Tech Support: Period pieces from ‘Hugo’ to ‘W.E.’ stand out for Best Costume Design

Every Oscar evening, the fashion police are out in full force grilling the (usually female) stars on their choice of attire as they march across the red carpet. Seldom, though, is so much attention paid to the individuals who designed the clothes that made the stars look so good on screen. However, excellent costume design can immeasurably impact the quality of a film.

It is worth noting, though, that good costume design does not necessarily equate to making the star “look good.” Indeed, clothes are able to express a character in numerous ways, many of them extremely subtle, building the character through how he or she dresses, including possibly making the actor look run-down or impoverished.

That said, the Oscar for Best Costume Design does tend to award showy, extravagant work. Period pieces account for the overwhelming majority of nominees, with fantasy efforts comprising almost all of the rest. Rarely is a contemporary film nominated.

The branch makes room for at least one first-time nominee every year (2002 being a notable exception), though certain names show up very regularly indeed. Sandy Powell and Colleen Atwood are the most rewarded designers in recent years.

One thing that does make the costumers fairly unique among the Academy”s branches is a willingness to look beyond the perceived “quality” of a film in general. While being a Best Picture contender obviously doesn’t hurt a film’s chances, there is usually at least one nominee in this category every year, and often more, who is the sole representative of his or her film. Many of these films are very divisive and/or of questionable quality – “The Tempest,” “Australia” and “Marie Antoinette” are but a few examples from recent years. Other “cool” choices (“I am Love,” for example) can pop up and surprise from time to time.

Even though I sometimes strongly disagree with this category”s nominees, I salute the branch for doing what few of the other branches are willing to do: look beyond how much the film is liked overall and assess the quality of the work they are supposed to reward.

With all of that said, the best bet this year seems to have the combination of period plus fantasy plus prestigious director plus prestigious costume designer. I am talking, of course, about Sandy Powell”s threads on Martin Scorsese”s upcoming “Hugo.”  The nine-time nominee/three-time winner won this category for Scorsese”s “The Aviator” and I suspect she”ll have a field day with this effort. If it even scores in only two categories, I expect this to be one (Best Art Direction being the other).

The other candidate I feel quite confident about is Sharen Davis for “The Help.”  Davis, nominated for both “Ray” and “Dreamgirls,” contrasted all elements and classes of Mississippi life in the early 1960s in this big summer hit. I fully expect at least two acting nominations for the film, with Best Picture being quite likely to follow. In these circumstances, I”d be surprised if Davis also wasn”t nominated.

The other Best Picture contender I feel will find a home here is “The Artist,” which brings us back to Old Hollywood and required classy work from Mark Bridges. Bridges has an eclectic resume, having done interesting work for both David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson over the years. This will likely be his best chance to date to earn a nomination and, if the film catches on and its crafts are respected (as I suspect will be the case), I think he”ll find himself among the final five.

In the realm of titles still to be seen is Clint Eastwood”s “J. Edgar,” with Deborah Hopper doing duty once again for the director. Hopper likely just missed out on a nomination in this category for “Changeling” three years ago, and this film gives her the opportunity to create the upper echelons of American society across decades. It seems her best chance to date, at least on paper.

Steven Spielberg”s “War Horse” will also feature period costume, mostly military outfits in a World War I setting. This film has huge potential across the crafts categories, and this is no exception. It is true that Joanna Johnston hasn”t had a lot of luck with AMPAS to date, and costume design is not the favored category of war films. Even so, if the film is a Best Picture contender, I would expect to see nominations in various places and Johnston has been doing good work, usually for Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, for a long time.

Jacqueline Durran managed to earn two very deserved nominations in the last decade for Joe Wright”s “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement.”  On “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” she will be crafting the world of George Smiley, very period but not quite as showy. I think that lack of showiness will pose problems. However, the film seems very respected. So if the Academy goes for it in a big way (which I wouldn”t count on but it is certainly possible), Durran could end up with a third trip to the Kodak.

Denise Cronenberg has lived in the shadow of her famous brother for many years. Despite her lack of fame, she has always been a very reliable costume designer. Her work on “A Dangerous Method” is likely her best shot for AMPAS love to date. I remain unsure of how well this film will do with the Academy – I could easily see it being shut out. That said, if they”re ever going to cite her, I”m not sure they”ll have a better opportunity than this recreation of early 20th Century garb donned by German-speaking psychologists (and their troubled patients).

In the realm of “cool,” Anna B. Sheppard and Jeffrey Kurland did top-notch work on “Captain America: The First Avenger” this summer. I”m practically certain they”ll receive a guild nomination in the fantasy department. Despite their (limited) past history as Oscar nominees, however, I still don”t really see this title sailing through to the finish line. I”d love to be proven wrong, however, and am mentioning them as a result.

Returning to Old Hollywood for a moment, we also have Jill Taylor”s work on “My Week with Marilyn.”  The film seems to be divisive. However, as I said at the beginning, that doesn”t always matter. Taylor has done some interesting contemporary work (“Match Point,” for instance) and there”s no doubting that this film will showcase some fashionable attire.

“Jane Eyre” is a classic story, the most recent retelling of which received very positive reviews earlier in the year. Nonetheless, categories in which I would expect it to survive to the end of the year are not plentiful. Best Costume Design would appear to be one, as this is the sort of film favored by this branch. If it scores anywhere, expect it to be here. Designer Michael O”Connor won this award three years ago for “The Duchess,” set in roughly the same time period.

If we”re looking for films that could be sole representatives of their films, I wouldn”t rule out Eiko Ishioka (Oscar winner for “Dracula”) and Simoneta Mariano for “Immortals.”  Tarsem Singh”s two previous films (“The Fall” and “The Cell”) had very original costumes and I expect this effort to be no different. That said, despite the costume branch”s tendency to be more original than many other branches, this film may be a bust and/or not taken seriously by anyone.

Finally, I should mention a film that I dare you not to laugh about: Madonna”s “W.E.”  While the film is, by most counts, dreadful (though I should note that I have not seen it), I”ve been reminding you that that doesn”t always matter in this category. Arianne Phillips is an Oscar nominee for “Walk the Line” and this sort of costuming (high society, low society, 1930s) is regularly recognized by this branch. I”m not betting on a nomination but I wouldn”t write one off yet. (I notice Kris and Guy are both predicting a nod!)

That ends my look at Best Costume Design. Next week, we turn to a very different branch: The film editors.

Feel free to chime in with your thoughts on the costume design category below. It”s certainly possible a nominee (or two) isn”t even mentioned above!