Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Farewell to Florence, and a Pair of Sylberts

I’m going to miss Florence Henderson, whom I associate less with The Brady Bunch than with the forays into musical theatre she made early in her career. As a youthful fan of all things Broadway, I listened repeatedly to the singing of Mary Martin on my Sound of Music cast album. But when  I was taken to L.A.’s creaky old Philharmonic Hall to see the show for myself, it was a young Florence Henderson who wore the wimple.
Paul Sylbert, unlike Florence Henderson, became far better known for his work than for his sparkling personality. But in the course of his long career he was revered throughout the industry as one of Hollywood’s premiere art directors and production designers. He brought imagination and craftsmanship to such big-name films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kramer vs. Kramer, and The Prince of Tides. For creating a misty celestial waiting-room and other more earthly locales in Heaven Can Wait, he was awarded an Oscar in 1979.

Once upon a time Paul was married to Anthea Sylbert, a costume designer who nabbed Oscar nominations for her striking period work on Chinatown and Julia. But the relationship that most interests me is the one he had with his identical twin brother, Richard. They were born on April 16, 1928. A close-knit duo, the two Sylberts served together in the same Army infantry unit in Korea, and then studied art together at Philadelphia’s Temple University. Sylbert’s L.A. Times obit notes that “when [Paul] Sylbert landed a job at CBS in New York, his brother found work at NBC. 

I don’t know of any other Hollywood art directors who came as a matched set. Their big break arrived when Elia Kazan hired them both to re-create a steamy Southern town in the controversial 1956 film, Baby Doll. Eventually, though, they learned to work apart. While Paul was busy elsewhere, Richard created designs for such powerful dramas as The Manchurian Candidate and The Pawnbroker. Then he was lucky enough to hook up with Mike Nichols for his very first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This 1966 assignment won Richard an Oscar, the last ever given for specifically black-and-white set design and decoration. It also won him the job of production designer on Nichols’ second film, The Graduate. To capture the narcissism and sterility of Southern California living, the two decided on a limited color palette dominated by lots of murky blacks and stark whites, and they tricked out their sets with all manner of glass and mirrored surfaces. They also played with the idea of water, choosing as a visual metaphor that bedroom aquarium that seems to reflect Benjamin Braddock’s place as a prize specimen in his parents’ world. The film’s striking visuals were surely Oscar-worthy, but no nomination was forthcoming. Nonetheless, The Graduate won Richard a reputation as a masterful interpreter of California living. He would go on to re-create L.A. on screen in such powerfully atmospheric films as Chinatown and Shampoo. But he also made intensely New York films, including  Rosemary’s Baby and The Cotton Club. And his second Oscar honored a movie that captured the look of the Sunday morning funny pages: Dick Tracy.

Richard Sylbert was working almost until his death in 2002. (Aside from his design career, he spent three years as chief of production at Paramount.) Paul, who also tried his hand at writing and directing films, left Hollywood in 2008 for a teaching post at his Philadelphia alma mater.  When he died, at 88, he’d outlived his twin by 14 years. Right now I’m mourning them both. 

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