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Let’s Reflect on Some Iconic Cinematic Hair Changes That Show the Passage of Time

In Hollywood, there's no better way to say 'this character is older/younger now!' than with a trip to the salon.

20th Century Fox

Movies! We love them here at Discourse Blog. The glitz. The glamour. The way they can transport you to a different place! And a different time! Sometimes, they even transport you to multiple time periods within the same movie. Incredible but…such a thing can naturally get confusing for the casual viewer, which is why Hollywood invented a clever little trick to keep you in the loop and immersed in the story. It’s a device that deploys a naturally occurring element that every mammal on earth has in common. That element is hair. 

The impetus for this particular meditation was In the Heights—a film I frankly didn’t enjoy (I wanted to!!!), but one that my colleague, Jack Mirkinson, did. [Ed. note: it was my first movie back in theaters! What can I say.] As we were discussing our difference in opinion, we could agree on one thing: the goatee that star Anthony Ramos sports to illustrate a time jump was inexcusable. 

Here’s the side by side of his looks in the movie’s two timelines (not a spoiler): 

NOOOOO. Credit: Warner Bros.

Anyway, that led us here:

Which led us here, to this blog. I have to admit, the more time I spent writing this, the funnier the whole thing became to me. Obviously this is a (somewhat) necessary storytelling device, but when you start to look at these costuming changes in isolation, the whole thing starts to feel deeply silly. No shade whatsoever to the costumers and makeup artists. It’s not an easy job to scream “NEW TIMELINE!!” without, you know, screaming it.

And so, without further ado, here are just a few of my favorite cinematic hair changes illustrating the passage of time. Seriously though, this post could have been 500 pages long. The list of movies and TV shows that use this device is absolutely endless.

The Too Subtle Hair Change: Little Women (2019)

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women was an instant classic IMO (people seem insistent that you cannot like both the 1994 version and the 2019 version, but I am living proof that this isn’t so) that suffered only from a slightly confusing weaving of the story’s two timelines. Once you fall into the movie’s rhythms, the hair changes become more apparent, but they’re honestly prettttty subtle. Young Jo March has long, wild, slightly coppery? hair. Grown-up Jo pretty much always has her brunette locks tied up. Don’t worry, she is determined and headstrong in both timelines!

Credit: Sony Pictures

The Too (?) Obvious Hair Change: True Detective, season one (2014)

I don’t have much to say for this one. You know him, and you love or hate him. Rust Cohle’s transformation through time’s flat circle in True Detective season one is simply one for the ages. It actually reminds me a lot of the Tom Hanks Cast Away transformation from above, except in this case, simply being alive is its own stand-in for being stranded on an island alone for years. We can all relate! Respect to this show for having absolutely zero restraint with anything, including hair changes.

Credit: HBO

The “We’ve All Moved On and Are Fine!!!!” Hair Change: Broadcast News (1987)

I’d be lying if I said this truly counted as “iconic” but I just rewatched Broadcast News, a perfect film, and was stunned anew at what they do with Holly Hunter’s styling in the final scenes of this movie. It’s a look that’s reflective of the time, I get that, but it’s rude all the same.

Even Albert Brooks can’t believe it. Credit: 20th Century Fox

The Flawless Hair Change: When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Okay, the looks in this movie truly ARE iconic. Both Meg Ryan’s Sally and Billy Crystal’s Harry go through several changes in their hair, accessories, and clothing throughout this epic love story, and each shift is a perfect representation of where the characters are in that moment. Five out of five stars.

Credit: Columbia Pictures

The Hair Change That Won’t Get in the Way of Your Frown: Point Break (1991)

My husband nominated this one and while I’ve seen Point Break several times in my life, I wasn’t sold on its inclusion in this blog, but then I asked him to make a case and he launched into an explanation that took probably 90 seconds in which he mentioned the “evolution of Johnny Utah” and an outward expression that he’s “not just an imposter anymore, he’s the real deal.” I can’t really argue with that, or Keanu in general. So here you go.

Credit: 20th Century Fox

The Mental Break Hair Change: The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

When I was a kid, I thought The Long Kiss Goodnight—a movie about a woman with amnesia who doesn’t remember she’s a super well-trained government assassin, and then does remember and sick action ensues—was a great piece of art. It was one of those flicks that when I saw it, I thought, “this a movie that adults with taste like.” Unfortunately, I was wrong, as a recent rewatch revealed. But! Geena Davis is great in it, as always, and she has a cool transformation from sweet mommy to scary mommy. Okay actually, this hair transformation is more about an inner change than the passage of time, but whatever. I already made the side-by-side image.

Credit: New Line Cinema

The Manic-Pixie-“I’m-Not-a-Concept”-Good-Luck-Trying-to-Keep-Up-With-the-Plot Hair Change: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Honestly I’d forgotten how much Clementine’s (Kate Winslet’s) hair in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is used to orient you in the various timelines as the movie progresses and gets more and more complicated. This? Unforgettable!

Credit: Focus Features

The Corny and Stupid But Unfortunately Well Done Hair Change: Forrest Gump (1994)

Whew, this movie sure has not aged well in basically any way, but I will recommend rewatching the running sequence which is really such a weird remnant of its time. Plus, you need to watch the whole thing to truly appreciate the evolution in hair styling. Forrest runs for three-ish years in total, and as someone with an (aforementioned) husband who has not cut his hair in about two years, I would say the growth is actually pretty accurate! Good job, otherwise bad movie.

Credit: Paramount Pictures

The Just for Laughs Hair Change: Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)

The flashbacks in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion are very clearly flashbacks and don’t really require the aid of hair changes to alert the viewer to the shift, but this movie is entirely about aesthetic, fun, and jokes, so they went for it, and we are all better for it. Another perfect film!!

Touchstone Pictures

I’m sad to say that I couldn’t find a definitive list of movies and TV shows that use hair changes to illustrate different timelines, but I did find several very funny posts with advice for screenwriters on how to write the passage of time into their screenplays. I wonder if the writers of these movies all read those posts! This BuzzFeed piece zeroed in on bangs as a common device which is both funny and true (see Mira Sorvino above!) and there are a few TV Tropes posts about the Time-Passage Beard and the broader Expository Hairstyle Change, which are fun rabbit holes to go down if you’re so inclined.

Also, I haven’t seen the show Outlander, but Jack informed me that “these two very gorgeous 30-somethings are supposed to have been apart from each other for decades and be in like their 50s and they just put one streak of gray in the hair and keep it moving.” Beautiful.

As I said before, this list is far from exhaustive so please tell me some of your favorite examples of this classic storytelling shortcut. Bonus points for photos!!