This year’s Oscar nominations for best costume design didn’t surprise me much because there weren’t many films to choose from – 2018 wasn’t a year for genres that lend themselves to costume design. I can only think of three other films that could have been nominated: BlacKKKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, and, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.
Only one nomination surprised me and that was Mary Zophres for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I was surprised because I had never heard of this Coen brothers film. Turns out it was a Netflix release, so I watched it last night and the costuming was fine but nothing made my heart race because of its artistic vision or authentic recreation. In fact, the costuming was loose – sometimes made for comedic effect and at other times for authenticity. The part about the wagon train, pictured above, is supposed to be set some time just after 1872, according to a conversation in the film, but the costuming looks earlier, and wagon trains were pretty much done by the Civil War.
Mary Queen of Scots, costumed by Alexandra Byrne, and The Favourite, costumed by Sandy Powell, are both beautiful looking films but they distort history by ignoring authenticity. Both these stories are about actual people and actual events, but in these days of ‘truthiness’ and alternative facts there is little regard for authenticity (and so help me God I will smack the first person who says ‘but it’s not a documentary’.)
Don’t get me wrong, the costumes are beautiful. If either of these films had been plays at our local Stratford Festival I would have thrilled over the costumes. But these aren’t festival stage plays, they are multi-million dollar films with teams of professionals, celebrities, location shoots, and time to take and retake scenes until they are perfect… They squandered the opportunity to make something more than just a pretty pastiche based on a colour palette and mood board.
Sandy Powell was also nominated for The Return of Mary Poppins. The only film I have yet to see, but what I saw in trailers and stills looks fine. This is a musical fantasy, so the costuming can be whatever the designer and the Disney/Mary Poppins universe wants.
The final nominee is Ruth Carter for Black Panther. I am not a ‘super-hero’ genre fan (unless it has a talking raccoon), and I thought this movie was particularly awful, although the costuming was the best part of the movie (it was the plot and dialogue I hated.) Ruth Carter, who is somewhat new to costume design, shopped all of Africa for design inspiration and left no tool in her bag when she created the costumes. There were ‘too many notes’ in the cluttered designs as well as some cheap fabric choices – a white athleisure net dress, and some baggy kneed leggings on the female guards come to mind – so not my favourite…
I will make no prediction of who will win this year because I don’t know – I guess Mary Poppins would be my choice if I had to pick from the nominations, but if I could pick who I think did amazing work I would have to go with the un-nominated Jenny Beavan for her costuming in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.
Added February 25: And congratulations to Ruth Carter for Black Panther. I thought her clothes were too cluttered with extant cultural references, but she did create a whole new style universe for her characters, so the end product was original work.