Friday, August 20, 2021

Edith Head Doesn’t Wear Plaid

You’ve got to hand it to Steve Martin. He’s game for anything, from outrageous interracial buffoonery (The Jerk) to an update of Rostand’s 19th century classic, Cyrano de Bergerac (Roxanne). He writes plays too, including a sophisticated meditation on the meaning of genius, as seen in a confab between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein (Picasso at the Lapin Agile). In modern art circles, he’s known as a savvy collector and enthusiast. And, of course, he’s been acclaimed for seriously championing the blue-grass banjo.

 What works for Martin on-camera (and on-stage) is the clash between his straight-arrow looks and the visual insanity he can deliver. Sporting a well-tailored suit, and with his grey locks neatly coiffed, he looks like a banker. That’s why it’s doubly funny when, as in the priceless All of Me, he goes berserk, galloping madly off in all directions. I love that film, as well as  many others in Martin’s canon, but it took COVID (and a recent steady diet of film noir) to induce me to see Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. That 1982 film, which also involved the talents of the late, great Carl Reiner, is a spoof of classic detective thrillers from the good old days when men were men, women were dames, and movies were black & white.

 Reiner, Martin, and company cleverly built their plot around interpolated footage from old thrillers, finding a way to have Martin’s character converse (in tough-guy detective-eze) with everyone from Bette Davis to Jimmy Cagney, from a panicky Barbara Stanwyck (in a clip from Sorry, Wrong Number) to a woozy Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend) to a stoic Burt Lancaster (The Killers). Walter Neff, the leading character played by Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, turns out to play a key role in Martin’s case, which involves the murder of a prominent scientist and cheese-maker. And when Martin’s detective character needs extra hands on the job, he calls in Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart), who provides him with tips over the telephone.

  It’s a triumph of film editing, as well as a project that calls on the talents of art directors and others who can bring off the look of 1940s noir. In the case of costume design, the artistic team hit the jackpot by hiring Edith Head, in what was to be her very last film. The eight-time Oscar winner, who had become famous in 1937 for designing Dorothy Lamour’s sarong, knew just how to outfit Martin and his femme-fatale client (Rachel Ward) in clothes of the era, including a snappy fedora for him and a wow of a picture-hat for her. After all, the 433 films on which Head is credited include such Forties classics as The Lost Weekend, Sorry, Wrong Number, and Double Indemnity.

 I remember once, as a UCLA grad student in the Young Library stacks, putting aside my research to speed-read Head’s fascinating 1959 memoir, The Dress Doctor. It describes her life in Hollywood, designing costumes for glamorous stars with shaky egos. To make clear she was NOT competing with her famous clients, Head smartly decided to play down her own appearance. That’s why she settled on a distinctive but drab look: huge owlish glasses, prim suits, heavy bangs. Her schoolmarmish choices for herself instantly made it clear: this lady meant business. (I also learned from the book something it’s nice to keep in mind: no celebrity, however gorgeous, is without figure flaws that must be camouflaged by clever design.)

 Today Edith Head is gone but not forgotten. See Pixar’s The Incredibles, where pint-sized designer Edna Mode is made in her image.  




  1. As a kid I used to see Edith fairly regularly on the afternoon Art Linkletter show. As a kid she was a mystery but as I got older I realized how important her role was in making great films greater. Bob.

  2. I remember that Art Linkletter show, Bob. My sister was even on it. And, yes, I remember Edith Head too. I've met many Hollywood legends, but sadly I never got to meet her. Thanks so much for visiting Beverly in Movieland.