Love song to the makeover movie

10 March 2010

“I Know Where I’m Going” — I’ve seen it probably five times now and can attest that it’s a really good film that gets better on multiple viewings. It could be seen as the film that inspired “Local Hero” with its elegiac images of the Scottish coast, except here the redemption comes in the form of love with the right man. If you’ve never seen it, prepare yourself for a quiet movie with the slightly improbable matchup of the brittle Wendy Hiller and the goofy-looking Roger Livesey (who, at 40-ish, simply could not pass for the early 30s he’s supposed to be). But their acting is perfect: Livesey is a good man; Hiller is redeemed. 

Oh, the makeover narrative — a stock aspect of the “woman’s” film. Most fully realized in Pride and Prejudice (in which both Elizabeth and Darcy must change) and satisfyingly re-created in the BBC version of “North and South” (curiously, not in the Gaskell novel, however), this storyline appeals again and again.  It’s worth noting that love isn’t always the main plot device; highly satisfying makeover narratives appear in films such as Judy Davis in “My Brilliant Career” all the way through the winsome Carey Mulligan in “An Education.” Clearly, the transformation doesn’t need a wedding altar scene at the end.

We can argue about the implications of narratives that transform the heroine through love, but let’s quickly point out the differences between female and male makeovers. First, I believe that female makeover tales most often require interesting male counterparts, three-dimensional creatures interesting on their own — whereas male makeover films seem to invariably feature what Nathan Rabin of The Onion calls the “manic pixie dream girl archetype.” Whether it’s Jennifer Aniston in “Along Came Polly,” Natalie Portman in “Garden State,” or Sandra Bullock in “Forces of Nature,” these women’s unpredictability and full embrace of life allows them to “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” She is pure plot device, not a character worthy of an inner life or transformation. (Sidebar: Holly Welker has a piece this month that ties this archetype to Helen Andelin’s 1963 classic, Fascinating Womanhood, a book that might be termed the anti-Feminine Mystique [also published 1963].) The manic pixie dream girl merely permits the elaboration of self by the man.

It’s not that Roger Livesey is a terrifically complex figure in “I Know Where I’m Going,” but he’s the embodiment of the magic of Scotland’s Western Isles — poor but noble (like his namesake, the Colonel’s golden eagle), modest and well-mannered, familiar with everyone on the island, and a fine contrast to the rich industrialist Hiller intends to marry. Livesey grows on her, and on us; his aging, goofy looks become handsome as his admirable qualities become more pronounced. We imagine their marriage as a happy partnership of equals. Likewise, Peter Sarsgaard might have stolen “An Education” had it not been for the perfect performance by Mulligan — he subtly transforms from dashing to oh-so-slightly fleshy and deluded during the course of the film. His initial glamour is slowly exposed as a lack of depth as it becomes clear that the con man is conning himself, while Mulligan gains complexity by learning the hard way.

Okay, maybe it’s not a fair comparison. Drew Barrymore’s male counterparts in her string of makeover movies (“Home Fries,” “Never Been Kissed”) weren’t three-dimensional, either. But take a look at how hard Livesey works in this scene to mitigate the snarky comments by the locals about Hiller’s fiancé. He’s a good man. Makeover movie: I sing to your female protagonists and worthy male counterparts.

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