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HomeAwardsOscar contenders: Costume Design

Oscar contenders: Costume Design

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By Leonard Klady
Rules governing the nominations for costume design are about as straightforward as any craft honor doled out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Costume design members of the art directors branch can vote preferentially for up to five films in which the apparel was conceived by a costume designer. The five films receiving the greatest number of votes compose the final ballot from which all voting members elect a winner.
What’s clear scanning the list of films and designers who have taken home the golden statuette in the past quarter century is a preference for period work (only All That Jazz and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert were set in contemporary time) and a dominance by non-U.S. costumers. The Academy has cited the considerable achievements of British, Japanese, Swedish, Australian and Italian designers, but Albert Wolsky is the rare American to win the award—not once but twice.
The field for 2003 is heavily tilted toward the past, particularly the 19th Century, and rife with the work of Brits and Aussies as well as some venerable Americans and a few former Oscar winners. The not-so-distant past is well represented in Judianna Makovsky’s work in Seabiscuit. Makovsky, previously nominated for the first Harry Potter and Pleasantville, elegantly recreates the 1930s of stylish society and working grunts in a vivid, seemingly effortless fashion.
Another former multiple nominee, Janet Patterson (The Piano, Portrait of a Lady), dips back to the fin de siecle era for Peter Pan and weaves in a both authentic and fanciful wardrobe that reflects those elements in the story. That moment in time—the transition from the 19th to the 20th Century—also figures prominently and imaginatively into Jacqueline West’s (previously nominated for Quills) sweeping designs for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Paul Daigle’s little-seen work in the singular Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, based on the ballet of the same name. Though the costume designers have historically been quick to recognize new talent, the very limited release of the dancing vampire will likely be unrecognized unless its distributor sends out screeners.
Traditionally there’s been a resistance by the branch toward citing sequels; that, coupled with a tendency to diminish work set in the present, does not bode well for a couple of interesting excursions of the past year. Sophie de Rakoff Carbonell, whose first major credit was Legally Blonde, returned for its 2003 sequel emboldened by the original’s success. The over-the-top outfits of several key performers had the sort of perfect pitch that marries costume with character and still retains the balance of whimsy and credibility. One can also point to similar attributes in Charlie’s Angel’s: Full Throttle in which Joe Aulusi’s bold, cutting edge designs have the quick-ass quality its heroines embody.
The Matrix movies’ world of tomorrow, as viewed by Kym Barrett, missed the cut first time around, so may fare better in 2003’s double dosage. The future is sleek, stylish and reminiscent of the utilitarian and tasteful qualities of the western. It’s a combination of walking-around clothing and warrior’s garb that sets the right tone for its story. Wendy Stites achieves a similar effect when she turns the clock back two centuries for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Stites, a former nominee in production design, has been an able crewperson on most of husband Peter Weir’s films and meticulously costumes the men of H.M.S. Surprise, assorted whalers and French adversaries. The costumes are authentically recreated without evincing the stiffness of obvious meticulous research.
To remain on the high seas, Penny Rose’s intent on Pirates of the Caribbean is considerably more swashbuckling and stylized. Her scurvy lot is drenched in the lore of movies and literature and has the sort of getup that teeters on the plank just shy of parody. Conversely, the representatives of the King, have an accentuated formality that provides a truly original and deft balancing act.
As noted, it’s difficult for a sequel to receive second notice, and that certainly proved to be the case for Ngila Dickson who shared Oscar honors for the first installment of The Lord of the Rings but was absent from consideration for her work on chapter two. Her prospects for the trilogy’s finale are also dampened by competition from herself in The Last Samurai. Whereas her recent Ring work and costumes for the Xena television series has focused on a conceptualized world of warriors, Samurai, based on historic events, has an earthier though equally daunting look for its combatants. There’s an artistry as the West—represented by Civil War veteran Tom Cruise—encounters the East and a marriage of two fighting styles emerges.
The Civil War also figures into the adaptation of the bestseller Cold Mountain but the action occurs following its last gunshot. Ann Roth, who received her Oscar for The English Patient, reteams with filmmaker Anthony Minghella for a period drama set against the panorama of history. It is classic work from one of the craft’s preeminent designers and artists. Another Oscar-winner, Colleen Atwood (2002’s Chicago), again collaborates with Tim Burton for a family saga, Big Fish, that spans half a century, has a circus backdrop, and centers on an inveterate liar. The task at hand was to ground the outlandish in logic true to its perspective and it succeeds in that universe.
An unabashedly unreal challenge for Rita Ryack was dressing the characters of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. Ryack admittedly was well grounded for the assignment, having done the chores on How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but, as the saying goes, no two snowflakes are exactly alike. Ryack’s more nuanced achievement on The Human Stain is apt to be overlooked in the crowd, though there’s no preclusion to multiple nominations as occurred in 1998 when Sandy Powell was cited for Velvet Goldmine and took home the gold for Shakespeare in Love.
A couple of other films and people worth noting include the marvelously heightened 1960s ensembles created by Daniel Orlandi for Down With Love and the curious and effective mix of the old and the new conceived by Dorinda Rice Wood in A Mighty Wind. Regardless of the ultimate ballot selection, one of the enduring mysteries of movie costume design remains why so few Oscar attendees wear outfits by the men and women who so expertly attire them on the big screen.

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