TECH SUPPORT: Best Costume Design — Volume One

Posted by · 11:29 am · October 9th, 2008

Tech Support at In ContentionThe Academy Award for Best Costume Design recognizes, shock of shocks, the clothes and accessories worn by actors in a film.  Clothing can add to the story and express the nature and situation of the characters who wear them.

If a single word could be used to describe this category, it would be “period.”  31 of the 40 nominees here this decade were period pieces.  This is not altogether surprising.  Period clothes automatically draw attention by not being the sort of fashion we see every day on the street and require the costume designer to accurately portray the time in which the film takes place.

The nominations two years ago “The Queen” and “The Devil Wears Prada” were refreshing in my opinion but extremely rare, being the first contemporary nominees in a dozen years.  Admittedly, fantasy films occasionally find a home here as well.  Seven nominees this decade fit that mold.  But even so, there is usually only one –- and never more than two –- spots available for non-period films in this category.

This is also an arena that tends to reward many familiar faces.  In a typical year, only one or two of the nominees are first-timers, while many designers are (usually deservedly) seen year after year.  This trend has occasionally resulted in some films one would never expect to find in the awards race landing the label “Oscar nominee.”

Catherine Martin might be leading the way this year.  She won this category seven years ago, the last time both she –- and her husband/director Baz Lurhmann -– worked.  That film was “Moulin Rouge!” and its design elements were fantastic.  Again doubling as a production designer on “Australia” this year, Martin will fashion the world of a Briton coming to a strange historical land, filled, as always, with Lurhmann’s bordering-on-fantastical elements.  The design opportunities should once again be amazing and I’d be quite surprised if Martin failed to make the cut.

Albert Wolsky proved with “Across the Universe” last year that he can never be counted out of this category.  The 77-year old, 40-year veteran of cinema has become Sam Mendes’s costume designer of choice in recent years.  “Revolutionary Road” gives him the opportunity to capture 1950s America.  The work may not be terribly flashy but it will have to be authentically period and if the film is an across-the-board contender (and I have no doubt it intends to be one); Wolsky will certainly be in the running.

Ann Roth has been designing threads for movies for more than four decades.  It is frankly somewhat surprising, in my opinion, that she has only four nominations to her credit.  With Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader,” she will have to detail decades of changing fashion.  She was nominated for similar work on “The Hours” in 2002, so if Daldry’s film delivers, I would say Roth would be in the thick of things.  The behind-the-scenes war on when to release this film does not strike me as good news, however.

Roth will also be designing the threads for “Doubt” this year.  Another period film, and a potential Best Picture nominee, I would not discount her here.  But this John Patrick Shanley film seems to me to be the sort where the clothes will likely be pretty plain — lots of school uniforms, nun’s habits and priest’s cassocks being the vast majority of the wardrobe.

Jacqueline West will have the task of costuming the last 80 years of the 20th Century on David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”  This work will necessarily involve numerous eras and is thus bound to be an excellent opportunity for this talented costume designer to show her skill.  Nominated in 2000 for “Quills,” I would definitely say this is her best chance at returning to the race.

Deborah Hopper has designed the costumes for seven Clint Eastwood films this decade.  “Changeling” will prove her best chance at a nomination for these efforts by bringing us back to 1920s Los Angeles, with superstar Angelina Jolie sporting the costumes.  Nonetheless, the film has proved quite divisive to date.  I suspect Hopper’s chances will ultimately depend on how consensus pans out on the film.

While “The Duchess” opened to respectable reviews, raves were not plentiful for this latest opportunity to see Keira Knightley in a corset.  But the wardrobe Michael O’Connor created was expansive, gorgeous and flashy.  Paramount Vantage will certainly promote his work passionately.  (In fact, they are already doing as much.)  This strikes me as a very possible nomination.

If we’re looking for another newcomer, Eimer Ni Mhaoldonhaigh’s threads for “Brideshead Revisited” ought to be considered.  Authentically period, the filmmakers brought a new take on Evelyn Waugh’s classic story to life.  While the film may be considered unnecessary or disappointing in the eyes of many (myself included), that does not always matter all that much in this field.

Jenny Beavan has earned eight nominations over her career, five for her Merchant-Ivory collaborations.  Clearly respected by her fellow costumers, she will be designing the threads for Edward Zwick’s “Defiance.”  While war films often do not fare terribly well in this category, this film will take place off the battlefield for the most part, likely with authentic rugged wear of the “defying” parties as opposed to strictly military uniforms.  If Zwick’s film strikes a chord with the Academy, Beavan could be looking at nomination number nine.

