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Physical Transformations

January 26, 2010

by John Farr

Films with characters that require their actors to undergo eye-popping physical transformations.


Little Big Man (1970)

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Arthur Penn’s incomparable western epic details the (fictional) reminiscences of Jack Crabb, the last remaining survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. The expansive story sounds more like the lives of ten men, as Jack gets adopted by Cheyenne Indians, then assimilates to white, and finally goes back and forth between the two races, while encountering Western characters Wild Bill Hickok and of course, General Custer himself.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Part comedy, part stinging commentary on our treatment of the Indians, “Man” is a dazzling accomplishment, a vivid tapestry of all the opposing qualities that made the old west the basis of so many great movies. In a virtuoso turn, Hoffman plays Crabb from teenager to 121-year-old man, and early on, even gets a bath from a sexually repressed Christian lady (Faye Dunaway).


Raging Bull (1980)

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

In 1941, real-life boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) spurns the mob, who want a piece of him, in his quest for the middleweight title. With the help of Joey (Joe Pesci), his brother and manager, Jake wins the championship belt, then loses it to Sugar Ray Robinson. As his career spirals downward, Jake bloats up and physically abuses Joey and his own teenage wife Vicky (Cathy Moriarty). Alienated from everyone and wrestling with emotional demons, the relentlessly self-destructive Jake searches for some semblance of inner peace.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Based on LaMotta’s memoirs and filmed in gorgeous black-and-white, Martin Scorsese’s gritty, no-holds-barred drama-possibly his greatest-tackles the familiar theme of redemption with blunt force. Oscar winner De Niro, who famously packed on 50 pounds to do the “fat” scenes, is riveting as the brutish Jake, whose primary talent lies in the amount of punishment he can take in the ring. The fight sequences-raw, sweaty, and savage-are bravura pieces of filmmaking. “Raging Bull” may be hard for some viewers to sit through, but Scorsese ultimately leads his protagonist, and us, to a state of grace.


The Machinist (2004)

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Haunted by nightmarish visions of the past, grossly emaciated machine-shop worker Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) has not slept in a year. And despite his friendships with chipper airport café waitress Marie (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), and kindly hooker Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Trevor is slowly losing his grip on sanity. Menacing stick-figure drawings begin appearing in his apartment, and then Trevor meets a mysterious co-worker whose appearance presages a deadly accident. But is this person real or imagined?

WHY I LOVE IT:

Anderson’s eerie psychological thriller is an intelligent study of guilt and repression featuring a disturbing lead performance by Bale. Talk about dedication: the actor dropped a shocking 63 pounds to immerse himself in the role of Reznik, a “living skeleton.” It is hard to see the hulking star of “American Psycho” so gaunt and sickeningly starved, but it serves the character’s sympathetic, soul-annihilating psychosis. Leigh and Sanchez-Gijon provide excellent support, as does Mr. Clean look-alike John Sharian, playing a demonic, scarily deformed factory worker who may or may not be a phantasm. Filmed in metallic blues and grays for added effect, “The Machinist” is a paranoid, memorably creepy puzzler.


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  • comments (0)
  • Nikki

    I would name Lon Chaney for all of his transformations. John Hurt in “The Elephant Man”; and Roddy McDowall, Maurice Evans and Kim Hunter in the “Planet Of The Apes.”

    In 1974 Fox Studios shot the Planet of the Apes TV series, and I was on the lot working on a MOW. A friend of mine stopped by to take me to lunch. As I was preparing to leave, the Producer came out of his office unexpectedly and saw my friend sitting on the sofa casually reading a magazine. The Producer gasped and rushed back, slamming the door behind him, and rang my phone. I picked up the receiver to hear, “You can go to lunch with chimpanzees and with orangutans, but I don’t want gorillas in the office!” The gorilla make-up was very frightening. It took hours to apply it, and the actors had to drink their meals through a straw.

  • rayban

    For me, the most sensational “physical transformation” was Dustin Hoffman’s Ratzo Rizzo in John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy”. I also give extremely high marks to John Hurt’s very, very effeminate Quentin Crisp in “The Naked Civil Servant”. And, just for the sheer intensity of it, Jared Leto’s fine performance as the more feminine side of the notorious “Honeymoon Killers” in the recent re-make.

  • Nikki

    John Hurt is one of those actors who can transform himself with his acting – and the makeup and costumes are the icing on the cake.

  • rayban

    I totally agree, Nikki, remember John Hurt opposite Ryan O’Neal in “Partners”?

  • Nikki

    I never saw “Partners,” but I’m going to look for it. Thanks for the tip!