother; she’s content to live in ‘single blessedness.’

Equipped with style and poise, Charlotte Vale makes ready to meet Whitman’s exhortation ‘Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find’.

#2: Gloria Grahame’s inconceivable makeover reversal in Nicholas Ray’s A Woman’s Secret (’49)

As a reliable Hollywood formula as Happy-Ever- After or The Gal-Gets- the-Guy, the unwritten celluloid rule demands that a makeover sticks. Once the lady in question receives the style transformation, the glamorous oracle holds sway until the fade-out. Shown the way to the font of fashion, she drinks deep and gains sustenance. Proficiency in style confirms a heroine’s ability to negotiate trials and challenges, one that equips her way in the world. A woman could no more abandon the wisdom of style than she could forget that water’s wet.

Except somehow Gloria Grahame’s Susan/Estrellita reverts to her oblivious, uncultivated former style in selecting tatty red chiffon. She neglects all the lessons from Maureen O’Hara’s style guru and arrays herself in perverse ignorance in the form of six garish tiers of low-grade chiffon. When you have known the splendour of a below shoulder neckline and sumptuous velvet, you recognise the difference between sartorial acumen and bargain basement design.

No wonder O’Hara’s fashion maven shoots her.


#3: Greta Garbo discovers that life post-makeover offers plenty of excitement in Susan lenox: her fall and rise (’31) [EPISODE 3]

Greta Garbo realises how the plot of a lady’s life moves in league with the quality of her style. Stuck in colourless, shapeless drudge gear, there’s nothing but endless servitude and evading a sex pest in her future. As soon as Garbo exchanges sad rags for celestial embellishments over a body stocking, the story of her life takes off. Luxurious silks, intricate beading, popped collars, fancy buttons and belts designate a woman who’s going places.

Eat her dust.

#4: Joan Crawford’s Keatsian makeover (‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’) in A Woman’s Face (’41)

What do you do when no one meets your glance?

When passers-by recoil at the mere sight of you?

If you’re Anna Holm (Joan Crawford) you retreat. Outcast from life’s banquet, she funnels bitter loneliness into criminal enterprise, as leader of a blackmail syndicate. Since Anna cannot join society, she’ll make them pay for the exclusion.

From the corner Anna’s right eye, across the cheek and down to her lips, a knotty, webbed spray of scar tissue blights her face. She received it as a small child, when her drunken father set the house on fire. Anna’s preoccupied with calculating moves—involving either a hat brim or physical contortions—to keep the right side of her face hidden. Anna bans mirrors and walks in shadows, disguised and vigilant. Blackmail offered a means of survival and a degree of solace in exploiting the weakness of others.

Anna’s makeover occurs in three stages: while she still has the fist-size scar; once it’s removed; finally, when she must choose the right thing instead of the desirable thing. In the initial stage, she attempts to titivate a style bound by utility rather than aesthetics or anything flattering. Every piece of her wardrobe had been chosen for an aid to invisibility. For the first time in her life, Joan Crawford’s character experiences the exhilarating rush of sexual attraction. Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt) returns her gaze. He leans toward her and takes a good look. Barring’s proximity, his regard, his attentive look extends a more powerful enticement than anything she’s known. She’s so overcome with the experience of recognition that she goes shopping in order to extend his notice. Suddenly visible, Anna buys ornamental, flounce-front lace blouses in three different colours and a brimless, floral trimmed hat that doesn’t conceal the scar. The makeover’s tonic effect proves short-lived when the woman she despises, the latest target for blackmail (Osa Massen as Vera Segert), a woman who cuckolds a surgeon husband, walks in Anna’s office wearing an identical hat and corsage. Only the types of flowers differ, otherwise they appear replica, with but one woman achieving the desired sartorial tone. Anna wipes the hat from her head as though it were the skin on hot milk. A sour expression registers the degree of shame that blisters from within, humiliated at a failed bid for flirty style. No woman welcomes evidence that she shares taste with one she reviles.

Anna’s medical makeover becomes possible during the second meeting with Vera to exchange her love notes to another man for money. Vera’s husband, Dr Gustaf Segert (Melvyn Douglas) settles his eyes on Anna’s scar, but his interest stems from professional practice rather than hypnotic seduction as with Torsten Barring. Segert’s expertise in facial reconstruction casts an opportune encounter for Anna’s transformation. After a series of operative skin grafts that leave her face bound in gauze, Segert wonders at the unveiling who will emerge—Galatea or Frankenstein. He wants to know if the makeover extends to her character, or if he’s unleashed a beautiful monster on the world.

Just because Anna’s made beautiful (duh, she’s Joan Crawford) does not mean all difficulties become as smoothed over as her newly restored cheek. Anna has to chart a navigable course on her moral compass, away from the thrall of Torsten Barring’s sexual mesmerism. She must resist the throb of desire his touch or voice generate. He’s ‘Lucifer in a tuxedo’, alluring and guaranteed to offer pleasure, except Anna yearns to belong to the human race. She could have his company or a whole community. Enough of shadows on the cave’s wall—Anna wants the light.

Roll not your eyes at the scope of her ambition for husband, family, home. She had a taste of Torsten’s fiery way, which offered nothing but appetite and parasitism. How could she murder a boy, little Lars-Erik, and destroy his life in the same manner as her own father nearly did through selfish, deliberate cruelty. She does not obey; she chooses; she acts. Anna’s makeover extends to her character and transforms her nature to duty of care, a responsibility to others. She joins the human race at last.