Danny Glicker’s career reached its highlight to date when he won the Costume Designers Guild award for “Transamerica” three years ago.  He’ll be once again venturing into the LGBT world with Gus Van Sant’s “Milk.”  1970s San Francisco was a hotbed of avant garde fashion, while simultaneously retaining elements of a conservative past.  Moreover, advanced word on the crafts elements in the film is strong.  If it becomes a major Oscar player, I’d say Glicker is primed for a nomination.

Lindy Hemming has not returned to the nominees since winning this category nine years ago for Mike Leigh’s “Topsy-Turvy.”  She is assured a guild nomination for Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.”  An Oscar nomination strikes me as unlikely given the overwhelmingly contemporary nature of the costumes.  But to quote Jim Gordon, the Joker’s “clothing is custom” and will be remembered in film history as part of the iconic character.  If “The Dark Knight” does exceptionally well in awards season and many fall films disappoint (both of which are big ifs), I would not totally rule Hemming out of the race.

And then we come to the great Sandy Powell.  Well on her way to becoming a costuming legend, Powell’s work is traditionally lush and beautiful while simultaneously undistracting.  And it always serves her director’s vision.  Yes, she is my favorite working costume designer.

While “The Other Boleyn Girl” was an utter abomination as far as I was concerned (and I am certainly not alone on this front), Powell’s work was top-notch as always.  This category has made an Oscar winner out of “Marie Antoinette” and nominees of films such as “102 Dalmations,” “The Affair of the Necklace,” “Across the Universe” and “Troy,” to name but a few.  Seeing Powell being nominated this year for creating clothes for Henry VIII and the Boleyn girls hardly seems that much of a stretch.  But if “The Young Victoria” manages to pick up domestic distribution, she’s got another period piece on the back-burner.

There’s another category covered.  Next week we dive into one of the high profile crafts races: Best Visual Effects.

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28 responses so far

  • 1 10-09-2008 at 2:10 pm

    BurmaShave said...

    Agreed on BOLEYN, but I do think the costumes and the cinematography deserve to be singled out. It’s also unfortunate that you seem to be in the group who considers MARIE ANTOINETTE unworthy in every aspect but its costuming.

  • 2 10-09-2008 at 2:53 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Shouldn’t we be considering Patricia Field as a potential nominee for “Sex and the City?” The film was pretty much one big fashion show, Field is highly respected, and she made the cut for similar work in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

    Also, while it won’t get an Oscar nomination, I think “Happy-Go-Lucky” could be nominated in the contemporary category at the CDG awards — it’s intelligent, character-serving work, and Jacqueline Durran has an impressive awards record considering how brief her CV is.

  • 3 10-09-2008 at 3:00 pm

    N8 said...

    I think The Duchess is more than just “a very possible nomination”. I’d say its nomination is a lock. The last two winners of this category have been for costumes of European royalty. The threads are just too expensive and ornate for AMPAS to ignore. The Duchess is in (and may well win).

    Don’t count out Patricia Field for Sex and the City. Her nomination two years ago for The Devil Wears Prada may have been rare, but proves that it’s not impossible for contemporary pictures to make the cut in this category. At any rate, I’d say she has a better shot than Lindy Hemming does for The Dark Knight! (Hemming… what a great name for a costume designer!)

    For now I’m thinking:

    Hopper for Changeling
    Martin for Australia
    O’Connor for The Duchess
    West for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
    Wolsky for Revolutionary Road

    with Powell in my sixth slot for The Other Boleyn Girl (her costumes were good, but how long is AMPAS going to keep up the trend of giving this award to TERRIBLE films?)

  • 4 10-09-2008 at 3:08 pm

    Ryan said...

    I think N8 is right. I’m banking on:

    The Duchess (Which I also think is a lock.)
    Curious Case of Benjamin Button
    Revolutionary Road

    Though it would be fantastic to see The Dark Knight or Milk sneak in.

  • 5 10-09-2008 at 3:12 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Let me just echo what BurmaShave said — “Marie Antoinette” is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a terrible film. It’s difficult, sure, but it has a more exciting directorial vision than any costume drama of the last decade, at least. I think, with time, it could prove to be this generation’s “Barry Lyndon.”

  • 6 10-09-2008 at 3:16 pm

    McGuff said...

    Gerard, I love these columns, but can I make a suggestion: can we get your projected five at the end of each? Because I’m with N8 and Ryan, I think you undersold THE DUCHESS, but if we knew whether or not it was in your projected final five, then we might not pile on that notion. Just a thought. But yes, O’Connor is a lock for his costumes, as Georgiana (Keira’s character) was as concerned with fashion as anything else.

