Friday, January 30, 2015

My Lunch with Deborah Nadoolman Landis: Of Costumes and Streetwear

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.”

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Clothes Make the Man: the “Hollywood Costume” Exhibit

A Most Violent Year garnered critical raves. I had admired Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis and Jessica Chastain in just about everything, so this gritty little drama about an ambitious young couple seemed worth a look. Alas, I found it grim, slow, and – frankly – rather dull. When, mercifully, the lights came up, what I remembered was the clothes. Though I’d love to have them in my own closet, I’m emphatically not tall enough and not rich enough to be worthy of the duds being sported by the  film’s lead actors. Isaac, playing a Latin American immigrant who rises quickly in the New York heating oil business, circa 1981, is resplendent in an elegant camel’s hair topcoat. Chastain, as his semi-scrupulous wife, looks sleek and dangerous in vintage Armani. Kudos to costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone for knowing how to use clothing to delineate character.

The idea that, as Martin Scorsese puts it, “costume is the character,” is at the center of a grand exhibit called, simply, “Hollywood Costume.” It’s housed through March 2 in L.A.’s art-deco May Company Wilshire building, the future home of the long-awaited museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Though an exhibit devoted to motion picture costumes seems like a natural fit for SoCal, this display got its start at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where fans of Hollywood flocked to see Marilyn Monroe’s Seven Year Itch sundress and Dorothy’s blue gingham pinafore. One big thing I learned from the exhibit is that Hollywood costume collectors live all over the world. Thanks to the hard work of curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis, a costume designer herself, many spectacular ensembles have been gatheredfor us to enjoy. And the handling of the exhibit – which is full of both strong ideas and Hollywood pizazz -- is definitely part of its charm.

The exhibit includes a wonderful array of queenly garments drawn from various portrayals of Elizabeth I (by Bette Davis, Judi Dench and others), as well as the austere and lovely Queen Guenevere wedding gown designed for Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot. Nor does it overlook the raincoat, boots, and headscarf worn by Elizabeth II as she mucks about Scotland’s Balmoral Castle in The Queen. The point, of course, is to outfit the actors in garments that suggest an appropriate history. The film Milk, for instance, evokes the actual T-shirt-and-khakis look of Harvey Milk’s activist years. On the other hand, there are fabulous fantasy costumes, like those designed for The Addams Family and the live-action 101 Dalmatians. In passing, I learned something wholly unexpected about Deborah L. Scott’s work on Avatar. Though that film’s most memorable sections, which take place on the planet Pandora, make heavy use of motion capture and CGI to bring us the non-human Na’vi civilization, Scott was required to fashion actual samples of exotic jewelry to adorn Avatar’s CGI creations.

 I discovered that Charlie Chaplin’s famous Little Tramp characterization first sprang to life  when Chaplin began assembling existing wardrobe pieces (tight jacket, baggy pants, big shoes) and added a mustache. And a particularly enlightening section pairs successful designers with the directors who love them. There’s video of the late Mike Nichols, for instance, discussing his collaboration with Ann Roth, who chose cheap wigs and a ratty fake-fur jacket to establish Natalie Portman’s character in Closer. And Quentin Tarantino explains what he’d required of designer Sharen Davis on Django Unchained. To outfit the title character played by Jamie Foxx, he wanted a jacket and hat subliminally reflecting the wardrobe of Little Joe Cartwright (Michael Landon) on TV’s Bonanza. Who knew?     

Friday, January 23, 2015

I’m All Right, Jack: “The West Wing” and the White House’s Big Block of Cheese Day

This past Wednesday,  the day after President Obama delivered his State of the Union message, was officially designated the White House’s second annual Big Block of Cheese Day. I found out about this much too late to throw a party. Still, I remain intrigued by the way contemporary American politics so often intertwine with showbiz. 

The State of the Union itself has a flashy side. There’s the dramatic entrance of the POTUS into the packed House of Representatives chamber, and the business of individual members of Congress either leaping to their feet, applauding madly, or scowling from their seats, depending on their party affiliation. President Ronald Reagan, our most obvious movie-star president, started the now entrenched custom of calling on average citizens, seated in the gallery, for well-timed cameo appearances.

