In dutiful recognition of the
desire necessity in each of you readers to read yet more and more of Aunty Paddy’s advice columns on individual Oscar races, here they are again, this time with a guide to that chicest of categories: Best Costume Design. This is the best Oscar to win, because it’s the one that indicates not only that you have talent but also that you have taste, and also because nothing – NOTHING – matters more than looking good, and being told that you look good.
There are roughly 120-odd members of the Academy’s Costume Design branch, of which the ever-underappreciated Jeffrey Kurland is chair. Despite this category existing since the 1940s, it was only a mere three years ago that its voting was entrusted to the costume designers alone, as their membership had formerly been to the Art Directors branch, prior to the long-overdue split in 2013. And yet the costumiers were not ill-served by the Academy’s production designers and set decorators, as the standard of nominees for Best Costume Design has remained among Oscar’s highest for years, if not decades now.
There is, among the Academy as a whole, a near-irrefutable bias toward lavish period costumes, specifically those adorning casts of attractive young women portraying European monarchy and nobility of centuries long past. You may recall my foolish assertion earlier this year, supposing that Sandy Powell’s designs for Cinderella better fit the model of a Costume Design Oscar winner than Jenny Beavan’s for Mad Max: Fury Road, but such exceptions do exist; otherwise, the near-6,000-strong membership displays a significant preference for such designs, with 50% of winners these last ten years fitting that model from only 10% of nominees.
But you can trust the designers themselves. In said time, they’ve found the space for films as aesthetically diverse as Across the Universe, American Hustle, Curse of the Golden Flower, The Devil Wears Prada, I Am Love, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Inherent Vice, Milk, Mirror Mirror, The Revenant, True Grit and W.E., alongside the aforementioned posh period pieces. They have their favourite nominees (though it’s hard to fault them for always finding spaces for Colleen Atwood and Sandy Powell), yet never ignorant to the viability of lesser-known nominees (Lisy Christl, Monique Prudhomme among many), nor to films that have failed to find footholds anywhere else in the Oscar race (Anonymous, Coco Before Chanel, The Tempest and dozens more in recent years alone). And in such seeming unpredictability, there thus exists an ironic predictability – in a closed race, with a set selection of eligible titles, and a smaller selection of probable titles even in this more inclusive of Oscar categories, it’s possible to see the surprises coming, to spot the patterns and practices in the apparent lack thereof. And so, before I get onto my top ten predictions, allow aunty to divulge a few words of wisdom before you make yours, a few helpful directions, a gentle grasp of my soft hands to guide you safely in.
PADDY POINTER #1 – DON’T REPEAT YOURSELF, IT’S BORING
It’s Paris Couture Fashion Week. You and your 120-odd mates have been to all the shows. They were all good (except Alexis Mabille, because WHY?!), and some were great, great enough to consider as among the best the week had to offer. But your opinions are inevitably going to differ on which particular shows were, indeed, best, right? Maybe your favourite was Iris van Herpen, whereas Mate #1’s favourite was Viktor & Rolf, and Mate #2’s was Giambattista Valli, Mate #3’s Chanel, Mate #4’s Armani Privé. Now, obviously, you’d be right, but – as America now knows all too well – not everyone agrees with quite how right you are, and so they cast their vote for another show, because everyone’s tastes are different. The same is true of the Academy’s costume designers – some voted for Viktor & Rolf, some for Giambattista Valli, some for Chanel etc. Not just different films, but different aesthetics altogether, and there’s a limited pool for each. So before you go rounding up all the biopics of kings and queens and olden-day celebrities and filling your five with any of the above, remember that there’s only so many voters on that specific wavelength. The others are busy watching I Am Love.
PADDY POINTER #2 – PRECURSORS ARE PRECURSORS, BUT ONLY OSCAR IS OSCAR
That might read as the most obvious thing you’ve seen all year, but it’s important to note that this is one category among only a few wherein voters’ choices tend to diverge from their counterparts’ in other voting bodies. Generally, the guilds are the most reliable predictors of the Oscars in the tech categories, but the relatively low number of members in the Costume Design branch means that there’s unusually little correlation between them and the Costume Designers Guild in their year-end nominees. Given that the CDG picks 15 films over 3 categories, the disparity may not appear extreme – we’re not comparing the HFPA and Cahiers du Cinéma, for example – but one would expect a closer relationship: 18% of Oscar nominees in this category over the last ten years have not been nominated for a CDG award, despite the CDG boasting between 240-300% the capacity. And, notable here, is that, like many guilds with their larger membership in relation to individual Academy branches, most of the non-guild-nominated Oscar nominees have been more adventurous, obscure choices from the smaller, smarter pool of pickers.