    I’m going to predict that MILK sneaks in based on the pics and trailers we have seen. I mean, is Emile Hirsch’s transformation in the pictures shocking, or what?

    My other three: Australia (of course), Changeling and The Reader. I’m going to say Revolutionary Road isn’t dynamic enough, and it killed me not to find a spot for Benjamin Button. I’ll probably change my mind on that in five minutes.

  • 7 10-09-2008 at 3:45 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    No, it’s a terrible film, Guy. And if it ever proved to be this generation’s “Barry Lyndon,” then future generations will be considerably dumber than this one.

  • 8 10-09-2008 at 4:11 pm

    Speaking English said...

    5 Best Costume Design Winners of All Time:

    1. “Barry Lyndon”

    2. “The Last Emperor”

    3. “Ran”

    4. “Amadeus”

    5. “8½”

    Special Mentions To:

    – Moulin Rouge!
    – La Dolce Vita
    – Dangerous Liaisons
    – The Aviator
    – Titanic
    – Cabaret

  • 9 10-09-2008 at 4:21 pm

    Gerard Kennedy said...

    “Marie Antoinette” is dreadful. Original? Yes. Anything to say? Nothing I want to listen to, that’s for sure.

    As for my predicted five, I would currently say…
    “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
    “The Duchess”
    “Revolutionary Road”

    Powell would be in my 6th position.

  • 10 10-09-2008 at 4:33 pm

    N8 said...

    Right on with “The Last Emperor”, Speaking English! The evolution of the fashions donned in that film perfectly captures the gradual disintegration of Imperial rule in China. They could be the most outstanding and story-serving costumes I’ve ener seen.

  • 11 10-11-2008 at 12:28 am

    dma said...

    Eiko Ishioka for The Fall?

  • 12 10-11-2008 at 12:44 am

    Dean Treadway said...

    Again, most of you guys seemed to have missed THE FALL, even though its costumer won for BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA.

    I think it’s funny how all of you guys pick from a list of 20 some odd films, when we all know damn well that there’s always something suprising that slips in. This especially goes for costuming. BELOVED, OSCAR AND LUCINDA, TRON, ANGELS AND INSECTS, 12 MONKEYS, LEMONY SNICKET, MAVERICK, ORLANDO, TOYS and CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY–all were nominated for this award, and nearly for nothing else, in most cases. So I think you have to look a little deeper. Besides the obvious:

    The Fall
    The Duchess
    Australia (maybe)
    The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (maybe)

    I think you have to get a little more creative for the other two. How about LEATHERHEADS, or APPALOOSA, or SPEED RACER, or, yeah, SEX AND THE CITY, MAMMA MIA! or MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY. Just some suggestions…

  • 13 10-11-2008 at 12:48 am

    Dean Treadway said...

    And MARIE ANTOINETTE is NOT a terrible film. But it might be seen that way if you cream over Batman.

  • 14 10-11-2008 at 2:52 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    While I’m with you on “Marie-Antoinette,” Dean, that’s a ridiculous jab at Kris. If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you’ll know how diverse his tastes are. And he’s hardly alone in his opinion of the film.

  • 15 10-11-2008 at 10:22 am

    Dean Treadway said...

    Look, I’m not jabbing at Kris, per se. I’m jabbing at the ridiculous takeover of the movies by superheroes.

    Look, leave tyhe superheroes to the comic books and let’s get back to some real movies that mean something.

    I though westerns died a long time ago. Why? Because everyone got sick of the sameness of each genre entry. This need to happen tuit-suite to the superhero genre. It’s the same thing over and over again. Good vs. Evil. Yeah, we get it. And good wins each time. Why? Because if it didn’t, there wouldn’t be a fucking sequel. At least in westerns, you didn’t know who was gonna die or get caught in the end. (Most of the time, you couldn’t even tell who was the bad guy and who was the good guy.

    I haven’t been reading this site for a while. But it seems pretty suspicious when so much of the site’s discourse is aimed at Batman movies. And then when someone mentions a daring movie like MARIE ANTIONETTE (even if you don’t think it’s good, you must admit it’s daring), we get a definitive judgement on its “terrible”-ness from the guy who’d love to see THE DARK KNIGHT win Best Picture.

    Well, I have been a person with adult tastes for thirty of my 38 years, and I’m fucking sick of the now three-decade, post STAR WARS domination of the culture by multi-sequeled borefests championed by gamers and sci-fi freaks alike. Any of you who like this sort of shit, tell me about some of the other shit you like, and please show me you like something deeper than the stuff that was made since you were born. And don’t gimme “Oh, I like Hitchcock…” Everybody likes at least one Hitchcock. Go and get educated and then come back and reviuew movies like you know what you’re talking about.

