Doodad Kind of Town


LAMB Devours the Ocars: Best Costume Design
February 22, 2008, 12:56 am
Filed under: Oscars

If you haven’t yet checked out the Oscar Blog-a-thon on LAMB, this is the weekend to catch up. The bloggers of LAMB have written overviews of every Oscar category, complete with the history and criteria for each award, plus a look at this year’s nominees. What follows is my article on the Best Costume Design award, which appears today on LAMB.

Ah, the Best Costume Design category! Wherever you find an award for achievement in Costume Design, you’ll find a list of period pictures: films full of ball gowns, royal robes, and the haute couture of the decades gone by. If it’s visually sumptuous and it’s set in a bygone era, it’s likely to get a nomination in this category. At least that’s been my impression over the years.

I was discussing this category recently with my friend, Bill, who’s been a costumer for many local theatre productions. Bill reminded me that good costume design isn’t just about making beautiful, elaborate clothes for period pictures. It’s about creating costumes that tell you something about the characters while being appropriate to the time period of the film.

It was Bill who informed me that an Oscar for Best Costume Design had gone to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – a film that (I dimly recall) featured Richard Burton in a ratty old cardigan and Liz Taylor alternating between a shapeless old sweater and a slutty top with a plunging neckline.
Of course, that was in 1966, when the Academy still presented two Costume Design Oscars each year, one for a color film and one for black-and-white. The Costume Design award for color films that year went to “A Man for All Seasons,” an historical drama. The following year, the awards were combined into a single category – and, with a few notable exceptions (“Star Wars”, “All That Jazz”, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) – the winners have been period films ever since.

This year’s nominees are all set in bygone eras, but I believe the costume design in all the nominated films meets the criteria my friend outlined: enhancing our experience of the film and its characters, not just giving us nice clothes to look at.

Take “Atonement,” for example – a ravishingly beautiful romantic drama set in England during the 1930s and 40s. The most ballyhooed costume achievement in this film is probably the emerald green evening gown Keira Knightley wears in the infamous library scene. Yet, if you look closer, some of the costuming choices provide us with important insights into the emotional states of the characters.

I’m thinking of the early scene where young Briony rehearses her visiting cousins in her play, “The Trials of Arabella.” I was surprised to learn that Briony’s cousin, Lola, is meant to be two years older than she (15 to Briony’s 13), since the actresses look to be about the same age. But then look how differently they’re dressed.


Lola, played by Juno Temple, has the soft, unformed features of a girl who is about to become a woman, but isn’t quite there. And the way’s she dressed signals us that she’s growing up a little too fast. Not that she’s dressed provocatively; her soft, bowed blouse and elegant wide-leg trousers are perfectly modest. But they’re also a bit too sophisticated for a young girl, and, in them, Lola gives us the impression that she’s dressed in her mother’s clothes, striving to project a worldliness that she doesn’t yet possess. It gives a subtle sense of unease about her character, which is borne out by the events of the evening.


Briony, by contrast, may be bossy and self-assured, but her clothing lets us know she is still very much a child. She wears a little-girlish dress with a Peter Pan collar, a delicate beaded necklace and barrettes in her bobbed hair. It’s particularly interesting that in the film’s epilogue, the elderly Briony will still be dressed in much the same way – the same necklace, barrettes and a modest, girlish dress. The costuming tells us right away that Briony is emotionally frozen at 13; she’s never moved on from the events of that fateful night.

So, “well done” to Jacqueline Durran, the costume designer for “Atonement” (who has a previous nomination for Joe Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice.”)

“Sweeney Todd” has some similarly subtle, character-inspired costume work, although I think I would have missed it had I not watched an IFC “Making Of” special about “Sweeney” prior to seeing the film.

Designer Colleen Atwood spoke about the costuming choices she made for each character. For the Beadle (Timothy Spall) she made stylish, quality pieces, but in “disreputable” fabrics (a waistcoat made of snakeskin, for example) to underscore both his preening vanity and his moral sliminess. Nice idea, but it didn’t quite ‘read’ on screen. I was actually looking for those details, but couldn’t really see them.


Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), in Atwood’s design, wears tattered clothing in her early scenes, when she’s fallen on hard times. Later, when her pie shop business picks up, she’s more nicely dressed. That’s not an innovative idea – it’s the scheme used by every stage costumer who’s ever worked on “Sweeney Todd.” But, again, the difference between Lovett’s rags and her finery is a bit more subtle than I would have expected.

I will admit, however, to loving Atwood’s witty costumes for both Sweeney and Lovett in the “By the Sea” fantasy sequence. And I laughed at the obscenely tight blue satin trousers worn by Pirelli (Sascha Baron Cohen), though I’m still not sure what the point was.

On the other hand, there’s nothing subtle about the costumes in “Elizabeth: the Golden Age.” The sweeping Elizabethan designs are all of a piece with the film’s overcooked visuals and bombastic acting styles. It’s the queen’s dresses with their huge, stiff skirts, and intricately ruffled, stand-up lace collars, that I’m sure caught the Academy’s attention. That kind of Elizabethan finery will always get a nomination. But, for me, the two greatest moments of costume achievement in this film – both of which still burn bright in my memory months after first seeing them, are:


1) That blood-red, off-the-shoulder number worn by Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) to her execution. The build-up to the beheading is so tortuously drawn out as to be melodramatic – and a lot of the drama is in that red dress, the shock of its bold color in a roomful of men wearing brown and black.


2) Elizabeth’s white nightdress, billowing in the breeze like a huge, unfurled flag, as she stands atop a cliff, watching her navy defeat the Spanish Armada. It’s the most over-the-top scene in a very over-the-top film – and all the visual impact is in the proportions of that nightdress.

Alexandra Byrne was previously nominated for “The Golden Age’s” precursor, “Elizabeth” in 1999. I hope she brings home the statuette this time. Her costumes for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” have every bit as much star power as Cate Blanchett herself.

Which is not meant to give short shrift to the remaining nominees.


“La Vie En Rose” drew on the real Edith Piaf’s wardrobe for inspiration, and Marit Allen’s designs recreate those styles beautifully. I also liked the wardrobe transitions for Piaf as she went from singing in the streets (in slouch sweaters and skirts) to singing on the world’s concert stages (in considerably swankier dresses).

One thing I wondered, though: Marion Cotillard, who is about 5’ 7” in real life, was able to physically transform herself into the tiny (under 5 feet) Piaf onscreen. I’m sure she had to modify her posture; maybe there was some scaling of set pieces to make her look smaller. But what I want to know is: were her costumes in any way designed to make her appear smaller or more delicate? Were the costumes part of the illusion?

The inclusion of “Across the Universe” in this category was the biggest surprise to me. It was a visually stunning film (as you’d expect of director Julie Taymor), but I wasn’t impressed by the costumes and had trouble remembering any of them. So I had to go back to take a look at some clips.


The film’s costumes cover a range of 60s styles: from preppy sports jackets, cords and cable-knit sweaters to trippy-psychadelic tie-dyes and macramé to the outlandish costumes in “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” (I’m not sure if the blue puppet-people in this number were the work of costume designer Albert Wolsky or puppet designer James Edmund Goodwin or both; they’re creepy, but definitely original. Eddie Izzard’s “ringmaster” ensemble – tattered top hat and tails over a striped t-shirt – is less inspired.)

Overall, I’d say the costumes effectively underscore the film’s portrayal of a once-innocent world morphing into something darker and more complicated. (Although, throughout the entire film, Evan Rachel Wood’s character remains fresh-and-innocent looking.)

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