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She tailors to characters

Costumer Ann Roth is a traveler, researcher, historian -- an anthropologist of attire. An industry pays tribute to this prolific Oscar nominee.

March 16, 2003|Valli Herman-Cohen | Times Staff Writer

It was Ann Roth's idea to give Nicole Kidman the nose.

The much-discussed prosthetic nose that helped Kidman change physically into Virginia Woolf for her Oscar-nominated role in "The Hours" came from Roth, a veteran costume designer whose suggestion, said the film's producer and director, allowed the actress to transform more fully into the famous English writer.

The attention Kidman's fake nose has received disturbs Roth. Like any other kind of prop or costume or hairstyle, the idea was to give the actor what Roth calls a "jolt, a kick-start," to make the character come alive, not to call attention to itself. Throughout a career spanning five decades, Roth has become known for those "eureka" moments when actor, designer and director see the character form in those crucial fitting-room sessions.

"It's not just costumes," said producer Scott Rudin of her work, "It's storytelling." He's become such a Roth fan that he's hired her for his next productions, a dark-comedy update of "The Stepford Wives" and an adaptation of the book "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." Her 100-plus credits also include the films "Hair," "Marathon Man," "Silkwood," "The World According to Garp" and 27 major projects in the 1990s alone, including "Sabrina."

As a costume designer for movies, television and theater, Roth operates more like a subliminal image maker. If her designs look like a flashy fashion show, or draw attention to themselves, Roth labels them a failure.

Full of praise for Roth, her industry colleagues readily describe the 72-year-old as a filmmaker, artist, historian and confidante, who happens to have a way with dressing people and understanding actors.

"She is as likely to talk to me about light and sound and what is the most important moment in the film as she does about costumes," said director Anthony Minghella, whose 1996 film, "The English Patient," won Roth a costume-design Oscar. "She has a filmmaker's mind."

She has earned Oscar nominations also for "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999) and for "Places in the Heart" (1984). In February, Roth earned her fourth Academy Award nomination for her work on "The Hours," a movie adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. As in the book, the filmmakers wove together the stories of three women in three eras who are joined by Woolf's powerful novel "Mrs. Dalloway."

Tonight, Roth also will be honored for career achievement in film when the Costume Designers Guild meets at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel for its annual awards gala. Roth became a leading candidate for the award, said guild President Deborah Nadoolman Landis, even though the field of competition has grown large. But so has Roth's resume.

"What she does magnificently is transform contemporary costume," Landis said, noting how the designer has worked in a wide range of time periods, genres and locations. Roth's skill is perhaps most appreciated by other costume designers and art directors, about 130 of whom cast the votes for Oscar nominations in their field. The full membership votes on winners.

Always researching

Speaking from her country house in a remote, coal-mining region of Pennsylvania, Roth scoffed at the idea that she'll win again.

"I am not known for pretty clothes," said Roth, an assessment that also acknowledged the academy's habit of favoring the flamboyant and sexy over the subtle and serious. With her nomination, however, she's already beat some formidable odds in a year full of the kind of fantasy and period pieces that often win. "The Hours" will be up against the crowd-pleasers "Chicago" and "Frida," and the period pieces "Gangs of New York" and "The Pianist."

Roth will tell anyone who asks (or not) that any time the audience is particularly conscious of a film's costume design, it's a failure of sorts. No one should notice that Ed Harris' bathrobe in "The Hours" was made from the same rocket-print flannel that covers the bed of his character as a child, said Roth. No one should be conscious that the goatskin coat Meryl Streep wears for her 1990s character is the same tone and silhouette as Woolf's in the 1920s. All are symbolic, subliminal hints at connections between character and plot.

"Her work is invisible in service to the characters," said Streep, who requests that Roth outfit her for roles whenever possible. "She is not someone who is making a generic Ann Roth imprint on a picture. She is designing the people in a particular world," she said. "She's like a novelist designer."

As a voracious reader, Roth's conversations are more likely to mention book titles (mostly fiction bestsellers) than boldface names. Though she is a Hollywood insider, she doesn't abide by the town's thirst for glamour, hype and artifice. She isn't a big name on the social circuit, though her friends are A-listers, such as Streep and any number of directors. When she's on location, she explores.

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