PADDY POINTER #3 – PEDIGREE OVER PREJUDICE
The average Metascore of an Oscar Best Picture nominee in the last ten years? 82.35. The average Metascore of an Oscar Best Costume Design nominee in the last ten years? 70.5. Not a mammoth amount in it, but consider if the average Metascore of a Best Picture nominee were 70.5, and you’ve got an idea of the kind of calibre of film to which Costume Design branch members are attracted: shit! Strictly speaking, that’s far from true, but this is an important point – voters here aren’t judging the quality of the film, indeed they likely couldn’t care less about it. They’re saying that, sure, 37 isn’t too far off the mark for W.E. as a film, but its costumes? 100! And they’re saying that they’ll follow Colleen Atwood wherever Tim Burton or Rob Marshall or any other hack collaborator of hers insists on dragging her, and they’ll follow Sandy Powell the same, and Jacqueline Durran the same, and Michael O’Connor, and Albert Wolsky etc. And rightly so. Do we think Colleen picked up the script for The Huntsman: Winter’s War and thought, “Cancel everything, at last my dream project!!” or do we think she thought, “I could probably design some pretty nifty outfits for Charlize Theron and Emily Blunt, and maybe I’ll get to measure Chris Hemsworth’s thighs for a new pair of chaps?” This is why no-one’s expecting Manchester by the Sea to claim a nomination here.
Now that you know what I already knew, shall we get onto my actual predictions?
1. Mary Zophres (La La Land)
Take a second look: a contemporary picture in the top slot for Costume Design. Every other contemporary picture nominated here in recent years has had some kind of positive feature to mitigate the bias against such styles – I Am Love wasn’t quite contemporary, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was more of a fantasy, The Devil Wears Prada was literally about clothes. So just what is it that makes La La Land the most likely ‘ordinary’ contemporary film to claim a Best Costume Design Oscar nomination arguably since Prizzi’s Honour, 31 years ago? Duh, it’s the Best Picture frontrunner! And while that never particularly helped films like The Hurt Locker and Spotlight, just take a look at Mary Zophres’ costumes, and you’ll surely understand. It also gets a boost from being by far the most prominent contender in this style, though note that it’s far less likely to win than it is to be nominated – it doesn’t fit any model for a modern-day Costume Design winner at all.
2. Dante Ferretti (Silence)
Yes, ma’am. Dante Ferretti, the go-to guy for the best production design in the business, is Aunty Paddy’s second-most-likely nominee for Best Costume Design. 19 years ago, Martin Scorsese turned to his now-regular production designer to take command of the costumes for his last Far Eastern film, Kundun, resulting in double Oscar nominations! That’s a likely scenario this year as well, and, given Silence’s probable standing as the Best Picture contender that Kundun never was, it’s likely that Ferretti adds at least one more Oscar to his current total of three. There aren’t any costumes in any other films this year vying for a nomination here that look quite like these.
3. Albert Wolsky (Rules Don’t Apply)
How often do I have to remind the blogosphere that Rules Don’t Apply is so, so happening? It has Old Hollywood. It has Warren Beatty. It has Howard Hughes. It has Annette Bening and Candice Bergen and Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin. It has a younger woman relying on an older man. It has 51 Oscar nominations among its main cast and crew. It has white people spilling out of its clogged pores like an army of whiteheads! Albert Wolsky is costume design royalty, and he’s getting a nomination, and his won’t be this film’s only. However, the film’s recent dismal performance at the box office casts its clout into serious doubt! This is, as yet, a fairly tough category to call once we discount the top two; Wolsky could probably get in on the strength of his name alone, but if Rules Don’t Apply can’t overcome its commercial failure, look for this one to come nowhere near any of its projected nominations.
4. Colleen Atwood (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them)
Only one Harry Potter franchise title has been nominated for the Costume Design Oscar to date, and that’s almost certainly because Rupert Grint in a school uniform doesn’t exactly scream “Oscar!” But Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them adds two crucial features to its costumes, which could easily snag it a slot: period design (the film is set in the 1920s) and Colleen Atwood, who just doesn’t miss an Oscar nomination, just never. It just doesn’t happen. Fantastic Beasts feels rather like the kind of film that gets lost in the mix to me, though, given that it’s on course to sell considerably fewer tickets than all eight previous HP films and that voters might just be totally over this series, but Atwood is a smart choice nonetheless, because she always is.
