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Ann Roth

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Creating costumes for The Hours, a film that takes place in three different time periods, was no challenge for Ann Roth, the Oscar-winning designer known for her meticulous attention to detail, perfectionism and intense research.

The challenge for Roth, whose career spans five decades, was the complexity of the film’s characters.

Director Stephen Daldry’s artful adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel weaves together the story of Virginia Woolf writing Mrs. Dalloway, and two women in different time periods affected by her work.

To create the look for Nicole Kidman’s Woolf, Julianne Moore’s fictional Laura (an isolated 1950s Los Angeles suburban housewife) and Meryl Streep’s also non-historical Clarissa (an older woman and a member of modern-day New York’s upper-crust literary set) Roth employed both research and her own knowledge of the circles these women traveled in.

“The actor and I generally know in our mind’s eye … everything about the character,” she says, talking about getting to the heart of her subjects. “I know that Virginia Woolf had two dresses [in] 1922. … Her underwear was made for her, and it was held up at the waist by a brooch. She didn’t have a safety pin; it was her mother’s brooch. And that tells you a lot, doesn’t it? That’s the kind of person she was.”

Roth chose to bind the three periods and women through a color scheme used by the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of artists Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell belonged to.

“Those colors were very well known and very specific. That was a device that I used. I just fancied it.” Other elements Roth used were roses – from Laura’s bathrobe to Clarissa’s flowers – and amber jewelry that looked antique for Woolf (“something she undoubtedly was given as a present, or may have been her mother’s”). Clarissa’s look was more adventurous.

For Roth, the fun of designing costumes is helping the actor bring the character to life.

“If the actor is interested in creating this person, you want to get into a room where no one is looking and … play around until you get there,” she says. “That … removes the actor from himself and herself. And she’s free to be someone else. Like Nicole’s nose. It freed her.”

Roth suggested the use of a prosthetic nose to Kidman at her first fitting.

“She and I met and I was trying some shapes, hats on her head. All I could see when I put the hat on her head was the perfect little nose. I mentioned that to her. … Virginia Woolf had a very, long aristocratic nose. She said, ‘I can’t wear any prosthetics.’ I said, ‘Well, I think we ought to try it,’ and [after] about half an hour she said, ‘Let’s play around with it.’”

Roth came to The Hours through producer Scott Rudin, who she worked with on Changing Lanes (2002) and In & Out (1997), among other films. Relationships and sensibility are important to Roth when it comes to those she works with. “A long time ago, when I went to work for Robert Mulligan, I asked him, ‘How would you like these people around the dinner table to look?’ He said, ‘You do it and I’ll find it.’ He chose me because there was something in what I did that appealed to [a] sense of discovery. It was true of Daldry also.”

In December, Roth finished her third film with Anthony Minghella, Cold Mountain, for which she created all of the costumes, which numbered in the thousands. “My research on this last one was huge, and I engaged my daughter to do the Civil War stuff. … All those Smithsonian types who came to look said it’s the finest research they’ve ever seen.”

After finishing Cold Mountain, Roth went to work on Angels in America for longtime collaborator Mike Nichols, and has upcoming projects: A Series of Unfortunate Events and Frank Oz’s The Stepford Wives.

But first, along with a likely nomination for her work on The Hours, Roth will receive the Costume Designers Guild’s Career Achievement for Film Award at the CDG Awards (presented March 16). Two years ago Roth received the Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award, named after the legendary costume designer who encouraged Roth to pursue a career in costume.

Since working with Sharaff, Roth has costumed many classics, including The World of Henry Orient, Midnight Cowboy, Klute, Hair and Working Girl. Her work on Places in the Heart and The Talented Mr. Ripley earned her Oscar nominations, and she took home a statuette for The English Patient.

“I’m delighted and very flattered,” Roth says about receiving the CDG Career Achievement award. “In no way do I feel at my age I [have] reached anything near what I’ve wanted. It’s a journey, and I guess that this award is a push or a pat on the back for a very long marathon, but in no way am I worthy of an award. Truly I am not.

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