„He is the Lon Chaney of the tuxedo set“
I just read this sentence on my way to work in Jeanine Basinger’s excellent book on silent movie stars and it got me thinking about actors transforming themselves into their character, no matter how hideous they may be. This particular quote is about John Barrymore, the bad boy member of the Barrymore acting clan – he was hugely successful as an actor and matinee idol in silent movies and went on to have a very distinguished career in sound films before dying at the relatively young age of 60 in 1942, a shadow of his former self after years of heavy drinking.
Most of us still know Lon Chaney, both his name and his image, especially as the Hunchback of Notre Dame or the Phantom of the Opera. His status in film history is pretty unique, he was hugely accomplished in using his whole body to convey a character (something a lot of silent stars did) and he also did his own make-up. It is always a fascinating process to see people change into someone different and it is certainly a device that horror films have used since the movies began. It is not just the horror genre, though, which has made use of the dual personalities – Marion Davies, Julia Andrews in Victor/Victoria all the way up to Gwyneth Paltrow, playing two roles in Shallow Hal – actors seem to revel in the opportunity to play not one but two parts in the same movie.
John Barrymore excelled at transforming himself without much make-up into a totally different character such as in his celebrated success Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Like Lon Chaney before him, who was still a star at the same time as Barrymore, he managed to convey this change with his entire body – the make-up only being apparent in later close-ups.
Why are we so fascinated with transformation? Do we all secretly long to be someone else? To play out all our different characteristics, desires, bad and good, pretty and ugly sides?
I’m sure there is some truth in this and many of us enjoy the opportunity to be someone or something different, be it at costume parties, Halloween or carnivals!
The selection of stills comes from the wonderful collection of our Spanish partner agency album, I hope you like them.