TECH SUPPORT: Best Costume Design — Volume I

Posted by · 11:51 am · July 30th, 2009

(from left) Ben Wishaw and Abbie Cornish in Bright StarMovie stars are often given much attention for the fashion that they sport off-screen. Seldom does the on-screen attire garner as much publicity.

Nevertheless, the Academy Award for Best Costume Design recognizes those talented men and women who design the threads actors wear on screen. Not only does this work add to the elegance and authenticity of the film, but it can also express the character and the period, mood and setting of the piece.

For the last three years, this category has chosen films which have highlighted the extravagant attire of the upper class from centuries ago. Period films almost always triumph in this field and, in fact, garner the vast majority of nominations, though a spot or two is usually reserved every year for a fantasy effort.

This is also a category which tends to reward designers who have been around a long time, with most nominees every year having been in the race before, although a spot or two is almost always reserved for a newcomer as well. And unlike many other crafts categories, the costume branch does not seem averse to nominating a film which scores in few if any other places.

The most likely nominee this year, if not the most likely winner (sight unseen, of course), might be Janet Patterson for “Bright Star.” This Jane Campion effort was very well received at Cannes in May and the crafts look exquisite. Patterson, who landed two of her three previous nominations for Campion collaborations (“The Piano” and “Portrait of a Lady”), looks likely to return to the race after 12 years. I’d be surprised if she failed to be nominated.

Rob Marshall’s first two films, “Chicago” and “Memoirs of a Geisha,” both took home top honors in this category for the great Colleen Atwood. “Nine” has every bit as much potential to be a showcase for any fashion designer and, assuming Atwood is on board (no confirmation on that yet), she should be back in the hunt once again.

But Atwood has another contender in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies.” A handsome 1930s-era gangster film, the threads blended in nicely to the period and the characters without distracting. Even so, lukewarm reception to the film and an overall lack of showiness hardly make this a surefire nominee.

Penelope Cruz in NineRivaling Atwood as the AMPAS’s most beloved designer of the last decade or so is the great Sandy Powell. Also a two-time winner (“Shakespeare in Love” and “The Aviator”), Powell’s threads will be on display in multiple films this year: Julie Taymor’s “The Tempest,” Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” and Jean-Marc Vallee’s “The Young Victoria.” But the latter effort hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire, while Taymor is quite hit-or-miss (though two of her previous efforts have managed to earn single nominations in this category for respected designers). And Scorsese’s film seems the least likely to showcase costumes. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

Milena Canonero, by the way, was all set for a nomination here, one would have thought. But, alas, Universal has bumped “The Wolf Man” to 2010.

Another respected name doing a major project is Jenny Beavan with “Sherlock Holmes.” Beavan earned five nominations and a win in less than a decade working with John Bright on Merchant-Ivory films. If Guy Ritchie’s Christmas release is the hit the studio is hoping it is (something I personally consider to be a big “if”), she could easily find herself back in the race.

In the hunt for her third nomination is Anna B. Sheppard. Twice cited for Oscar-winning Holocaust movies (“Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist”), she will be returning to World War II once more this year with Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Tarantino is not exactly Oscar-bait, but you never know in this category.

Consolata Boyle pulled off a rare feat here three years ago by earning a nomination for a contemporary film, Stephen Frears’s “The Queen.” Boyle finds herself collaborating again this year with Frears on “Chéri,” which is a more traditional nominee for this category. If the film can survive in any way until year’s end, Boyle is its most likely nominee in my opinion. But that remains a big “if.”

(from left) Hilary Swank and Richard Gere in AmeliaThen there are those seeking their first nomination. Kasia Walicka-Maimone, who probably came relatively close in 2005 for “Capote,” will try to earn her first trip to the Kodak with “Amelia.” I personally am waiting to see if Mira Nair is actually able to deliver a film that will be well received. (She is very hit-or-miss.)