But Big Block of Cheese Day is a much newer custom, a (pungent) part of the Obama legacy. The official White House blog announces that this is the day when senior members of the current administration take to social media -- Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr -- to answer substantive questions from the public. The blog explains that the event is planned as a “fromage” to President Andrew Jackson, who liked to promote democracy through up-close and personal interaction with his constituents. That’s why “on February 22, 1837, President Jackson had a 1,400-pound block of cheese hauled into the main foyer of the White House for an open house with thousands of citizens and his staff, where they discussed the issues of the day while carving off slabs of cheddar.”

The story of Andrew Jackson and the cheese is basically a true one: The Atlantic has thoughtfully explained on its site where that hunk of cheese came from, and why President Jackson was so desperate to get rid of it. But the true inspiration for the Obama event is an early episode of TV’s The West Wing  in which members of President Bartlett’s staff staged their own Big Block of Cheese Day, only to find themselves arguing public policy with wacko tree-huggers and UFO conspiracy nuts. So the current Big Block of Cheese Day has major show-business roots.  That’s why several prominent members of the West Wing cast have joined with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest in a video promoting the creative spin added by the Obama-nation. Funny? You feta believe it.

Meanwhile, the always-combative New York Post is raining on the victory parade of an actor honored for playing a politician. Kevin Spacey, accepting his Golden Globe for House of Cards, recounted an inspirational anecdote involving his final visit to an ailing Stanley Kramer, whom he hailed as “one of the great filmmakers of all time.” The audience was visibly moved. Not so the Post’s Richard Johnson, whose Page Six column was headlined “Kevin Spacey’s Golden Globes Tribute Raises Eyebrows.” Harkening back to the blacklist era, Johnson accuses Kramer of cowardice for his treatment of partner Carl Foreman who was called before the HUAC while High Noon was being shot. In Johnson’s words, “Kramer wanted Foreman to name names. When Foreman instead pleaded his Fifth Amendment rights, he was forced off ‘High Noon,’ and Kramer was credited as the movie’s producer.”

Johnson’s source? Lionel Chetwynd, whose Darkness at High Noon documentary makes Foreman out to be a hero and Kramer a deep-dyed villain. But Chetwynd is hardly without strong biases of his own. The matter was far more complex than he makes it out to be, and Johnson’s recycling of Chetwynd’s canards at this late date seems unnecessary . . .  and more than a bit, well, cheesy.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

On Martin Luther King Day, a Hero’s Journey

Despite my best intentions, I haven’t yet seen Selma, a film on which I was counting to freshen my memories of the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s central role in preaching the gospel of non-violent resistance. It’s been many years since we  UCLA students were lucky enough to see and hear Dr. King in person. On a beautiful sunny day, he spoke at an outdoor rally attended by thousands of campus folk. He galvanized us then, and I’ve been looking forward to seeing David Oyelowo (so surprisingly snubbed by Oscar voters) in this historic role.

Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the bestowers of Oscars, generally dote on heroes, of which Dr. King must be considered a shining modern example. But more and more, lately, they’ve also been giving Oscar kudos to men who play real-life figures with severe flaws, whether physical or mental. Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, Steve Carell as John du Pont: all earned Oscar nominations for tormented roles. Bradley Cooper too has been honored for taking on a biographical part, that of sharpshooter Chris Kyle in American Sniper. Though I know the backstory, I haven’t seen that potential blockbuster, so I’m not clear on whether the heroic aspects of Kyle’s character outweigh the darkness of his life and death. Which leaves Michael Keaton, who in Birdman fascinatingly negotiates the distance between superhero and actor with feet of clay.

I hardly blame African-American movie fans for feeling upset that a bona fide hero from their community has been overlooked. There’s an unfortunate assumption in this country that black men mostly confine their heroics to sports arenas and musical performance venues. While on the treadmill at my gym, I was watching the lead-up to Sunday’s big football play-off games. (Hey, while exercising I’ll watch just about anything, the better to distract my mind from the sweat equity I’m trying to build.) Football, at its best, inspires a lovely camaraderie between black and white, both on the field and in the broadcast booth. I saw articulate African-American pundits, many of them former sports heroes in their own right, oohing and ahing over the abilities of young African-American tackles and running backs. As a player, if you can play well and refrain from mauling lesser mortals during your down-time, a hero’s welcome awaits you.

