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93rd Annual Oscars Spotlight on Costume Design


Welcome to my sister-in-law Mindy’s favorite category, the one which she and I will discuss the most and, if she really likes one of the contenders, will refer to the clothing as “scrumptious.” That, actually, is why I’m making the choice I am making in this category, which of course you will see below. Before we get there, though, a note about this category that sort of jibes with the one I made about Production Design

Remember when I talked about the perception of how the Academy recognizes Production Design? And then I debunked it with the clever use of facts? Well, in this category, debunkers need not apply. To wit: In this century, there have been 105 Oscar nominees for achievement in Costume Design. Would you like to guess how many of them were for contemporary films? No period pieces, fairy tales, action movies, musicals, fantasy flicks, biopics, or anything else of the kind, just specifically a movie that takes place in the present day, or thereabouts. 

Take a moment. Think it over.

What did you come up with? Was it more than one? Because if it was more than one …

You’re incorrect. 

That’s right, one single contemporary film has been nominated in this category in this century. The Devil Wears Prada, in 2007, is the lone honoree, and that one deserves an asterisk, because the movie is about a woman … who works at a fashion magazine (another contemporary entry is La La Land, but that is a musical, which puts it into a different category entirely). This seems strange, doesn’t it? You would think that clothing actors in contemporary duds in a way that makes them stand out from the norm would be, in a sense, more complicated and challenging than doing it for a different era, or a different reality, or for a superhero, or whatever. Maybe this is where the divide should come. Modern films and everything else. Because there are plenty of movies that take place in some semblance of modern day that have cool clothing in them, but they’re just never recognized in this category. It’s weird, especially coming from the branch of the Academy that should, in theory, recognize such achievements. 

On the other hand, maybe it is, in fact, about the flashiness of the attire, and the vicarious thrill the other members of the Costume Design branch get from such sartorial splendor, at the expense of everything else. Not sure we’ll ever know, really, so we might as well move on and discuss the movies and artists recognized this year for their work.

The nominees for achievement in Costume Design are:
Emma (Alexandra Byrne)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Ann Roth)
Mank (Trish Summerville)
Mulan (Bina Daigeler) and
Pinocchio (Massimo Cantini Parrini). 

It feels odd to open with the three frontrunners, rather than building up to them, but since we’re doing this alphabetically, and the first three are, literally, the first three, that’s how it shakes out. 

Emma (Focus Features)

Because, the thing is, I think Emma, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Mank are in a tight race for the title. With that in mind, let’s begin with Emma. In the latest adaptation of the Jane Austen classic, six-time nominee (and one time winner, for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, in 2008) Alexandra Byrne filled the screen with brightly colored dresses and waistcoats. She actually had one of the film’s stars, Johnny Flynn, strip naked to demonstrate the way the Victorians dressed and to show off just how involved was Byrne’s research into the era. I think it’s impossible to count the number of movies that have taken place in Victorian England, so for the latest one to stand out so well in the way it clothed its characters is really saying something.

Ma Rainey
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)

Ann Roth has also won an Oscar, for The English Patient in 1997, and has now earned her fifth nod for her work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This is an especially interesting one to me, because I wonder if perhaps it’s as much about who Roth was dressing as how she dressed her. Viola Davis brings something special to any appearance on any screen (with this, her fourth-ever acting nomination, she has now become the most decorated actress of color in Academy history). Certain actors wear the hell out of the clothes on their backs, and she’s one of them. Now, I’m not suggesting that a multiple nominee and actual Oscar winner only got her nod this time around because of the person wearing her designs, but I am suggesting it sure as heck fire didn’t hurt. Same for the late Chadwick Boseman, who also was known to wear him some clothes (don’t forget that the winner in this category two years ago, Ruth E. Carter, did so for Black Panther). For this movie, Roth took the best of 1920s fashion and ensconced her actors in it to moving effect.

Amanda Seyfried
Amanda Seyfried in Mank (Netflix)

Trish Summerville earned her first nomination this year for Mank, whose work was especially notable considering that she had to dress everyone in black and white, so the various shades and tones of gray needed to be dead on perfect. Aside from putting Gary Oldman in frumpy suits and fellow nominee Amanda Seyfried in frilly, period appropriate 1930s attire, she also used a very twenty-first century method to get everything just right: her iPhone’s monochromatic setting, which helped her devise a wardrobe built around pastels, with lots of lavenders, greens, purples, and burgundies. It’s surprising how much that stuff will pop, even in black and white.

Gong Li in Mulan (Disney)

Now, having read all that about those three, you’re stuck reading about the two movies I don’t think will win, but, here goes, anyway. German Bina Daigeler also earned her first nod for her work in Mulan, which is likewise lovely and eye-grabbing. Since the movie takes place during the Tang Dynasty (that would be the Seventh and Eighth centuries, for those not up to speed on Chinese history), Daigeler employed lots of silks, cottons, and leathers, and used mostly primary colors as she did. The film is lavish and comes off as intended, which is as a cartoon come to life, but in the most respectable way. The title character wears a bright red battle tunic that sets her apart from everyone and everything around her, while also reflecting the emotion and power of the character, which is pretty much what you want from your costumes. But all that said, I don’t think this is the one to beat, either.

Pinocchio (Roadside Attractions)

Finally, there’s the foreign film, Pinocchio. Five times in this century a foreign language film has been nominated for this award, and do you know how many times a foreign language film has won? If you guessed zero, that’s correct. (The Artist actually won this award in 2012, but I don’t count that as a foreign film, even though it was made by and stars French people. It is a silent movie that has story cards in English, as are the only lines spoken in the movie, at the very end.) Interestingly, three foreign films won this award between 1983 and 1990 (Fanny and Alexander, Ran, and Cyrano De Bergerac, to be precise), but that’s a long time ago. 

Pinocchio is not currently available for me to see — no screening service, no theaters, nothing — so I have to rely on pictures and reading a little background on the production. To be fair, the work is quite impressive, with a dark and sinister vibe to the clothing (and how often has clothing been described in that fashion, pun intended?) designed by Massimo Parrini, who earned his first nomination for this movie. Parrini has worked exclusively in Italy during his two decade-long career, and so I’m not terribly familiar with his work. This stuff looks really cool, though, so his nomination should not come as a surprise. Still, winning the trophy would.

Which leads us to who actually will win that gold statuette. This is one of those times when I think I’m going to disagree with the Academy, because the movie I believe should win, is not one I think will win. I believe that David Fincher’s Mank is going to win a lot of the technical awards, including this one. Not that his team doesn’t deserve every one that it might win — especially this one, because Summerville’s work is really quite lovely — but I just don’t happen to think that, if she does, it will go to the right person. No, that person is Alexandra Byrne, because the work she did in Emma was, in a word, scrumptious.

Should Win: Emma
Will Win: Mank

Oscar voting closes on April 20 for the ceremony taking place on April 25, and you can read the full list of ALL the nominees for the 93rd Annual Academy Awards hereThe 23rd Annual Costume Designers Guild (CDG) Awards will be given out on April 13, and you can read those nominees here.

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