“An Education,” on the other hand, already has a group of dedicated fans, a group that Sony Pictures Classics is obviously hoping will get stronger. Though Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s work is unlikely to be as showy as other costumes competing this year, this is nevertheless a clear period piece, so if the film is a major hit, a nod here is a definite a possibility.

Catherine Letterier, on the other hand, has a showcase opportunity with “Choco Before Chanel.” The film hasn’t lit Europe on fire but it has been enjoyed. Will the film have enough crossover appeal in the US to put Letterier in the race?

I’ll end with the same film I finished with last week: James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Mayes C. Rubeo may come nowhere close to a nomination; I have no idea what form the threads will take. But given the potential for a rich, fantastical world, the possibility is still there.

Three categories down! Tune in next week as we enter August and take on Best Visual Effects!

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15 responses so far

  • 1 7-30-2009 at 12:15 pm

    rosengje said...

    I would also note with Bright Star that in addition to the allure of period costumes in general, Fanny Brawne was very interested in fashion and design. As such, Abbie Cornish is frequently decked out in extravagant costumes that are noticeable but do not detract from the narrative.

  • 2 7-30-2009 at 12:20 pm

    red_wine said...

    Nine is a 100% nominee here(pretty much in every other category also). Bright Star & Cheri and to a lesser extent Amelia & Coco Before Channel are also good bets. It would be a really nice get for An Education to score here coz it will get only 3-4 nominations besides.

  • 3 7-30-2009 at 12:48 pm

    j said...

    I heard that Coco avant Chanel regrettably focuses more on love triangle hijinx than clothes. Let’s go, Keats. My English major-ness may be biasing me…

  • 4 7-30-2009 at 1:03 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    If the Academy had some balls, they’d nominate Bruno.

  • 5 7-30-2009 at 1:57 pm

    A.J said...

    the last non-period film to win was “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” which puts a smile to my face.

  • 6 7-30-2009 at 2:16 pm

    Brooke said...

    If Bright Star doesn’t win this, it’ll be a very brave albeit stupid choice for the Academy.

    Fanny changes costumes every scene, quite literally. So not only are there more costumes in this film than probably the other nominees, but they’re also really, really good.

  • 7 7-30-2009 at 3:38 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Chanel has no mentionable costumes at all. Except at the end, but they’re probably not original designs.
    Chéri has this in the bag. It’s superbly rich and colorful. The costumes, not the film.

  • 8 7-30-2009 at 4:23 pm

    N8 said...

    Sorry for being an asshole, but Anna B. Sheppard did costumes for “The Pianist”, not “The Piano”.

    Lots of good contenders here. Can’t wait to see “Bright Star”.

  • 9 7-30-2009 at 7:03 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    The Lovely Bones is a period piece, could gain some traction here, as well as if the academy was more enlightened then ever before and asuming there are in fact costumes where the wild things are would be a fun choice

  • 10 7-30-2009 at 8:29 pm

    Speaking English said...

    So does “Where the Wild Things Are” have a chance in costumes? Or would that be stuffed into Makeup or even Visual Effects (for the wild things)?

  • 11 7-31-2009 at 12:59 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Colleen Atwood is indeed the costumer on Nine.

  • 12 7-31-2009 at 4:19 am

    j said...

    No winner besides Priscilla in my lifetime has been set past the first half of the 20th century. Lovely Bones seems a bit too contemporary.

    Though…in what year exactly is Return of the King set? I’ve never read or watched any of them.

  • 13 7-31-2009 at 4:32 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “In what year exactly is Return of the King set?”

    1986. Exactly.

    It’s a parallel universe, J. Our years don’t really apply.

  • 14 8-01-2009 at 3:05 am

    Glenn said...

    J, you’re right about “Coco Avant Chanel” not focusing on the clothes, but they are still an integral part of the film and the film works best when it is about the clothes and not the wet love triangle at its core.

  • 15 10-13-2009 at 2:59 pm

    costume fan said...

    James Cameron’s “Avatar” was designed by both Mayes Rubeo AND Oscar winner Deborah Scott