Oscars Lowdown 2014: Best Production Design – Will ‘Gatsby’ bling its way to the win?

02.25.14 4 years ago 11 Comments

In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!

As in Best Costume Design — the category with which its outcome so frequently goes hand-in-hand — ornamental period pieces and extravagant fantasies tend to dominate the Best Production Design category. So it's nice that the Academy gave us a fairly varied field this year: period pieces may still make up the majority of the field, but one is of a recent vintage, while the others could hardly be more opposed in their approach to days of year. Meanwhile, neither the futuristic fantasy nor the hi-tech outer-space adventure are as excessively designed as you might expect from nominees in this race. Moreover, for the first time since the ADG created three separate categories, all the Guild winners are represented here.

The nominees are…

“American Hustle” (Judy Becker; Heather Loeffler)
I'm pleased Becker and Loeffler made the cut, since this is the kind of artfully ugly 1970s evocation that can often miss with a branch that tends to like their design work either perfectly pretty or super-slick — that miss for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” two years ago being a good example. Bar the hideous, literally gilded suburban birdcage constructed for Jennifer Lawrence's trophy wife, the sets of “Hustle” aren't as flashy or knowingly gaudy as Michael Wilkinson's costumes, but Becker does revel in the oppressive textures of dark wood panelling, flock wallpaper and grimly practical office furniture of the era — while no smaller detail, be it chunky beige telephone, over-aspiration modernist painting or early science oven, is neglected. It's the least attractive work here, which probably makes it the least likely to triumph, but a worthy nominee. (Check out our interview with Becker here.)

“Gravity” (Andy Nicholson; Rosie Goodwin and Joanne Woollard)
The production designers' branch has been quite open to digitally augmented work in recent years, as exemplified particularly by Robert Stromberg's back-to-back wins for “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland.” So it's not technical uncertainly that Nicholson, Goodwin and Woollard (nominated 26 years ago for far more old-school work on “Hope and Glory”) have to overcome so much as voters' inclinations toward more fanciful work — “Gravity's” space-station recreations could hardly be more intricate, exacting or authentic, and deserve a significant amount of credit for the film's tactile immersiveness, but they are neither fantastical nor especially decorative. So convincing are they, in fact, that some voters may even forget to observe them as a feat of design. The Art Directors' Guild gave Nicholson their Fantasy award, which isn't really the correct classification; an Oscar win, is quite possible if many many voters are wowed into checking if off across all technical categories.

“The Great Gatsby” (Catherine Martin; Beverly Dunn)
Still, if it's razzle-dazzle they want, they need look no further than Catherine Martin's latest high-style playground for her husband Baz Luhrmann's imagination. (Now in glorious 3D!) We're already predicting another win for Martin in the Costume Design category, and she looks likely to win here for much the same reason: it's the most ostentatious, most expensive-looking, most most work in the category. (That's Martin's M.O.: first nominated in this category for “Romeo + Juliet,” Martin won for “Moulin Rouge!”) Hers is a stylized, blinged-up evocation of the Jazz Age that is less authentic period recreation than reflection of contemporary excess, but that interpretation didn't bother Guild or BAFTA voters, and the Academy should be similarly impressed by its sprawling polo lawns, Art Nouveau swimming pools, teeming plates of petit fours and bustling, pop-up book vision of New York City. Interesting aside: while the 1974 “Gatsby” also won for its costumes, it wasn't even nominated here. (Check out our interview with Martin here.)

“Her” (K.K. Barrett; Gene Serdena)
You could hardly ask for a nominee in starker contrast to “The Great Gatsby” than the sleek, subtle futurism of K.K. Barrett's work on “Her,” which the Guild rewarded in its Contemporary category. (Strictly speaking, it's a fantasy; “Gravity” and “Her” should arguably have swapped awards.) As much in the minimalist interiors of Joaquin Phoenix's apartment as the larger, streamlined urban spaces of its exterior scenes — not to mention carefully thought-out details like the evolved-smartphone design of the titular OS — the film's vision of the near future is both alluringly alien and entirely plausible; the continued influence of IKEA flatpack culture is evident in Barrett's designs, but so is the encroaching global influence of Asian architecture, industrial design and urban planning. It's ingenious work that I'm pleasantly surprised was nominated in the first place; after remarkable work on the likes of “Lost in Translation,” “Where the Wild Things Are” and even “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” Barrett's first nomination was well overdue. (Check out our interview with Barrett here.)

“12 Years a Slave” (Adam Stockhausen; Alice Baker)
Last year, the Academy threw us a bit of a curveball in this category: faced with a couple of lavishly ornate or technologically advanced contenders, they opted instead for the somber, hand-crafted restraint of “Lincoln,” the most historically convincing nominee. If they're in a similar mood this year, Stockhausen and Baker's immaculately textured, weathered-looking 19th-century sets for “12 Years a Slave” could be just the ticket — particularly if voters picking it for Best Picture wish to pad out its win count a bit. A brilliant designer better known for his more whimsical work with Wes Anderson, Stockhausen ensures audiences can feel every creaking floorboard, every peeling flake of paint in Steve McQueen's slavery drama, also delineating the clear social and economical divide between North and South. It's work that looks faded by necessity.

Will win: “The Great Gatsby”
Could win: “12 Years a Slave”
Should win: “Her”
Should have been here: “The Conjuring”

I like this field a great deal, both on a nominee-by-nominee basis and as a rounded, contrasting collective, so it's hard to say anything should specifically have been left out. But in a perfect world, genre reservations would not have kept Julie Berghoff's seemingly shape-shifting timber funhouse of horrors for “The Conjuring” out of the conversation. And Jess Gonchor's work on both “The Lone Ranger” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” underlined that he's among the wittiest, most versatile designers in the business.

What do you think deserves to win Best Production Design this year? Vote in the poll below.

How do you think this race will pan out, and which contender do you wish were here? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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