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Oscar contenders: art direction


By Leonard Klady
The last time the Oscar for art direction went to a film with a contemporary setting was Batman in 1989, and one has to go back a decade further to All That Jazz to find a movie set in a realistically recognizable location. In fact, in the past decade less than a handful of movies have made the Academy short list that happened to be set in the present somewhere on the globe.
Is there a bias among production designers that favors films set in the past, future or a hard to define period that isn’t quite modern day?
“Well, I wouldn’t say it was dismissive,” notes set decorator Dan Hennah, a nominee this year for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (along with Alan Lee). “But you can’t really cheat period the way you can cut corners on a film that’s supposed to be happening now. And that goes for everything, including hair and costumes. People know that it’s just a little bit harder.”
Hennah and production designer Grant Major are hopeful it will be third time lucky for the Rings crew, having been nominated for the first two chapters but winding up bridesmaids to Chicago and Moulin Rouge. It’s difficult to imagine a more rigorous film assignment than designing the trilogy and, though they had close to a year of designing and construction prior to the start of filming, the 18-month shoot involved constant travel and additions to get that unique fantasy world just right.
Back in the present, there are several contemporary sagas worthy of consideration that did not get nods. There was a gleeful spirit to Leslie McDonald’s work in Intolerable Cruelty, a sleek, bright ironic world. Cruelty marked McDonald’s first major work as a production designer following years as an assistant to Oscar-winner Dennis Gassner, who did not get a nod for Big Fish. Though partially set in the present, Fish’s most inspired visual moments occur in flashbacks that blend the fantastic with the hallucinatory in a figurative and literal freak show that brims with compassion. There was also wonderful work to be seen in Dirty Pretty Things. A bulwark of recent British cinema, Hugo Luczyc Whyhowski is particularly inspired in creating subterranean worlds in the tale of illegal immigrants in contemporary London.
Also not nominated: the precise, vivid work of Drew Boughton in House of Sand and Fog. Boughton came up through indie pictures and previously designed Goldmember. The new film is a complete about turn from the garish qualities of the comedy. At the other end of the experience spectrum is Henry Bumstead with credits spanning half a century and Oscars for To Kill a Mockingbird and The Sting. In recent years he’s been part of Clint Eastwood’s talent posse and was an invaluable asset on Mystic River. While unquestionably the sentimental favorite in the category, he and the others had to face the daunting challenge of The Return of the King’s Herculean achievement.
Two decidedly different seafaring tales were among the best achievements of 2003, including Pirates of the Caribbean. Production designer Brian Morris was previously nominated for Evita and in the new film captures the fun on land and in the water with sets that almost seem to collapse whenever pomposity threatens to intrude. Pirates was not acknowledged.
In bringing to life Patrick O’Brian’s books of the British navy, William Sandell had a very different challenge in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Apart from one brief respite the film unfolds entirely on H.M.S. Surprise and with amazing dexterity he conveys a keen sense of claustrophobia as well as creating an environment where all the elements must function for the very vitality of its inhabitants. Master was nominated.
Also nominated was the film depicting the world of 17th century Holland and the Dutch Masters, thanks to Ben van Os’s work on Girl With a Pearl Earring. Van Os, a nominee for Orlando, has had a long association with Peter Greenaway and in Pearl Earring goes for a disarming simplicity in which one can virtually taste the dust of the streets and attics of historic Delft.
Last year’s Oscar winner for Chicago, John Myhre, returned with Haunted Mansion and concocted a funhouse arena far superior to the mundane yarn it tries desperately to support. An even more egregious disparity was evident in The Cat in the Hat in which production designer Alex McDowell, fresh from inspired work on Minority Report, exquisitely visualized the upside-down world of Dr. Seuss that outshone all elements of the film’s narrative. Neither received nominations.
Canadian Carol Spier, best known for her work with David Cronenberg, transformed the graphic comic world of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen into an inspired fin de siecle period where awe and wonder are part of the vocabulary. It was not acknowledged. In the same Victorian era, Roger Ford, previously Oscar-nominated for Babe, drew inspiration for J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, taking us from the quaint brick buildings of London to the exotic environs of Neverland. This wondrous achievements went by unrecognized.
Three of the most respected practitioners of the craft were also well in evidence with recent work. Lilly Kilvert, nominated for Legends of the Fall, stalked New Zealand Hobbit territory to recreate 19th century Japan in The Last Samurai. Her work, rewarded this year with a nomination, resonates with authenticity as she pain-stakingly brought San Francisco, Tokyo and Japanese villages to life in the historic drama. Pushing ahead half a century, twice-nominated Jeannine Oppewall was in top form on the screen adaptation of Seabiscuit. Her vision of the 1930s embrace both the kinetic energy of the racetrack and the dark, cocooned board rooms where business is rendered—and she was nominated again as well.
Italian Dante Ferretti has been an Oscar also-ran six times, including his much admired work on 2002’s The Gangs of New York. Cold Mountain is a fitting addition to a resume that includes masterful work for Fellini, Pasolini, Scorsese and Neil Jordan. He is in his element in the film’s historic recreation of Civil War America (created in Romania) from the apocalyptic battlefields to the bucolic splendors of farms and the bustling small towns of the sweeping saga, but Cold Mountain was frozen out of this category.

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