Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Costume Design

Katherine Waterston, pictured in an instantly iconic dress, stars in Inherent Vice.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Costume Design

The nominees are:

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

When it comes to the Academy voting on the below-the-line categories, “best” often equates to “most.” Nowhere is that more true than in the Best Costume Design category. Big, flashy period epics with loads of extras dressed up in era-appropriate attire tend to win this award. The more costumes a film has and the fancier they are, the better that film’s chances of winning.

Add to that the fact that the costume designers comprise a fairly insular branch that often nominates and rewards the same people, and you have a recipe for sometimes bland and uninspiring nominations. Case in point, in this group, there are four previous winners, including two designers with three Oscars each, and a triple nominee. This is not to say this year’s nominees are not deserving, only that it is sometimes hard for new talent on less heralded films to sneak into the ceremony.

As pertains to this year, every nominee is for a period film, which is a disappointment, to say the least. You would think if anyone could recognize the amazing, character-defining costume work in modern-set films such as Frank, Nightcrawler, and Gone Girl, it would be the costume designers. Not so, and year after year, they fall for flashy, fancy, fantasy work. That said, one of my favorite nominations of the year came in this category, so we will start there.

Inherent Vice – The closest thing to modern in this year’s lineup, costume designer Mark Bridge’s 1970s-inspired outfits for this stoner detective story are thread perfect. Set in Southern California in the early ’70s, right as the hippie movement is dying out and hardline conservatism is coming into fashion, Bridge’s costumes evoke both the breezy, laid-back feel of the locale and the clashing ideals of two diametrically opposed political factions.

For Joaquin Phoenix’s private eye Doc Sportello, Bridges keeps things light and airy, giving the character button-up shirts that are too big and never buttoned all the way up, wrinkled khakis and long shorts, and a hat that would be more in fashion at the beach or the dog track than during a kidnapping investigation. On the flipside of that is Josh Brolin’s policeman Bigfoot Bjornsen. He is the law. He is order. He sports a suit and tie at all times, even in his home. The collar is starched, and the top button is always buttoned.

If you are looking for iconography, there is the femme fatale Shasta Hepworth, played by Katherine Waterston, whose tight-fitting orange dress could be a statement unto itself. That woman, in that dress, walking through that door, can only spell trouble for Doc. We know the story, we know the history, and thanks to one article of clothing, we know the character.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Costume designer Milena Canonero’s work here checks off pretty much every box of the Academy’s likes: fantastical period designs in a widely loved Best Picture nominee. Canonero has won three Oscars in her career – for Marie Antoinette, Chariots of Fire, and Barry Lyndon – and she looks to be well on her way to collecting a fourth, which would place her in rare air. Only three other designers have won at least four Academy Awards and none with as few nominations as Canonero, who is a nine-time nominee.

Just like the film itself, her work on The Grand Budapest Hotel is acutely mannered and highly stylized. Nothing in this movie could be mistaken for real. Rather, the designs serve as impressionist symbols meant to evoke a mood, not a reality. Characters with similar aims always match. The bad guys all wear black, the good guys wear pinks and purples, and the dreary arm of the law is clad in gray. On their own, the designs are quite impressive, and in the context of the film, they slide seamlessly into the world director Wes Anderson creates.

Mr. Turner – Sliding to the other end of the scale, we have the relentlessly real and almost oppressively drab designs of Mr. Turner. Costume designer Jacqueline Durrand, a four-time nominee and winner for Anna Karenina, creates a Dickensian world of dust and dirt in which nothing is clean and nothing ever looks new. Black and brown dominate the color palate of the film as a whole, and Durrand’s designs fit that world like a white velvet glove.

As a member of high society and the cultural elite, JMW Turner (Timohty Spall) would have been expected to dress to the nines for nearly every occasion, be it a gallery opening, lunch with friends, or even a vacation. The costumes are all big coats, tight vests, and top hats. Despite being a bit dark and dank overall, the works feels right within the atmosphere of the film, and Durrand’s handsome work certainly belongs with this group of nominees.

Into the Woods – Speaking of dark and dank, I present Disney’s Into the Woods, a reimagining of several different fairytales set in a dreary universe that is more classic Grimm than Disney princess. Colleen Atwood has more Academy Award nominations than any living costume designer with 11, and like Canonero, she has won three times. Atwood is an absolute treasure, and many of her designs have proven instantly iconic such as her work on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Edward Scissorhands. Compared against the rest of her career, this is minor work from Atwood.

There is nothing wrong with Atwood’s designs on the film, per se. It is just that for a story about princes and princesses set in a magical fantasy realm of giants and anthropomorphic wolves, the costumes are a little bland and uninspiring. The problem is that director Rob Marshall created such a boring world in which to play. Atwood is an imaginative and inventive designer, but Into the Woods lacks either of those qualities, and as such, her efforts are hampered.

Maleficent – Anna Sheppard is a three-time nominee in this category but is also the only non-winner in this group. It looks likely to stay that way. Other than the iconic horns on Angelina Jolie’s title character, there is nothing that truly stands out as spectacular about the costume design of Maleficent. Again, the costumers’ branch seems to have fallen hard for the combination of period and fantasy and nominated a just-okay example of the form.

Sheppard’s work is good. The character styles are well thought out and intricate, the designs are fun, and the iconography is intact. I just wish the costumers could look beyond this kind of big, showy work that looks good at first glance but does not really exist beyond the surface of the character, a weird request, to be sure, of costume design.

The final analysis

For all the reasons outlined above, Canonero should win this is a walk, but Atwood is a legend in the industry, and I am probably in the minority when it comes to my opinion of the world of Into the Woods. I wish Inherent Vice were in the conversation, but against the more fantastical work of the other contenders, it would be hard for it to stand out. The smart money says Canonero will benefit from all the below-the-line love coming to The Grand Budapest Hotel and will likely win her fourth award.

Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: Inherent Vice
Wish it had been here: Frank

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