When it comes to makeovers at the movies, the rules have always been fairly straightforward: Girls get a Cinderella story, while guys get Spider-Man.
It’s pretty much been that way since the dawn of the movie makeover genre, which authors Elizabeth A. Ford and Deborah C. Mitchell trace to 1942’s “Now Voyager” (starring Bette Davis) in their 2004 book “The Makeover in Movies."That film may not be familiar, but the story arc certainly is, and it can be found in movies ranging from the animated “Cinderella” (1950) to the live-action “The Princess Diaries” (2001). A fashion-challenged female character is transformed, frequently with the help of a fairy godmother/guru/gay friend, into a femme fetale, discarding the thick glasses, orthopedic shoes and potato-sack dress along the way. Our heroine emerges as if from a cocoon, an exquisite feminine beauty.
The male version of the movie makeover has a slightly different storyline; in this transformation, a 98-pound weakling is bitten by a radioactive spider or given a magic ring or the opportunity to step into a phone booth and materializes as a finely muscled superhero. A spectacular transformation to be sure, but wardrobe-wise their outfits usually don’t amount to much more than bodystockings.
This month, a pair of movies at the multiplex have traded in the cape for the clothes closet, and served up a kind of style-centric male makeover not often found on the big screen: “Larry Crowne,” starring Tom Hanks and “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” starring Steve Carell.
Is it simply coincidence that the two summer films dial up the stylish side of the male makeover, or do they reflect a shift in popular culture?
In “Larry Crowne,” Hanks’ schlubby character – who favors tucked-in polo shirts; baggy, pleated khakis, and Members Only style windbreakers – gets an extreme makeover thanks to a community college classmate who ends up putting him in tight black jeans, layered vests, shirts with embroidered detailing on the yoke, leather jackets, and, in perhaps the ultimate touch, slings a strappy messenger bag across his chest. When he makes his classroom debut in a dark, monochromatic outfit, a classmate can’t resist name-checking the Man in Black. “Yo, Johnny Cash,” he says.
Likewise, Steve Carell’s Cal Weaver in “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” is transformed -- at the hands of Lothario Jacob Walker (played by Ryan Gosling) – from a life of two-sizes-too-big brown corduroy blazers, billowy, horizontal striped polo shirts and pleated khakis into a slim, trim, layered-look ladies’ man sporting Canali and Ermenegildo Zegna jackets.
In one particularly fashion-focused scene, Weaver’s New Balance running shoes are tossed off a balcony during a shopping trip to the Westfield Century City shopping center, and his newfound style advisor forces him to repeat the phrase: “I am better than the Gap.”
Although “The Makeover in Movies,” was written specifically to address the way women were treated in the genre from 1942 to 2002, co-authors Mitchell (currently a professor of English & Film Studies at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania,) and Ford (currently professor emerita of English at Westminster), said the topic of the male makeover was one that was frequently discussed.
“We didn’t have to look very far to find the superhero, which is the first kind of male makeover,” Mitchell said. “Superman’s alter-ego Clark Kent has all the signifiers: the glasses, the suits that hid his physique, his bumbling awkward nature and his shyness with women.” It’s a physical power makeover.
Mitchell thinks “Crowne” falls into a second category of men’s makeover “where the goal isn’t [superhero-like] power, but a kind of cool that he doesn’t have to begin with. Before he’s completely dorky and after he gets made over he’s cooler. That happens in the 2003 Neil LaBute movie ‘The Shape of Things’ where Rachel Weisz is an art student who gives dorky Paul Rudd a makeover to turn him into a cool dude. I think she turns him in as an art project at the end.”
The third type of male makeover, according to Ford and Mitchell, can be found in movies as diverse as “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Avatar.”
“‘Groundhog Day’ could fit into that category as well,” says Ford. “It’s a movie where [Bill Murray’s character] is making himself over not so much physically as psychologically – he’s trying to make himself over to be a better fit with his romantic partner.”
“Crazy, Stupid, Love” might be described as a hybrid: it begins as a seemingly superficial “quest for cool,” but eventually evolves into “make be a better man” kind of makeover.
Nonetheless the sheer amount of screen time devoted to the building of Weaver’s new wardrobe -- the handiwork of the film’s costume designer Dayna Pink, who dressed him in top-of-the-line tailored pieces from lines like Ermenegildo Zegna, Burberry, Etro and Prada—is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the movie..
Watch a post-makeover Cal Weaver saunter in and take a seat at the bar, sporting a dress shirt, no necktie and a perfectly fitting blue Canali blazer, with exquisite drape and the ever-so-slightest bit of shine to telegraph his new-found confidence. It’s every bit as transformative as the superhero’s cape – and infinitely more subtle.
While Pink thinks the movie – fashion-focused makeover and all -- could just as easily have hit theaters five or even 10 summers ago, she thinks today’s male movie-goers will probably be more receptive to the fashion cues than in decades past. “More men are reading about, and seem interested about what’s happening in fashion,” she said. “It’s surprising to me how many guys will know who Band of Outsiders is, for example, and it isn’t just a metrosexual thing.”
Mitchell and Ford think the time is ripe for more nuanced male makeover movies. “I really think we’re going to start seeing more and more of the male makeover films,” Mitchell said, “and not the superhero kind.”
Instead, they describe a transformation that hews closer to the character development of Cal Weaver in “Crazy, Stupid, Love”: “A friend or a girlfriend will prompt the makeover but then the character goes on and has to reconcile the new self with the former self,” Mitchell said. “The character merges these two parts of himself into a ‘nicer makeover’ …There’s an idea now that portraying the male as a whole character, able to hurt and feel, is suddenly OK.”
As for what’s behind that shift, Mitchell points not to Hollywood but Washington, D.C., citing Susan Jeffords’ 1993 book “Hard Bodies”,” which linked the proliferation of white, male, action hero movies of the ‘80s to the Reagan Revolution.
“What comes out of Hollywood is generally tied to the political agenda of the day, and who is sitting in the White House,” she said. “Look at the Obama era and you start to see connections.”
Whether “Crazy, Stupid, Love” ultimately helps usher in a new era of the male movie makeover remains to be seen, but costume designer Dayna Pink isn’t setting her hopes that high.
“Hopefully there will be some guy who goes to see this movie who’s wearing a horizontal-striped polo shirt that’s two sizes too big,” Pink says. “And when he walks out of that theater, he’ll look at himself and say: ‘I’ve got to get to Bloomingdale’s.’ Then I’ll know I’ve been successful.”