Friday, February 14, 2020

Sketch to Screen-- Hollywood's Oscar Nominees Talk Costuming

By the time you read this, the 2020 Oscar results will be in the books, and  the world will know who has taken home the golden statuette for Best Costume Design . Could it be Mark Bridges, who outfitted the Joker in his wine-red suit? Or Jacqueline Durran, for her color-coded gowns reflecting the prim nineteenth century world of Little Women? Perhaps the winners were Christopher Peterson and fifteen-time nominee Sandy Powell, joining forces on the 6,000 period costumes needed for The Irishman. Or Mayes C. Rubeo, a first-time nominee who made a big impact on a small budget (I loved those telltale spectator pumps) with Jojo Rabbit. Or maybe Arianne Phillips, who captured the Hawaiian shirts and the laid-back styles of 1969 for One Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.

Sitting at my computer on the morning of the Oscar ceremony, I didn’t know who had triumphed. But I was thinking back to a very special event I attended on Saturday, February 8. Called “Sketch to Screen,” it was a celebration of costume design, sponsored by UCLA’s David C. Copley Center for Costume Design, along with Swarovski, the crystal company that is now enjoying its 125th year in business. The highlight of the afternoon was a spirited panel led by UCLA professor and costume historian Deborah Nadoolman, herself an Oscar nominee for the over-the-top designs in Coming to America. All six of this year’s nominees were present on-stage, and Nadoolman’s smart questions led them to reflect in colorful terms on their profession.

All agreed that costumes are essential contributions to Best Actor and Best Actress performances. Why? Because appropriate clothing and footwear help performers connect with the time and place their characters are supposed to inhabit. Beyond this, they help the actors shape their characters’ approach to life. Said the always articulate Nadoolman, “We give actors the clothes; the actors give the world the performance.” Generally lead actors are part of the discussions about their costumes, and  try them on far enough in advance to incorporate their look and feel as they create their characterizations. But sometimes the costume is the first thing that introduces an actor to his or her part. Arianne Phillips remembers one low-budget quickie for which Malcolm McDowell admitted he hadn’t had time to read the script: the clothing she’d designed provided his first instructive glimpse of the man he was supposed to be.

The panelists all admitted they were bothered when actors insisted on comfortable modern footwear (like, for instance, ugg boots) hidden beneath period finery. The story was told about how director Stephen Frears, shooting Dangerous Liaisons in 1988, allowed Michelle Pfeiffer to wear her own cowboy boots underneath her 18th century gowns. This may have put her at ease, and but it also affected her gait on screen in a way that was far from appropriate.

Of course no one expects 100% fidelity to the hugely constricting styles of the past. And there are times, for the purposes of artistry and character exploration, when designers deviate from strict fidelity to period dress. Sandy Powell, whose designs for last year’s The Favourite were deliberately eccentric, insists, “We’re not making documentaries.”

Sometimes, though, an authentic fabric or ornament establishes the reality of an outfit. For Brad Pitt’s role in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, Phillips located a massive vintage belt buckle that proclaimed its wearer a proud member of the Stuntmen’s Association. This buckle, along with Hawaiian shirts, jeans, and moccasins, helped turn Pitt’s Cliff Booth into a cool customer whom audiences, and award-giving bodies, have loved.
OK, now the results are in. Congratulations to Jackie Durran for her award-winning designs – period frocks with deliberately modern touches -- for the four March sisters

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