Makeovers in the Movies: Vertigo

Makeovers in the movies are so often about brightening up the place: prettifying a nerdy girl, replacing a boring wardrobe – even spicing up a lifeless movie plot.

But the makeover takes a darker, more sinister turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Here, the makeover is weaponized – looks are fuel for the war between the sexes, psychosexual redemption, and even murder.

The bulk of the movie shows us San Francisco detective John “Scotty” Ferguson’s attempt to decipher the mysterious Madeleine Elster – the beautiful, haunted wife of college acquaintance Gavin Elster. Scotty’s acrophobia has already prevented him from saving the life of one of his police colleagues. And in spite of his attempts to help Madeleine, her disease sends her running up the stairs of a mission bell tower, where his fears prevent him from following, and perhaps saving her life.

After a year’s hospitalization, Scotty is functional but not well. He is obsessed with the dead Madeleine and his failure to help her, and it is while revisiting her old haunts that he discovers Judy Barton. He stalks her, following her back to her residence hotel and convincing her to have dinner with him.

And here is where the makeover goes to a very un-fun place. Judy, who knows exactly what happened to Madeleine, is in love with Scotty, and wants him to love her back. Unfortunately for her, he’s not really into the tacky shopgirl from Salina, Kansas, but rather the mysterious dead socialite Madeleine.

This tug-of-war between Scotty’s need for closure and Judy’s need for love battles out over every aspect of the makeover. Judy pleads: “Couldn’t you like me just the way I am?” But no, he couldn’t, and he drags her to the “right” store, for the perfect suit, and the perfect hose, and the perfect shoes. And when the time comes to change her hair, she resists, knowing that he will never love her for herself.

Scotty’s fetishistic makeover of Judy extends to every detail – he can’t even bring himself to kiss her until she has exactly replicated Madeleine’s yonic hairstyle. And then, there is love…sort of. Scotty can now love Judy as Madeleine, and Judy can have Scotty – as long as she looks like Madeleine. She might even convince him to love her as herself. Things go well for a time, until she puts on an old piece of jewelry…

What’s so creepy about this makeover is that it’s entirely based on deception and coercion. Scotty and Judy’s attraction is based on so many levels of betrayal and emotional damage, that there is no truth to their love. The memory of Madeleine is not going to be enough to sustain their relationship.  And when Scotty finds out that he’s been had, both by Judy and by Madeleine’s husband Gavin – who has not only outsmarted him, but also done a better job creating the ideal woman out of Judy – things cannot turn out well.

Unlike many makeover subjects, Judy herself is not improved by her makeover. She is merely used by the more powerful men in her life as they make her over to play out their own ambitions. She never finds power of her own through these transformations, and her love – based on appeasement of Scotty’s demands – will never be truly returned. Betrayed by promises of money and love, Judy’s makeover is ultimately tragic. And even though we learn of Judy’s involvement in the crime, we can’t help but feel sorry for her.

Judy’s makeover serves as both a thrilling plot device and a frightening realization that sometimes other people really do hold all the cards. This makeover, based on deception, greed and appeasement rather than the usual life-affirming reveal of  a truer, stronger self, is a tragic and frightening reminder that we can get caught up in deceptions way beyond our control. We all want to be loved for ourselves, not just for what others think they can create out of us or get from us. And when things aren’t what they seem, a makeover won’t necessarily make things better – or brighter.

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