As someone who tracks the awards season for at least part of a living, it goes without saying that I’ve said some geeky things in my time. And few have been geekier than my involuntary exclamation, while discussing the Oscar prospects for “The Artist” with a colleague last week, along the lines of: “I just hope to God it gets a Best Costume Design nomination!” My colleague looked understandably flummoxed: even allowing for my keener-than-average interest in the technical categories, it seems a peculiarly specific wish. The 1920s threads in “The Artist” are top-notch, of course, as is every craft aspect of the handsome monochrome period piece. Why this category?
The answer lies not in the clothes as much as the man behind them. Costume designer Mark Bridges is one of the very best in his field, a singular artist whose imagination is equally fired by contemporary and period settings, whose visual wit and personality shine through even in projects that aren’t obvious sartorial showcases. Over two decades in Hollywood, his designs have graced everything from austere Paul Thomas Anderson dramas to fluffy teen comedies to a Cirque du Soleil special, and he has precisely zero Oscar nominations to show for it.
On the surface, this seems surprising: Bridges has been previously nominated by the Costume Designers’ Guild, consistently works on high-profile titles (including two recent Best Picture nominees) and is adept with period garb, which is what the Academy seems to think counts for 90% of award-worthy costuming. The trouble, however, is that Bridges has excelled in the eras that voters in this category find least interesting: he’s a genius with the fashions of late 20th-century America, which feature rather too few corsets and ruffles for Oscar’s liking.
Bridges’s first nomination (and, arguably, win) should have come in 1997 for “Boogie Nights,” in which his swirling wardrobe of day-glo synthetics and lurid plaids not only pinned down the decay of the 1970s, but marked multiple characters’ wild emotional swings. He nailed this trash-fab era again in the so-so cocaine-biz biopic “Blow,” in which Penelope Cruz’s flammable, candy-colored shellsuits were virtual characters in themselves — the Guild paid appropriate respect with a nomination in their period category, but the Academy hadn’t the sense of humor to go there.
For several consecutive features, he channelled his talents into contemporary work, subtly in “8 Mile,” playfully in “Punch-Drunk Love” and nomination-calibre hilariously in “I Heart Huckabees,” until dipping again into oddball period waters with “Fur” and “There Will Be Blood.” The latter, extending a happy career-long collaboration with Anderson, seemed a good potential vehicle for a first Oscar nomination, but his costumes for the turn-of-the-century oilfields epic were too appropriately drab and dust-dredged to spark imaginations in that spectacle-dominated category.
I over-optimistically thought his day might have come earlier this year, when the Guild once again stood up for his inspired work in a modern-period piece: his delicious, point-on evocation of early-90s strip-mall wardrobes in “The Fighter,” ranging from Christian Bale’s tatty Hammer pants to Melissa Leo’s sequinned, one-shade-too-small boob tubes to Mark Wahlberg’s overstarched dress shirt, made for the strongest costume design candidate of 2010, but naturally the Academy couldn’t find room: Sandy Powell’s curious assemblage of zips, tinsel and fish scales for “The Tempest” couldn’t go unsung.
This year, however, I’m letting myself get my hopes up once more. Bridges has never been attached to an Oscar frontrunner quite as well-engineered as “The Artist,” and this time he’s working in a period groove the branch is all too happy to recognize: the undiluted glamor and sparkle of 1920s Hollywood, with its plethora of jewel-dripped gowns and immaculately tailored suits. It’s perhaps not the most definitive work of his career, but it’s consummately detailed and infused with quirk, while working with black-and-white serves up some exciting design challenges that shouldn’t go ignored.
The LA Times recently profiled Bridges’s work in the film; there he reveals his own longstanding passion for silent cinema, explains some of the difficulties he faced in recreating the precise silhouettes of the era:
“George [Jean Dujardin] is a composite of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert – the small mustache and the dark hair… And for Peppy [Bérénice Bejo], we relied on a young Joan Crawford and a little bit of Clara Bow. I looked at their films to see how young and fresh they were – they were the epitome of flapper. You could see how easy the clothes really were, with hardly any foundations… Still, it was difficult – from a practical standpoint – to re-create this time period with so many of the materials not available anymore. With the advance of central heating, wools have become so much lighter. The biggest challenge was finding things that would really feel authentic to the ’20s.”
With The Weinstein Company angling for a wide spread of nods for the French-made silent wonder, one can hardly call his nomination a sure thing — the power of Harvey somehow failed to net “Inglourious Basterds” a mention in this category two years ago — but he’s never had more going for him.