Saturday, February 4, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Costume Design

Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie, nominated for Best Costume Design.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Costume Design

The nominees are:

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
La La Land

An interesting divergence has taken place in this category the last 10 or so years. From 1996-2003, six of the eight winners in this category also won Best Picture. Since then, only one of 12 has taken home both awards, The Artist in 2011. What’s more, the eventual Best Picture winner has earned a nomination in only two of those 12 years with The King’s Speech in 2010 joining The Artist on that list.

It poses the question: What has caused this shift? The answer seems to be the Academy started in 2004 rewarding a different type of film for Best Picture. Instead of big, costume epics like Shakespeare in Love, Gladiator, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, smaller, more intimate human dramas such as Million Dollar Baby, Crash, and The Hurt Locker started winning the top prize. Great films all, but hard to site for their costume work.

How this shift took place is harder to say and probably a question for another day. The point as it pertains to today’s column is Costume Design has become something of a wild card at the Oscars. The Academy’s fickle tastes have taken it everywhere from Wonderland to 1920s Hollywood to post-apocalyptic Australia. You just do not know what is going to happen, except in a year like this, when you think you do.

La La LandLa La Land joins a long list of musicals to find favor in this category – just in the past few years, Into the Woods, Les Miserables, and Nine, among others – but it is a rare bird in that its plumage is contemporary. We talked a lot yesterday about anti-contemporary bias in Production Design, but it is nearly as bad in the Costume Design category. However, La La Land engenders such love it makes one overlook such issues.

Costume designer Mary Zophres could just as easily and probably ought to have been a double nominee for this and her remarkable work on Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar!. Zophres has worked with the Coens since 1996, when she designed the costumes for Fargo, and she earned her only previous nomination for their True Grit in 2010. Her designs here are a classic movie musical look – repeating patterns, color for character, and a generally light, breezy Southern California chic, all the better for dancing. She is perfectly keyed in to writer-director Damien Chazelle’s aesthetic, and her work seamlessly contributes to the film’s effortless flow.

Jackie – Jacqueline Kennedy is the kind of character that sucks all the air out of a room. Her presence alone demands attention. She is, of course, the center of attention in this eponymous film. What becomes interesting in watching Jackie, which concerns mostly the days surrounding John F. Kennedy’s assassination, is how impossible it is to change one’s aura. Even mired in the worst tragedy of her life, Jackie Kennedy cannot help but embody the Jacqueline Kennedy image.

Among everything else she was, she was a style icon, and that is not lost on the filmmakers, including necessarily costume designer Madeline Fontaine. This is Fontaine’s first Oscar nomination, though she is highly regarded in France, where she has been nominated for eight Caesar Awards (the French Oscars) and won two. She does not shy away from the Jacqueline Kennedy iconography and plays instead on everything we think we know about the First Lady. An interesting side note: One of Fontaine’s earliest gigs as costume designer was for a little-seen French film called Kennedy et Moi, which tells of a French writer who becomes obsessed with John F. Kennedy.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – One place where this spinoff film has a leg up on its parent franchise, at least in terms of potential Oscar recognition here, is in its setting. While the Harry Potter series is set in a magical version of our world, the contemporary styles sported by most of the leads did little to distinguish their characters. Only the first film in the franchise, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone for my non-American friends), garnered recognition for its costumes. On the other hand, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them benefits from its 1920s New York City setting, giving the costume department lots of room to play and experiment.

It also helps to have costume designer extraordinaire Colleen Atwood on your side. Atwood has 12 Academy Award nominations to her name, and she has won three times, for Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Alice in Wonderland. A legend in the industry and beloved by her peers, Atwood can never be counted out for a win, and her work here blending the drab realities of 1920s New York with the magical alternate reality certainly is deserving.

Florence Foster Jenkins – It is undeniable Meryl Streep goes through a lot of costume changes in this movie. The high-society music maven loved her outlandish clothes as much as she loved to sing, and her self-confident flamboyance in both arenas would be difficult to match. Ms. Jenkins did nothing small, and her fashions were no different. The sheer volume of costumes in this film makes it an easy play for the Academy, featuring in addition to the dozens of Streep wardrobes, numerous scenes of halls packed with music patrons all dressed to the nines in the fashions of the day (mid-1940s).

Nominated costume designer Consolata Boyle has developed something of a specialty designing for strong, steadfast, older women. Her one previous nomination came for The Queen, which she followed later with The Iron Lady, Philomena, and Florence Foster Jenkins. Next on the docket is Victoria and Abdul, featuring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria, so you know, well on brand. Boyle’s work here is, as ever, solid, but it suffers from comparison to the more nuanced, thematically rich designs of its fellow nominees.

Allied As classic a nominee as you will find in this category this year, Robert Zemeckis’ World War II spy thriller is a throwback in every way. It is shooting for Casablanca-style romantic grandeur, and while its charismatic leads (Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard) do a lot of heavy lifting, they cannot make up for the film’s flimsy plot and unearned drama. Whatever story failures the film has, though, Zemeckis is nothing if not an expert world builder when it comes to crafts, bringing on some of the best in the business to design his universes.

Costume designer Joanna Johnston is one of his most frequent collaborators, and for folks of a certain age, she is a designer of dreams. The self-tying Nikes and self-adjusting jacket in Back to the Future Part II? Johnston. The pulpy noir threads of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Johnston. Forrest Gump’s iconic white suit? Johnston. She also took a turn at Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and helped Steven Spielberg storm Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan.

Remarkably, she has been nominated only once before, for Spielberg’s Lincoln. Her designs for Allied are sleek, memorable, and instantly recognizable within the film’s aesthetic, simultaneously calling out for attention and blending back into the narrative.

The final analysis

I made the mistake last year of believing the flashiest work would win out over the crafts juggernaut. If a film has momentum, that is all it really takes to overcome whatever preconceived notions or biases the Academy may have. That means while something like Allied or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them could and likely would win this category in another year, you cannot stop a moving train. La La Land is that train, and it will scoop this award up along the tracks.

Will win: La La Land
Should win: Jackie:
Should have been here: The Dressmaker

Tomorrow: Best Makeup and Hairstyling

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