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A Palette Patriotic Enough for the President Himself

March 26, 1998|BETTY GOODWIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Movie: "Primary Colors"

The Setup: Committed, yet emotionally flawed, Bill Clinton-like Southern Gov. Jack Stanton (John Travolta) runs for president with his brainy, tough-skinned wife, Susan (Emma Thompson), at his side, based on the novel by Joe "Anonymous" Klein.

The Costume Designer: Ann Roth, an eight-time regular on director Mike Nichols' team (including "The Birdcage," "Working Girl" and "Heartburn"), who won an Academy Award for "The English Patient."

In Case You Missed It: Don't feel bad--most people, critics included, are unaware that every cast member (extras as well) is dressed in hues suggested by the film's title and theme--red, white and blue. Resembling one big political convention, the group also wears plenty of stripes--horizontal, diagonal and vertical--though, gratefully, no stars. There are Jack's navy blazers and jogging suits, Susan's red coats and masses of sky blue button-down shirts, burgundy and navy Polos and white T-shirts. You don't need a "Made in America" label to appreciate the wardrobe's origins. One of Susan's coats has such shiny brass buttons that she could be a majorette, and aide Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) wears red, white and blue plaid shawls that could have come off the frontier. Even the Stantons' son gets into the act with a red and blue plaid jacket. To be accurate, cast members occasionally do wear neutral colors--gray, black and beige--which, Roth points out, are "like spaces between the notes. Like Mozart."

Quoted: "No one I have spoken to has noticed," Roth says of the palette, an idea she originated with production designer Bo Welch, whose sets also fall into the same color scheme. "It has a theatrical quality. It lifts from super real. It is, after all, art."

Finding the Character: The process of finding clothes that fit the character is always tricky. In this case, Roth wanted to avoid a "media savvy" look and stay true to the governor's origins. Then she brought Travolta to the party. For instance, Jack required $400 department-store suits "available to men in a small city in a not-prominent Southern state," she says. "The point is, clothing meant nothing to him. He's a doughnut eater." (But because they have to fit, Roth actually custom-made Jack's "$400 suits.") Then Travolta enters the picture, sampling all the possibilities. Roth elaborates: "You stand in front of a mirror at 2:30 and at 7:30 you get something right. He puts on the right cheap loafers, and it clicks." Or, she says, you start with the pants at the navel and, after two doughnuts, they're below the navel. "That becomes part of the look, the walk, the guy."

The Spouse: The touchstones of style that apply to Susan and women like her "who want to fade into corporate life," says Roth, are pale beige stockings ("like milk") worn with matching beige or navy shoes, button earrings "the size of mayonnaise jars" and khaki pants with elastic across the back. About half of Susan's wardrobe was custom made to look appropriately bland, and half purchased.

Trivia: The mantra, according to anyone associated with the movie, is "Jack Stanton is not Bill Clinton," and Roth mouths the same company line. She says she never referred to images of Bill or Hillary Clinton. And where did she come up with the idea of Jack's corny black plastic digital watch? "We may have seen it in research." Of whom? "Clinton."

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