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'Spring Breakers' and the art of image rehab

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Imagine that you’re a young actress with a squeaky-clean appeal, the star of such air-popped Disney fluff as the High School Musical trilogy or Wizards of Waverly Place. You have carefully cultivated your wholesome, family-friendly image. But then, one day, when you’re finally out of your teens, it begins to dawn on you that that image may be a trap, that you may have Disneyfied yourself into irrelevance. How do you change the game? If you’re Vanessa Hudgens or Selena Gomez, you star in a movie like Spring Breakers (opening in limited release March 15), a down-and-dirty outlaw fantasia about college kids who go on a psychotic spring-break bender. It’s the latest cherry bomb tossed at respectability by the indie grunge auteur Harmony Korine (Trash Humpers, Gummo), and it’s also the latest instance in a long Hollywood tradition: actors using movies as vehicles for drastic image makeovers.

In Spring Breakers, Hudgens and Gomez play college chums who, along with their two other BFFs, head down to Florida for that yearly bacchanal, an event that has been chronicled in pop culture more times than you can count. Korine’s gambit, and it’s a mesmerizing one, is to push the party decadence so far that it becomes apocalyptic (think ancient Rome with beer bongs and machine guns). But really, it’s all about the actresses, who spray bad-girl attitude across the screen with more devil-horn fervor than anyone since Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers.

What’s the key to a role that successfully transforms you? The trick is to call attention to what you’re doing, yet to transcend the gimmickry and make the new image feel organic. The change has to register not as glorified career management (even if that’s what it is) but as a true surprise, a shock of recognition that we feel in our solar plexus. When Bruce Willis showed up in Pulp Fiction, he was in a professional rut. So he played a boxer who was basically a noble dummy — and, for the first time, appeared with his balding pate exposed. The performance was a triumphant curveball, and it gave his career just the jolt it needed. Charlize Theron had a different issue to overcome when she made Monster: Up until then, she’d basically been cast — and perceived — as eye candy, and no one had any idea of what a talented actress she was. Her solution was to take her beauty out of the picture. Hidden behind an extraordinary makeup job, she portrayed the serial killer Aileen Wuornos with a runty animalistic desperation, and it was as if we were seeing her for the first time. The result? She won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

For a long while, the most common image makeover was a comedian-going-startlingly-serious. It was Bill Murray, three decades ago, who spearheaded the recent trend when he made his contract for doing Ghostbusters contingent upon his getting to star in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. Not a lot of people saw the movie, yet it changed Hollywood’s essential perception of Murray, allowing him to drive his way toward more and more dramatic roles. Jim Carrey pulled off a masterful version of the same stunt in The Truman Show, resetting his entire career, and so, in a quirkier (and less long-lasting) way, did Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love.

A lot of image makeovers are about ”edge.” Brad Pitt knew he had to shake his hunk-god image from Thelma & Louise if he didn’t want to end up as a punchline, so he played a dirty redneck serial killer in Kalifornia, and voilà! — a dangerous actor was born. Anne Hathaway, after The Princess Diaries, attempted to shed her G-rated persona by playing a suburban teen who runs with East L.A. gangs in Havoc. And Bradley Cooper, after his smooth-as-silk turns in the Hangover films, deglammed himself into a jittery piece of passionate human wreckage in Silver Linings Playbook. Suddenly he was hypnotic.

If there’s any actor who’s a guru of the image makeover, it may be Tom Cruise. Even in his first ”serious” role, in The Color of Money, he was still a rockin’ pretty boy, but Born on the Fourth of July changed all that: As the ravaged Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, he transcended his Cruise control. Then, just a few years ago, he pulled the ultimate switcheroo: Battling the perception that he was now taking himself maybe a bit too seriously, he showed up, unrecognizable, in Tropic Thunder as Les Grossman, the ultimate loathsome Hollywood vulgarian executive. Yes, he was funny, but more than that, Cruise turned heads. Which is the best way for a star to turn his image on its head.

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