  • 16 10-11-2008 at 12:07 pm

    McGuff said...

    Perhaps I should let Dean’s last comment stand alone, as the ridiculousness of it speaks for itself. But I just can’t. First of all, I have to call you out on this quote, Dean:

    “And then when someone mentions a daring movie like MARIE ANTIONETTE (even if you don’t think it’s good, you must admit it’s daring), we get a definitive judgement on its “terrible”-ness from the guy who’d love to see THE DARK KNIGHT win Best Picture.”

    You write before that you are relatively new to this site. So maybe you should be excused for making a claim that is baseless and completely wrong. Kris has been talking since TDK came out that he does not believe it is a Best Picture movie, and unlike most Oscar pundits, does not have it in his projected final five. He, like I, sees a lot of holes in the movie. Just not as many as he, like I, saw in Marie Antoinette.

    Unlike Kris, I haven’t been a long-time superhero genre fan. I wasn’t a comic book kid thanks to Topps and Upper Deck’s baseball cards. But the genre is reeling me in lately, for the precise reason that you discount it. You compare it to Westerns because you think the genre is suffering from “sameness,” or groupthink.

    “It’s the same thing over and over again. Good vs. Evil. Yeah, we get it. And good wins each time.”

    Did you see The Dark Knight, fella? I know it doesn’t exactly end favorably for the Joker or Two-Face, but it doesn’t exactly end favorably for Batman, either. It’s an in-depth (and if you ask me, overreaching) psychological film, often commenting on issues that exist in society right now. It’s certainly a hell of a lot more complex than good vs. evil. And it’s not a popcorn movie.

    I saw Iron Man yesterday for the first time, and I liked it. But yes, it’s a popcorn movie. And if Kris was calling for Best Picture or even Best Actor accolades for Iron Man, I might call him out. But he’s not. And he’s not even doing that for the Dark Knight. Get a clue.

  • 17 10-11-2008 at 1:23 pm

    Dean Treadway said...

    Look, I’m not going after Kris, except on his dismissal of MARIE ANTIONETTE, which I think is a great commentary on the celeb culture of today, masked as a costume drama (and a pretty intriguing one, at that). But it is clear that many on this site have high hopes for TDK. It’s listed as a possibility on the charts for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, and it’s been mentioned as a shoo-in for a bunch of tech awards. Now if this doesn’t point to at least a ghost of a hope/chance of it winning a Best Pic nod, in the sight of those who contribute to this blog, then I don’t know what to say.

    The fact of the matter is, whether you or Kris or Jesus Christ Almighty has mentioned on here that the film has a possibility of being nommed for Best Pic, the fact is that I HAVE READ THIS ON THIS SITE, WHOEVER WROTE IT. And the fact is, it’s a pipe dream.

    I think that I can be forgiven for reading further into IN CONTENTION and finding that Kris does have taste. Anyone who picks NETWORK as 1976’s Best Picture does. I didn’t just arrive at this site and download its fucking contents into my brain. I comment on what I read, and it’s my goddamn right to, especially since I’ve been studying movies for 33 years, at least.

    That said, as for TDK being anything more than a superhero movie…a good one, but out of a middling genre…well, the damn movie falls apart after The Joker leaves the scene. As far as I’m concerned, the film dropped the ball. Oh, so we’re supposed to be impressed by Bruce Wayne’s tortured soul? Gimme a break. We’ve been seeing this same stuff since 1989’s BATMAN. So he’s tortured…so what? The fact is, he gets his man in the end, and he’s out of the picture (mainly cause Ledger died, but nevertheless he’s out and we’re on to the next villain in the next installment). I don’t think it’s any more complex than IRON MAN is. The only thing that makes it stand out is that The Joker’s only motivation is to make chaos. But if you’re going to make some kind of societal correlation between that plot characteristic and the current state of terrorism in the world (and I assume, pardon me, that this is what you’re referring to when you mention ” issues that exist in society right now,” well, I have some news for you:

    The terrorist’s who are fighting against America DO have a motivation besides creating chaos and terror. They want Chistianity snubbed out. They want the US out of their region. And they wanna stop getting bombed by our military. Not to get too political here, but THIS is why they fight.

    This is a far cry from The Joker’s motivations, which are purely selfish.

    I think it is you, sir, who needs a freakin’ clue.

  • 18 10-11-2008 at 1:52 pm

    McGuff said...

    I’m going to back down here, because it wasn’t my intention to drum up more hostility. Glad I see your points more clear now, especially in terms of The Dark Knight. I disagree, of course, with some sentiments — I think it’s far more complex than Iron Man, and I agree in others — if Kris’ link to the History Channel Batman special taught anything, it’s that Joker has far more to do with his long-developed character than any terrorism machinations.

