Tech Support: Can 'Catching Fire' crack the costume design Oscar race?

Posted by · 3:38 pm · December 5th, 2013

The category of Best Costume Design is always one of my favorite races, particularly in the pre-nominations stage. It can be so unpredictable. This is also the first year where the costume designers have formed a separate branch from the art department. While it is difficult to know precisely how this will affect the race, it only increases my curiosity in what appears to be a very open category beyond two rather obvious leading contenders.

This category is so fun to watch because it always seems to go out of its way to recognize achievements in the field that may well be off the coattails of other sweeping contenders. Though some nominations each year are usually taken by Best Picture nominees, that’s not as consistently so as in other categories. More notably, dreadful and/or divisive films are frequently cited, and it is commonplace for at least one, if not two or even three nominees, to be the only nomination received by their films. Only the makeup branch seems to be as original or adventurous in its selections.

Somewhat paradoxically, despite this branch”s proud and unabashed originality, it is also the place where period pieces tend to most dominate. While there is usually (but not always) a fantasy film nominated, this is not as frequently the case as in Best Production Design. And contemporary films tend to be nominated but a few times a decade (if that). Within this realm of “period,” clothes which are foreign and/or exotic are especially welcome, as is royalty.

This category certainly cites its favorite costume designers more than once. Even so, room is always made for at least one, and usually two or three, new nominees each year. Also, with a few notable exceptions, it is rare for a costume designer to accumulate more than three or four career nominations.

Having said all of that, it looks like a costume designer will be getting her sixth nomination this year. Patricia Norris was a staple in this category 25-35 years ago, when she received five nominations in the decade between 1978″s “Days of Heaven” and 1988″s “Sunset” (also being cited for “The Elephant Man,” “Victor/Victoria” and “2010”). Now 82 years old, she looks poised to return to the race for Steve McQueen”s “12 Years a Slave.” Headed for nominations across the board, this is the sort of period sweeper I can”t see missing here. It could also finally be Norris” time to ascend to the podium.

She”s going to face tough competition, however, from Catherine Martin. Baz Luhrmann”s wife, co-producer and production designer is also his costume designer. Her Best Production Design nomination for “Romeo + Juliet” and her Best Costume Design nod for “Australia” were the only mentions those films received from the Academy. She won both categories for “Moulin Rouge!” I expect her appropriately glamorous and, well, Lurhmann-esque take on the Roaring ’20s will earn her nominations in both categories this year, too. Heck, she could even win.

After this duo, this race gets trickier.

Michael O”Connor has already proven his ability to be a lone nominee for a film (“Jane Eyre”) and to win for a film with only one other nomination (“The Duchess”). “The Invisible Woman” is Ralph Fiennes”s second directorial effort, telling the tale of the mistress of Charles Dickens. Once again, O”Connor is designing 19th Century England, which has earned him two previous trips to the Oscars and is simply a preferred period in this category. I think his chances are strong.

Another Michael in this year”s race would be Michael Wilkinson. Designing the late-1970s world of Abscam for David O. Russell on “American Hustle” is a far cry from 19th Century England. But this looks to be incredibly memorable work and now the film is a New York Film Critics Circle winner! Wilkinson (who also designed “Man of Steel” this year) could well get his first nomination.

“Saving Mr. Banks” may not have as outlandish costumes of “American Hustle” but set a decade earlier, and tugging at Academy heartstrings, may prove enough to find Daniel Orlandi a home here. Like Wilkinson, Orlandi has been doing top-notch work for years. This take on 1960s Hollywood (as well as some pre-World War I Australia) may not be the showiest of period work but I still think he is sitting comfortably.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is also set in the 1960s, but its threads, though wonderfully accurate and character-building, are even subtler than “Saving Mr. Banks.” This category seemed to finally awake to the talent of longtime Coen brothers collaborator Mary Zophres three years ago when she earned her first nomination for “True Grit.” Perhaps she could earn a second (and much deserved) nod this year?

Spanning American history four decades and beyond is “Lee Daniels” The Butler.” This populist film did feature, to a very large extent, rather uniform costumes and business suits. But it also captured class disparity in many different eras. And Ruth E. Carter has earned two previous nominations for “Amistad” and “Malcolm X.” Maybe number three is in the cards.

Anna B. Sheppard has also earned two nominations to date, albeit both for World War II-set films: “Schindler”s List” and “The Pianist.” “The Book Thief” is not going to enter their echelon in film history, and I”m inclined to think the film will be overlooked in the awards season outside of, perhaps, John Williams’ score. Having said that, in an open category, I would not rule her out.

Moving to the realm of fantasy, Richard Taylor has also earned two nominations in this category for “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” He won for the latter. “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” brings him back to Middle Earth with Bob Buck and Ann Maskrey. This team received both BFCA and guild nominations last year, so the work is obviously still turning heads. I do wonder if the novelty will have worn off from the perspective of the Academy, however.

The franchise fantasy film I”m actually most intrigued by in this category is “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Semi-contemporary and not as fantastical as some other competitors, Trish Summerville”s work may not jump to mind as an obvious contender. But the costumes are just so memorable, even being integral to the plot. That helped “The Devil Wears Prada” here seven years ago. Admittedly, that film concerned fashion, but it didn”t make $400 Million. I don”t expect a nod for Summerville. I just don”t want to rule her out.

Penny Rose”s work on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films is iconic and I think it”s a tragedy she wasn”t nominated for them. In light of that, one wouldn”t think that “The Lone Ranger” or “47 Ronin” would be obvious tickets to the Oscars. But memorable costumes these films have. And as I stated at the outset, this branch is very open-minded.

Perhaps the likeliest fantasy contender Gary Jones for “Oz the Great and Powerful,” previously nominated with Ann Roth for suave work on “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” All four principal characters in this film looked fabulous in their Jones-designed attire. This is to say nothing of the numerous fantastical characters who needed bright and colorful wardrobes.

I”ll end by mentioning the great Sandy Powell. For all her astonishing work, she is still waiting for her first contemporary nomination. She even memorably spoke of this category”s aversion to contemporary designs when she won for “The Young Victoria,” and here she is this year with “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It”s the sort of stylish work that I could maybe, just maybe, see Powell rewarded for with a nomination, depending of course on how well received the film is by the industry.

So those are the leading contenders as I see them. But again, beyond “12 Years a Slave” and “The Great Gatsby,” this category strikes me as wide open indeed.

Next week, we finish our category analysis just in time for the holiday by jumping into Best Original Score.

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