2019 was a good year for costume films. A plethora of period, fantasy and sci fi films streamed online, and through the theatres: Downton Abbey, Harriet, Dolemite is my name, 1917, The Highwaymen, Rocketman, Judy, Dumbo, Aladdin, Star Wars, Maleficent, Captain Marvel, Avengers Endgame… even complete crap films like The Aeronauts and Cats had one saving grace – their costuming.
So I knew it was going to be an interesting mix of nominees and three were not a surprise: The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Jojo Rabbit.
The 60s and 70s ‘Jersey chic’ of middle class mobster families was dead on in The Irishman. IMDB credits both Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson as the costumers. Powell has scores of nominations for her film work including three Oscar wins for costuming The Young Victoria (2010), The Aviator (2004), and Shakespeare in Love (1998). Sharing the nomination, Peterson has often worked as Powell’s assistant on films including Carol and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a masterful slice of Hollywood in 1969, with some flashbacks that include recreated clips from TV shows like Hullabaloo, and Green Hornet. The film captures fashion reality extremely well, from television Westerns and Hollywood chic to real Hippies with dirty feet. Arianne Phillips is the costume design talent behind this and was also behind films like Walk the Line, A Single Man, and W.E., but she has never won an Oscar.
Jojo Rabbit captures the downfall of Hitler’s Germany in a fantastic blend of prewar saturated-colour Nazi pageantry with a covering of postwar dust – it’s a mix of Nazi idealism and WWII realism. The costumer Mayes C. Rubeo has worked primarily in fantasy films (Thor: Ragnarok, Warcraft, World War Z), which gives Jojo a fresh, almost comic book like approach to the costuming.
Then there are the two films I was surprised to see nominated for an award: Little Women, and Joker (Dolemite is my Name and Rocketman should have been nominated in their stead.)
Little Women is politically sensitive this year as many feel Greta Gerwig was snubbed from receiving a directorial nomination. The film’s costumer, Jacqueline Durran, has rarely been a favourite of mine because she pays more attention to mood boards than historical accuracy. Her past work includes an Oscar for Anna Karenina, and nominations for: Beauty & The Beast, Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, Mr. Turner, and The Darkest Hour. In all fairness, she is costuming a work of fiction, but when you are going to all that work of creating costumes, why not also make them period perfect – it helps with the suspension of disbelief in an historically-set story.
And finally, Joker. The film is a fantasy set in a dystopian urban setting that closely resembles late 1970s New York. The costuming is great at capturing that gritty, broken-down world, but the costuming was dark, dull, shapeless and unremarkable. The only memorable garment is the Joker’s final red suit with orange vest that also inspired the #1 Halloween costume of 2019. The costumer Mark Bridges did an excellent job, but the difficulty level for this film was low. Bridges has won two Oscars for previous work: Phantom Thread (2018), and The Artist (2011).
For me, Joker is the dark horse – well done, but not a ‘costume’ film and I am not sure why it was even nominated. Little Women shouldn’t win but may get sympathy votes because Greta Gerwig didn’t get nominated. I loved the costuming in Jojo Rabbit, but the majority of its sartorial success was in the recreation of various Nazi uniforms, and the Nationalistic ‘trachtenkleide’ worn by Scarlett Johansen. The Irishman was excellent and there was a lot of costuming in crowd scenes, but the movie was flawed in other ways (too long…) that may hurt its likability. I think Once Upon a Time in Hollywood edges out The Irishman. The work was creative and authentically rendered, and Arianne Phillips is long overdue for an Oscar.
Added February 10: Little Women took home the prize, and that is shameful. The movie wasn’t even nominated by the Costume Guild, which honoured Jojo Rabbit as the best in period film costuming. I believe Little Women won primarily because there continues to be a lack of respect for the costumer’s art, and as an ‘unimportant’ category, many voters threw their vote away in support of Greta Gerwig, who many felt was snubbed this year. Other factors might also be because the film was the most ‘period’ of those nominated. This is the problem when novices are given the right to vote for something they don’t understand, or think is important.