At the movies, most biopics starring African-American leading men focus on athletes and musicians. In 2014 alone, there was a Jimi Hendrix biopic (Jimi: All is By My Side), and one featuring the hardest working man in showbiz, James Brown (Get on Up). Having recently read Inside the Godfather, a compilation of anecdotes by Brown’s son Daryl and Michael P. Chabries, I know that the very talented Brown led a life chockfull of torment. Oscar, anyone? But though there has been high critical praise for the lead performance of Chadwick Boseman (who’d also played Jackie Robinson in 42), the film did not soar. 

Not many big-budget films dealing with black history feature someone known for his mind, rather than his muscle or his musical chops. In 2013, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was also pretty much ignored by Oscar voters. The star of that film, Idris Elba, is a powerful and attractive actor. He’s also British (as so many of today’s top black actors seem to be), and I have a hunch he could step into James Bond’s wingtips in a few years. It’s good to see black actors starring in heroic biopics, but there’s no reason they can’t be our fantasy heroes as well.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Diversity at the Oscars: It’s All How You Look at It

Now that the Oscar nominations are out, all the professional prognosticators are having their say. The main comment I’ve heard is that this will be the whitest Academy Awards ceremony in quite some time. This marks a big change from last year, when the winner was 12 Years a Slave.  Lupita Nyong’o received the Best Supporting Actress award for that film, while its star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, was also nominated.  Other nominees of color in 2014 included Barkhad Abdi for his memorable supporting role in Captain Phillips. Back in 2013, two Best Picture nominees--Django Unchained and Beasts of the Southern Wild—both focused on aspects of the African-American experience, and Denzel Washington was in the running for Best Actor. A major nominee in 2012 was The Help.

So, yes, this year’s ceremony will be notable for shying away from African-American stories. And I’m as surprised as anyone that the star and director of Selma (which I have not yet seen) have been overlooked. The film deals with a subject—the birth of the Civil Rights movement—of which the film industry can be proud. And it would have been nice, in the light of past inequities, to welcome a Best Director nominee who is both black and female.

Still, filmmaking is an art, not a science, and I don’t think the Academy is required to honor specific segments of our population, no matter how worthy their stories or how large their demographic share. The idea that racial diversity among nominees is obligatory is one that rubs me the wrong way. And leads me in some rather weird mental directions.

Let’s see whether this year’s slate can be considered in any way “diverse.” Looking at the glamour categories, I notice immediately that some minority groups have actually had a banner year. Take performers who are British subjects. Two of them (Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch) are up for Best Actor, and two more (Felicity Jones and Rosamund Pike) for  Best Actress. (The latter even had the nerve to play, convincingly, an All-American femme fatale.) Let’s add Keira Knightley for her supporting role in The Imitation Game and it’s clear that this year’s American party could well have a English accent.  

Then let’s think about old guys. We know Hollywood is a town that favors youth. But both Michael Keaton and J.K. Simmons are in their sixties, while Robert Duvall is a sprightly 84. We also know it’s rare for beloved comic actors to be honored for playing deadly serious dramatic roles: hello, Steve Carell!  And check out the Best Director category, which boasts not one but two Texans: Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson. Not to mention one Norwegian, surely a first.

Along with ethnic minorities, other groups can complain that they’ve been overlooked this year. Like little girls. Leaving out Quvenzhané Wallis (Annie) means neglecting an African-American but also a child actor. And there’s been no Oscar love this time around for performers who starved off a lot of weight for their art. So Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler) will not be following Matthew McConaughey’s path to glory. Motion-capture star Andy Serkis (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) was also ignored once again. And though Foxcatcher nabbed several big nominations, none went to a hunk who was once a male stripper (Channing Tatum).   

I can understand the bitter gripes of African-Americans, though. Why are they only cast in stories in which racial tension plays a central role? Why can’t they, for instance, go Into the Woods? Quvenzhané Wallis as Little Red Riding Hood, anyone?