Doodad Kind of Town


LAMB Devours the Oscars: Best Costume Design
February 9, 2009, 10:24 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This post is a part of LAMB Devours the Oscars, hosted by the Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB). Many of us LAMBs have volunteered to share our thoughts on the Oscar nominees in particular categories; here are my thoughts on the 2008 nominees for one of my favorite categories – Best Costume Design.

I love this category so much that I’m covering it for the second year. And what I wrote by way of introduction in 2008 still applies, so with your kind permission, I’m going to quote myself here:

“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.”

Yep, all that still holds true in 2008 (last year’s winner “Elizabeth: the Golden Age” was full of elaborate 16th century gowns and robes). And Bill, my friend and frequent moviegoing companion, still influences and informs my take on this year’s Best Costume Design nominees.

First there’s “Revolutionary Road,” Sam Mendes’ take on suburban marital angst in the 1950s. Many people I know who’ve seen this film and are also old enough to remember the 1950s (Bill included) have oohed and aahhed over the female characters’ attire, saying things like “I remember when my mom wore dresses just like that!” So we’ve got to give Albert Wolsky credit for period accuracy.

And it’s hard to not to think of “Mad Men” when we see Leonardo DeCaprio in a snappy gray suit and hat like this one (even though “Revolutionary Road” is set five years earlier than that TV series. But then, how much would mens’ suits change in five years? Probably not much.)

But what do the costumes tell us about the characters who wear them? Well, if you watch Kate Winslet’s April Wheeler closely, you notice that she tends to wear kind of drab, colorless clothes, and pulls her back in a casual ponytail. But she gets noticeably more gussied up once she’s decided the family is going to move to Paris. (as in the photo below where she’s headed to the travel agent to pick up the tickets. White gloves yet!)

She also wears a darling little ice blue sheath with a fetching cutout design at the neck when she and Frank head over to the neighbors’ to announce their upcoming move.

And when the Paris plans go awry, she’s back to ponytails and drab colors – not for nothing, is her final ensemble a hastily tossed on, completely beige skirt and blouse.

It’s pretty hard to miss the fact that April’s attention to her attire- or lack of it – is an good indicator of her state of mind. In fact, it’s so obvious that it feels heavy-handed. I actually like “Revolutionary Road” very much, but not for the costuming.

Another nominee I was tempted to dismiss is “Milk.” I mean, it’s set in the 1970s, a decade I well remember. What’s so hard about combing the thrift stores for bell bottom jeans, t-shirts, denim jackets and a few wide ties?

But then I noticed something. This movie is full of gay men. – partying, protesting, planning political strategy or just hanging out – and there’s scarcely a feather boa, a rhinestone, or a patch of pink or lavender to be seen. In other words, a refreshing absence of cliched queeny-flamboyant drag. (Ok, there is a drag queen at Harvey’s birthday party, but as drag queens go, she’s pretty subdued.) The gay men in “Milk” look and dress like all men looked and dressed in the 70s, and doesn’t that nicely underscore the film’s point that all of us – regardless of sexual orientation – share a common humanity? So cheers to costume designer Danny Glicker for that.

And here’s something else I think “Milk” get right with regard to costumes. In real life, when Harvey Milk cut off his ponytail and cleaned up his image in order to make a serious run for city supervisor, he bought three suits from a thrift store and wore them over and over. And Sean Penn’s suits do look considerably cheaper than, say, Mayor Moscone’s. (In fact, Mayor Moscone, in this film anyway, is one noticeably sharp-dressed man. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if that detail was true to life.)

The major costuming achievement of “Australia” is Nicole Kidman’s transformation for prim and prissy English aristocrat to sleek and sexy Outback babe. When she first arrives down under, she’s working ruffly, fussy, unsuitable duds like this suit:

After she gets a little down and dirty and falls in love with Hugh Jackman, however, Kidman works her snug khaki shirts and trousers like nobody’s business. But the ultimate costume moment in “Australia” has to be the ball where Kidman enters in this curve-hugging, keyhole necklined, burgundy cheongsam, glimmering like an exotic ruby amongst a sea of matronly pastel ruffles and bows.

Kidman looks radiant in this number (and Jackman cleans up pretty good in his white dinner jacket, too.) But we can’t give all the credit to costumer Catherine Martin; a good bit of Kidman’s radiance is due to her just-about-visible pregnancy. (This last bit of information is not just guesswork on my part; it was taken from Elle’s November 2008 cover story on Kidman.)

Probably the most ambitious of the nominees is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” for which costume designer Jacqueline West had to dress a wide range of characters from a wide range of locations and time periods: residents of an old folks home in the 1920s, an English diplomat’s wife in the late ’30s, Broadway dancers in the 50s, to name only a few. Oh, and the inversely aging Benjamin in all those decades and then some. West’s costuming is fine, although Benjamin’s chambray shirts, suspenders and jackets are about as bland and unmemorable as Brad Pitt’s performance (I’ll get back to that in a future post.)

The crown jewel in the film from a costumer’s view is the ravishing fashion icon, Cate Blanchett, who plays Benjamin’s lifelong love, Daisy. With her milky white skin and sleek curtain of auburn hair, Blanchett is a designer’s dream. And naturally, she gets all the great outfits; I especially like this little number:

If clothes tell us anything about Daisy, it’s this: she’s spunky, bold and ambitious. After all, it’s not just any redhead who would dare to wear this much red.

There’s also this lovely frock in which she dances in the moonlight for Benjamin. (Unfortunately, the only picture I could find doesn’t do it justice):

In the final analysis, however, there’s only film to which my fashionista heart belongs – and I believe the Oscar will follow. And yes, it’s the big, elaborately costumed period drama.

“The Duchess” gives us Keira Knightley as Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. Among other things, she was noted trendsetter and fashion plate in 18th century England, so the elaborate, eye-popping gowns in which Knightley is costumed here are entirely appropriate.

Here’s my favorite outfit, which she wears to make a stump speech for her friend and lover, Charles Grey,in his run for Parliament:

You can’t see the big, sweeping skirt that completes the ensemble, but you can get a good idea of the intricate detailing. And this is just one of dozens of costumes created for Knightley alone. Here’s another:

Ah, if only they give Oscars to the wigmasters! And check out that bling!

If you’re rolling your eyes at this point, and thinking this all looks a little over-the-top,I invite you to take a look at the real Georgiana here:

I’d say they captured her pretty well. “The Duchess” is full of ravishing sartorial delights such as these, and I predict it will send an Oscar home with Michael O’Connor, who’s already won a BAFTA and a Costume Designer’s Guild Award for his work here.

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2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Yep, Pat I quite agree. THE DUTCHESS will surely win this Oscar for all the historical reasons you pose in your thorough and fascinating consideration of this techical category that has long amused onlookers, what with the appealing eye-candy on display. I’ll say BENJAMIN BUTTON would be the runner-up.

Comment by Sam Juliano

Hi Sam,Yes, I think “The Duchess” is the crowning costume achievement this season. But “Benjamin Button” is a close second.

Comment by Pat




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