    Part of the reason I love film is because of the entitlement it instills, and oftentimes, the hostility that comes out as a result. I can understand not liking TDK — heck, I’m the only one in my neighborhood that has WALL-E ranked ahead of it. Let’s put down the swords, agree on the brilliance of Magnolia or Pulp Fiction or Scorsese and move on.

  • 19 10-11-2008 at 1:56 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I don’t where your neighbourhood is, McGuff, but I have WALL-E ahead too :)

  • 20 10-11-2008 at 2:14 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Dean, leave the superheroes to the comic books? Should we leave the literary classics to the bookshelves of libraries as well? Should everything committed to film come out of thin air?

    Your arguments after a statement like that are suspect at best.

    Furthermore, there was nothing remotely surprising about the majority of the “surprising” costume design nominees you listed over the years. Gerard’s list is a fine starting point (you seem to miss the indication VOLUME I).

    And no Academy member is going to make it through The Fall without falling asleep. It’s a nice out of the box consideration, but I don’t think Isioka has the stroke to slip in for a surprise desgin-gasm piece. She’s no Wolsky. And she didn’t get nominated for The Cell, so why still lean on the cache of a 16-year-old film and Oscar win to buttress your argument?

    FYI, I was one of the biggest skeptics on TDK getting a Best Picture nomination, despite my love of the character and the film (a three-and-a-half star review seems to be lost on you — I certainly haven’t called it a masterpiece). Additionally, it remains outside my predicted list of 10 Best Pic contenders. I linked to a program that I thought made some great points and is exemplary of what a good Oscar campaign needs. And WB is serious about Oscar for this movie, so at this point, ignore it at your own peril.

    But you’re woefully lost on the character and his potential, both tapped and untapped. I’m not going to even pother engaging you there, especially since this is a thread about costume design contenders (written by Gerard Kennedy, by the way, so your issues with my posts really have no place here at all).

    Basically, leave the personal insults at the door, by the way. We like to think of these comments sections as an area for adult conversation as much as we possibly can, but it’s understood some readers can’t help themselves. But if you’ve been “studying film for 33 years,” I shouldn’t be out of bounds in expecting you to bring a level of maturity to the table.

  • 21 10-11-2008 at 2:16 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    By the way, popping in a VHS tape at 5 years old doesn’t give you the props to say you’ve “studied” film for 33 years. If you want to get away with a statement like that, don’t tell us you’re 38.

  • 22 10-11-2008 at 2:20 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Tired of westerns because of the “sameness” of each genre entry? Wait, nevermind — everything you’ve said is suspect at this point.

    The western died because the ideals it presented for so long did not connect with audiences anymore. But anyone who has “studied film for 33 years” ought to know that “sameness” isn’t a disease among the most respected entries in the genre. No argument from me if we’re talking pulp titles and B-westerns, but you can find a world of diversity in the films of John Ford, let alone across the spectrum of the genre’s greats.

    Anyway, all of this because I thought “Marie Antoinette” was a painful stretch with a terrible actress in the lead? Sorry…

  • 23 10-11-2008 at 2:23 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Anyway, bringing it back to the topic at hand, I’ve heard from someone who saw “Button” that the costumes are exceptional. It was one of two or three categories this person said were at the top of the film’s potential haul.

    I’m sticking with Australia, Duchess, Button, Boleyn and Rev Road for now.

  • 24 10-11-2008 at 8:48 pm

    Dean Treadway said...

    In the interest of discontinuing this acrimony, I choose to send my response to Kris directly. I admit, I can be snarky, but I’m not here to make enemies.

    That said, I think Kris’s picks are alright, but I would still eliminate Boleyn and replace it with The Fall.

  • 25 10-14-2008 at 1:48 am

    Glenn said...

    Marie Antoinette was ahead of it’s time and I am being 100% serious.

  • 26 10-15-2008 at 7:19 am

    messi said...

    Dean needs to read some comics. Maybe then his dumbass would see so far Batman Begins and Dark Knight have achieved the possibility of the medium on film. By your logic you wouldn’t see an adaptation of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America, Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern, Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker’s Immortal Iron Fist, Brian Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-man, because they’re all superhero comics. Dumbass. There are plenty of movies that aren’t from the superhero genre around.

  • 27 10-27-2008 at 6:34 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’m returning to this post really late, but I just saw “The Brothers Bloom” and was really impressed with Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s designs there — strikes the right balance between character and couture. Best work I’ve seen in the field all year.

    Probably too contemporary and quirky for an Oscar nod, but I can definitely see a Guild nod happening.