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Calendar's Big Oscars Issue : Living (and Dressing) in the Past

March 20, 1994|JUDY BRENNAN

Ask members of the Costume Designers Guild about this year's Oscar nominees for the top costume design award and get ready to get an earful.

None of the five nominees is an American, or even a member of the guild. In fact, an American hasn't won the costume Oscar since Albert Wolsky did for "Bugsy" in 1991. And before that, it was Wolsky for "All That Jazz" a decade earlier.

Rarely is a picture set in contemporary times--"Sleepless in Seattle," say, or "Indecent Proposal"--nominated. Most nominees have traditionally been for period films, particularly this year: Italy's Gabriella Pescucci for "The Age of Innocence"; Australia's Janet Patterson, "The Piano"; and, from Britain, Sandy Powell, "Orlando"; Jenny Beven and John Bright, "The Remains of the Day," and Anna Biedrzycka-Sheppard, "Schindler's List."

It is "The Age of Innocence" nominee in particular that has annoyed some costume guild members. Says one, "If ever there was an American story it was 'Age of Innocence' by Edith Wharton, the most American writer. It took place in New York, for Pete's sake, but (director Martin) Scorsese taps an Italian to design the piece!" Most American designers, she says, would have loved to have worked on that project, "which takes nothing away from Pescucci or her incredibly beautiful work." Pescucci, several guild members say, is favored to win the Oscar.

The problem, says designer Jane Ruhm, is that the best period costume pieces are generally found in European rentals. For pictures with sweeping ballroom scenes like "The Age of Innocence," most of the costumes have to be rented, with the designer concentrating primarily on creating new period attire for only the films' stars.

"That is a misconception," counters designer Shelley Kamarov, who designed costumes for last year's "Lost in Yonkers." "A lot of people think Americans don't have enough costumes, that we only have enough for Westerns. But that is not true." (Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" did not have a costume designer, but a wardrobe built largely from rentals, says guild executive Sandy Jordan.)

But Kamarov, Ruhm and veterans like Wolsky and Elois Jenssen are not surprised that the nod generally goes to period pictures. The perception, particularly by the public, is that designers just borrow clothes off a store rack for films set in modern times. That is not necessarily the case.

What a character does for a living, his personality, his mood that is set by the color palette of their costumes--all are factors in the design.

"Designers nominate designers for the awards and, like everybody else, they get caught up in the momentum of whatever is the most popular pictures at the moment," says Jenssen, who won an Oscar for "Samson and Delilah" in 1951. She was also nominated for "Tron" in 1983.

"With modern clothes, you don't notice them. The premise of good costume design is that costumes help the actor or actress make the character believable," says Jenssen. "While many designers are disappointed that some contemporary films never get the attention they deserved, they are more upset that the Americans were totally ignored this year. And that's pretty bad, when you consider that labor laws in other countries won't allow Americans to come there and design a picture. It simply isn't fair."

1870s vs. 1990s--When it comes to costume design Oscars, ornate garb (Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis in "The Age of Innocence"). . .

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