When the Academy Awards are handed out on February 22, the statuette for Best Costume Design will probably go to a film with bravura fantasy elements, like Maleficent or Into the Woods. But the very opinionated Deborah Nadoolman Landis suggests that each acting Oscar should be paired with a costume design Oscar. She cites the distinctive look of Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. Though Bardem was honored as Best Supporting Actor for that film, no one thought to acknowledge the role of the costume designer in contributing to his indelible characterization. Yet costumes instantly telegraph to the audience key information about a screen character. And the actors themselves often rely on costumes to help them prepare for their roles. As Deborah told me, “Very often they find out who they are, or who they’re going to be, in the fitting room.”
Deborah is currently riding high as the curator of the magnificent “Hollywood Costume” exhibit that wowed the crowds at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and is now doing the same (through March 2) in Los Angeles, under the auspices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A costume designer herself, she came up with the iconic red jacket worn by Michael Jackson in the music video “Thriller,” directed by her husband John Landis. She was Oscar-nominated in 1989 for the Eddie Murphy comedy, Coming to America, and created the unforgettable look of Indiana Jones in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. “Hollywood Costume” contains a vivid section explaining how Indy’s leather jacket got its lived-in look: on the film set she slashed it repeatedly with a knife, after which she and Harrison Ford took turns sitting on it.
I met Deborah in 2008, while researching films of the Sixties. We talked over lunch at a Beverly Hills café, and I quickly discovered what a candid person she is. In the course of our chat, I learned a lot about her family life, her weight issues, and the fact that you’ll never get away with leaving off the pecans on her spinach salad. I also learned how much the role of the costume designer has changed since the industry was young. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, Louis B. Mayer told Helen Rose that when she was designing the wardrobe for film actors, the goal was to “just make them beautiful.” That was the era when everyone on screen was impeccably dressed and groomed, the better to delight the man and woman on the street, who couldn’t afford such luxury.
As time passed, street clothing got increasingly informal, and the designer was now expected to reflect the new reality. But it took the Hollywood studios a while to get the message. Deborah entered the industry in 1975, with a newly minted MFA in costume design from UCLA. She remembers “a tremendous disconnect between Hollywood – between the production of Hollywood – and what was actually happening on the street.” In studio costume workrooms she found “everybody was so old. . . . They were craftspeople, artisans, from Vienna and Berlin. They were all refugees. These were women who were used to making the most beautiful dresses and suits in the world. Couture. They weren’t gonna make dirty jeans or torn jeans or hippie gear. So how were they gonna cope with movies about the Summer of Love? “
What did Deborah wear at our lunch? Casual clothing that made no lasting impression at all. Far be it from her to trick herself out in an ensemble that, like an over-designed film costume, “doesn’t quite disappear the way it should.”