Makeovers in the Movies: Now, Voyager

Makeovers are so often dismissed as superficial – nothing more than a quick romp through some stores and a beauty salon. But quite often when we get a makeover, we’re hoping that the change on the outside somehow reflects an inner brilliance we feel, and want to express.

Nowhere in the movies is this wish more fulfilled than in the classic 1942 film, Now, Voyager. The makeover here is so much more than a jaunty interlude of spas and shopping – it is a butterfly flexing her new wings.

(Spoilers ahead)

Charlotte Vale (of the Boston Vales), is a New England society woman played by Bette Davis. She’s the spinster aunt – the butt of jokes from her niece June, and an object of pity within her family. With her unkempt eyebrows, her matronly hair and dress, and her extra pounds, Charlotte is the mousy recluse who’s still stuck in her awkward teen years.

But there’s a secret behind Charlotte’s unhappiness: her domineering, abusive mother has been manipulating her, and controlling her life. This control, so eerie to watch onscreen, has not only thwarted her personality – it’s also passed on some of the same mannerisms. But while Mother wrings her hands in plotting and control, “Poor Aunt Charlotte” wrings hers in timid frustration.

But sister-in-law Lisa brings in a new friend, Dr. “Jack” Jaquith, to talk to Charlotte about her “nerves”. And Charlotte, tired of being the sick one in the family, fears that this doctor will only confirm that reputation.

Dr. Jack gains Charlotte’s trust, and she tells him about her life. Her mother’s control and abuse become apparent as she remembers the Grand Tour they took together, where they could not even leave the ship, lest they appear to “act like common tourists.” There will be no embarrassing the Vale family name!

In spite of the restrictions, the young Charlotte manages to have a romance with the wireless officer of the ship. This, of course, is absolutely inappropriate for a New England society girl, and her mother destroys the relationship as soon as she hears of it. Young Charlotte attempts to stand up for herself, but Mother is stronger, and crushes her chances of finding herself through love.

At the end of Charlotte’s stay at the clinic, Dr. Jack is reluctant to send her straight back home. So he and Leeza conspire to send her on another cruise. He tells her it will help her escape her “New England Conscience”. And he gives her an unusual piece of advice: to forget her family name and power, to be a tourist, to be” interested in everything, everyone”.  And with a trunk full of clothes borrowed from Lisa, off she goes:

The revelation of Charlotte after her treatment is stunning: she’s now an elegant and beautiful woman. She’s shed her extra pounds, shaped her eyebrows and put makeup on, and Lisa’s clothes (which come with instructions) fit her perfectly. Even as she falters in her confidence, her beauty radiates from her, and fellow passengers all want to know: who is she?

And even she is perplexed by her new beauty – she had given up hope of love or independence, and does not really know how to be a woman. But when she meets Jerry Durrance, she gives it her best shot, at first giving in to her habitual self-depreciation, but playing at being a tourist with Jerry, and coming to the realization that he has his own painful situation as well. Her understanding of him does lead to a brief romance, and they do get one night alone, but they must both return to their obligations.

What’s so thrilling about Charlotte’s makeover is not only that it shows her emergence from dowdy aunt to glamorous socialite – it gives us hope that a truly damaged person can be restored. It also inspires in us the feeling that, while the positive changes we make might feel precarious, they are real, and we can make them stick.

Charlotte doesn’t just use her newfound power to stand up to her mother and enliven the Vale family home. She also comes to the aid of Jerry’s unhappy and unwanted daughter Tina, and helps Tina see her own beauty and potential. That she decides to not marry, but to immerse herself in the things she knows she can contribute to, is inspiring in that her independence never becomes selfish.

Charlotte Vale’s makeover comes with more than beauty; it also comes with power and independence. But more than that, it comes with a maturity that creates harmony in others’ lives as well. What makes this makeover so inspiring is that we long for the fearlessness of the grown Charlotte as well as her wardrobe. We want our outer selves to reveal just how far we’ve grown inside. And maybe we can’t always get that from a new look, but it won’t stop us from trying.

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