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Costume Design

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By Paige Donner
Albert Wolsky’s philosophy of costume design is simple. “I always work at the service of the material,” said Wolsky, who won Oscars for his work on All That Jazz and Bugsy. “I don’t feel I have to do things showy for themselves.”
That can make the annual chore of singling out the very best work in the field a delicate task. “It’s very tricky, really,” said Wolsky, whose work is on display this year in Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe and Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War.
“On Across the Universe, for example, I tried to do an invisible job. I always do. The whole point of doing these jobs is that they are invisible, so how do you point something out when it’s supposed to be invisible?”
Wolsky acknowledges that it is often the big popular films — the period pageants, the spectacles — that tend to get the Oscar vote for costume design. He is the first to concede that the bigger the show, the better the chance of winning, and that the overall popularity of the movie also plays a large role in the voting.
So how do you show people it’s a terrific job, even though it’s not showy? “The contemporary or simple costumes are harder to get noticed,” he said. “What costumes are supposed to do is set the characters, set the story.”
He compares this to what happens in the drama category for acting, where, say, a virtuoso drunken scene performance will get the attention while subtle character interpretations might get overlooked.
“I have to respect what I do,” he said. “There’s no choice but to be in service to the story. We’re not doing a fashion show. Unless, of course, there’s a fashion show in the script. We’re dressing people, characters.”
Wolsky contrasts his work on Across the Universe with that on Charlie Wilson’s War. “Across the Universe certainly has gone above the radar. I am very director-oriented so I worked within the context of Julie Taymor’s vision. Her vision was fantasy, a musical, and recreating the ’60s. I interpreted the period and stylized that,” he said. “I believe the costume design on Universe will certainly get more attention than Charlie Wilson’s War, even though that, too, is a period piece, set in the 1980s. The characters are limited to Washington D.C., to Congress, and to Afghanistan. Throughout, we were dealing with real people.
“Charlie Wilson was actually thrilled with the way his character looks in the film. One of my most satisfying moments was when Mrs. Wilson came up to me and said, ‘Yes, I remember. He always wore that,’” said Wolsky.
“The greatness of the film seems to influence the viewing of the costume design. A successful film can brainwash the voting,” says Janty Yates, costume designer for American Gangster, directed by Ridley Scott.
“A film’s costume design has a lot to do with the texture of the script,” says Yates, an Oscar winner for Gladiator and an eight-time nominee. “The costume design has to be integral rather than obtrusive.”
Yates said that having been part of the decision-making board at BAFTA, she realizes how “extraordinarily hard it is to generalize what one looks for” when voting on costume design. “I was fascinated to see that everyone analyzes a film from a completely different standpoint,” she says.
Her recommendations for evaluating work are to look at the film’s costume design in a contextual framework; analyze the art and skill used in the design and execution; and pay attention to the innovation. “Innovation is always so exciting,” Yates said.
It’s also important to see as many films as you can, she says. “You can have a more balanced judgment then. It’s fairer.” However, she is the first to admit that viewing all the Academy screeners is a daunting task in itself, especially as a working industry professional. Still, she said, “Make the effort. You owe it to filmmakers in general.”
“It’s always strange how the voting turns out,” said Sharen Davis, costume designer on The Great Debaters, directed by Denzel Washington. “It’s all very odd to me about what wins. It’s an individual choice. When I vote for something, I vote for the whole film’s balance. If the costumes are great and the film is horrible, it doesn’t work for me.”
Davis is an Oscar nominee for her work on Dreamgirls and Ray. “Dreamgirls was really a collaboration with Bill (Condon, the director). In musicals, you can take more liberty because it’s more of a fantasy, although Dreamgirls was a very different kind of musical,” said Davis. She cites Chicago as a more traditional musical.
“Chicago was balanced in every way,” said Davis. “I’m a big admirer of Colleen Atwood. She’s an amazing costume designer. She never takes the character to a place where they’re showing off. And she does an amazing job in both design and craft.”
Davis also references Wolsky’s work on Across the Universe as “incredible.” “I went into the film and never left. He’s my new hero,” she says.

Written by Paige Donner

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