2020 Academy Award Costume Design Nominations

What is very clear to me with this year’s nominations is how unfair it is to judge a category like costuming. All five of the nominees are very different types of productions. It’s not even comparing apples to oranges – it’s judging an entire fruit basket.

Emma is as near to historically perfect as one could hope for in any film. Alexandra Byrne (Elizabeth, Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange) did a magnificent job of recreating Regency fashions, often based on extant examples of costumes from museum collections. Frankly, this is not my favourite Jane Austen novel (of which the best filmed version is Clueless IMHO…) I found this film forced and unfunny, however, the costuming was a feast for the eyes and worth the price of admission by itself. This is an excellent example of what a competent costumer can do when they are given the time to research and recreate period dress.

The costuming in Mank is good but not perfect. The costumer, Trish Summerville (Hunger Games, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) did a fantastic job of finding interesting sheens and textures for this black and white decade-spanning film with a large cast. However, there were historical errors, like a street scene set in 1929 or 30 (can’t remember which) where the fashions clearly dated from the late 1930s. I wonder why mistakes like this happen, surely the costumer knows what fashions look like in 1929, so why the egregious error? Perhaps it’s a last minute directorial change? Also, there are small anachronisms, like bulky-knit sweaters, which were not in fashion in 1940, chosen more for looks than authenticity.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a play turned into a film with less than a dozen speaking parts and almost no costume changes. A couple of brief street or crowd scenes were added to dilute the ‘stage play’ look, but it still feels like a play. Ann Roth (The English Patient, Cold Mountain, The Bird Cage, 9 to 5) has been in the business for fifty years and is a well known costumer, but the difficulty level is not high on this film. It’s not as comprehensively and flawlessly researched as Emma, nor does it have a large cast of characters over a broad range of time, like Mank. It is also not a creative fantasy film like our last two nominees.

Mulan, costumed by Bina Daigeler (The Zookeeper’s Wife, Volver, Mrs. America), is a costumer’s dream in terms of budget. The cast of thousands and budget of millions allowed her to create an historically-inspired fantasy-world largely from her imagination. The costuming for the Chinese legend is very loosely based on the Northern Wei period (5th century – around the same time the Roman empire was collapsing). There is a modern interpretation and many construction techniques used in creating the costumes which makes it impossible to compare it to the three historically-set films limited by the periods in which they were set.

Finally we have Pinocchio. Massimo Cantini Parrini was the costumer, and despite him having won many awards for his work in Europe, I have never heard of him nor seen any of the films he costumed. I also can’t judge this film because I have not seen it, nor will I as I can’t find it on any of my online services. I also can’t find enough stills online to get a good idea of the film’s costuming. However, looking at stills from other films he has done, like Tale of Tales, his work is amazing. Let’s face it though, this film is the long shot. The nomination will bring attention to his work and maybe some offers to do some Hollywood blockbusters, but ultimately, awards are popularity contests and he isn’t well known right now.

So, we have a costumer with a lot of awards from his home country but not well known in Hollywood; a seasoned professional of a small film with a highly trending topic (black history); a fantasy with stupid amounts of money thrown at it by a mega corporation (Disney) with probably an even bigger advertising budget to promote it; a black and white period film with artistically effective but flawed historical costuming; and a beautifully researched period-perfect but boring film. Frankly, it could go to anyone. I would pick Emma but don’t hold your breath – I suspect Mulan or Ma Rainey have better chances.

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