Feeling Pretty: Re-examining the movie makeover

Everyone loves a good makeover story. Well, most do. Others have strong opinions about a film that is yet to be released. The Amy Schumer-led comedy I Feel Pretty, out April 20, will give audiences a fresh take on a famous film trope when an ordinary woman wakes up from a fall with an empowering, newfound confidence despite an unchanged appearance.

Rewind nearly two decades to writers Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein making audiences laugh with their transformative 1999 comedy Never Been Kissed, starring Drew Barrymore as “Josie Grossie.” The plain-girl-turned-bell-of-the-ball plotline is common, creating a profitable well of storytelling for filmmakers with everything from Cinderella and My Fair Lady to The Princess Diaries and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But why do we love them?

When a female protagonist morphs from not-to-hot, she is doing it for one of two reasons: for a man or for herself. Both Vivian in Pretty Woman and Marisa in Maid in Manhattan class up their unimpressive wardrobes mostly for the sake of their male counterparts. Sandy in Grease does the opposite, trading poodle skirts for leather suits. Pretty Woman was written by J.F. Lawton and directed by Garry Marshall. Maid in Manhattan was written by Kevin Wade and John Hughes and directed by Wayne Wang. Grease was written by Bronte Woodward and directed by Randal Kleiser. While thoroughly entertaining and beloved by audiences, these specific makeover-movies had not a single female on their creative rosters. Other examples are My Fair Lady, Funny Face, Sabrina, Working Girl, She’s All That and Easy A – all written and directed by men.

Female screenwriters and directors, however, have a different take on bippity-boppity-boo of the women in their scripts. In Gina Wendkos’ The Princess Diaries, Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas’ Miss Congeniality and Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, the archetypal makeovers act as inciting actions that catapult the heroine’s journey into preparing for royalty, going undercover and exacting revenge on a high school Queen Bee.

Though there are romantic subplots in all three films, the reason for their makeover is not directly related to the men in their lives. Improving one’s appearance and confidence are catalysts for growing friendships in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, Karen McCullah and Kristen Smith’s The House Bunny and Robin Schiff’s Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Putting the focus on looks is a tactical need for survival in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Aline Brosh McKenna’s The Devil Wears Prada.

Can a Venn Diagram exist for a protagonist? Can he or she undergo a physical transformation for both a love interest and a greater purpose? I think so.

In Eleanor Bergstein’s Dirty Dancing Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey), undergoes both a physical and emotional transformation over the course of a summer at a Catskills resort when she falls in love with the camp’s dance instructor, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). Or in Leslie Dixon’s Mrs. Doubtfire, dear. Or maybe, in April 2018, a great makeover story can include both male and female writers who weigh the emotional transformation more than the physical. I feel pretty certain.

© Brigid K. Presecky (4/2/18) FF2 Media

Featured photo: Busy Philipps, Amy Schumer, and Aidy Bryant in I Feel Pretty (2018) (Mark Schfer/Courtesy of STXfilms)

Top Photo: Julie Andrews, Anne Hathaway, and Larry Miller in The Princess Diaries (2001) courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

Middle Photo: Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing (1987)

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Brigid Presecky began her career in journalism at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. In 2008, she joined FF2 Media as a part-time film critic and multimedia editor. Receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from Bradley University, she moved to Los Angeles where she worked in development, production and publicity for Berlanti Productions, Entertainment Tonight and Warner Bros. Studios, respectively. Returning to her journalistic roots in Chicago, she is now a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and certified Rotten Tomatoes Film Critic.
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