5. Jacqueline West (Live by Night)
We’ve heard that Live by Night won’t be a Best Picture contender, probably. That’s fine. Nor was Memoirs of a Geisha, and look how well it did. West is a very talented costume designer; she has a mere three nods to her name at present, but she did squeeze in last year against all the odds for throwing a few scruffy chamois rags over Leonardo DiCaprio and back-combing a few horses’ manes in The Revenant. Live by Night will, as we’ve also heard, be a below-the-line contender, though it’ll face some competition – this category could end up swamped by elegant 1920s designs this year.
6. Madeline Fontaine (Jackie)
Madeline Fontaine has come close to Oscar nominations before, most notably for Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie and A Very Long Engagement, both of which were nominated for Best Art Direction. Jackie may be a hit with tech branch voters, or it may not. Fontaine’s costumes certainly look like the kind of striking designs that could make the cut, and the American ruling class in the 1960’s is an aesthetic wholly untapped by other films in contention, but voters do have many more eye-catching choices, and handsome recreations of shift dresses and Chanel twinsets mightn’t cut the mustard. This one can sit on the cusp for now; it lacks the obvious pulling power of the top five.
7. Colleen Atwood (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children)
Although facing abandonment by regular crew members Rick Heinrichs and Danny Elfman (for only the third time), Tim Burton naturally pulled in his long-time costume design collaborator, Colleen Atwood, for his most obvious director-for-hire project since the 1980s. Double nominations for costumiers aren’t unheard of – Sandy Powell managed it just last year – though it seems unlikely that Atwood could manage it for two big-budget fantasies. Miss Peregrine’s placement on this list is thus on the condition that, should Atwood score the nomination for this, she may well fall out of the five for Fantastic Beasts. Different tastes, remember? There are only so many votes for Ms. Atwood’s pussy-bow blouses and tapered-cuff overcoats.
8. Giulia Piersanti (A Bigger Splash)
It was one of the great – and I mean that in any sense of the term – surprises of Oscar nominations six years ago to note Antonella Cannarozzi’s Costume Design nomination for Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, not only one of the finest films of the century so far but one of the finest cinema wardrobes of the same timeframe. Alas, it was likely not official costume designer Cannarozzi’s designs for which Art Directors branch members voted, but then-Creative-Director of Jil Sander, Raf Simons’, outfits for lead Tilda Swinton, and Fendi’s Menswear Creative Director Silva Venturini Fendi’s pieces for the leading men that took voters’ collective fancy. It was an inspired choice, and it’s likely that this more-refined group will have sought out Guadagnino and Swinton’s latest collaboration, which bears a better position heading into the Oscar race than I Am Love. Giulia Piersanti may end up the film’s only credited designer if the film makes the cut, since Simons is listed only as the designer behind Swinton’s outfits, though it would surely only add insult to injury to snub Simons, who was Creative Director of Dior at the time of this film’s production, once again. Recognizing A Bigger Splash either way would certainly add some welcome variety to the lineup.
9. Arianne Phillips (Nocturnal Animals)
Initial buzz at the Venice Film Festival was misleading – Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is no major Oscar contender, being a much too pulpy piece of work for the modern Academy. It has a shot at a few nominations, although perhaps only a few, and even those are far from certain. No doubt Arianne Phillips, the recent subject of one of AD’s Jazz Tangcay’s excellent reviews, has turned out costumes that will top many viewers’ Best Of 2016 lists, but will they top Oscar voters’? Phillips has been nominated before, for Walk the Line and W.E.; she’s a versatile artist, with equal ability in creating stylish, ostentatious pieces such as those in this film and subtler, character-focused pieces such as those for 3:10 to Yuma. That she missed a nod for Ford’s last film, A Single Man, isn’t a great sign for Nocturnal Animals, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s green boots alone ought to keep it in contention.
10. Consolata Boyle (Florence Foster Jenkins)
Only in Ireland do you get names like Consolata Boyle. I’d vote for Consolata for her name alone. Anyway, she got in for another Stephen Frears film, The Queen, ten years ago, and that wasn’t a glamorous period piece in the vein of Florence Foster Jenkins. After the performances, both acting- and singing-wise, the first thing you’re sure to remember about this Meryl Streep vehicle is the wardrobe! After the Best Actress race suddenly exploded early September, this film’s standing in the Oscar race has dipped considerably as its best shot at recognition has seen her chances virtually decimated. But our Consolata could wiggle her way in with the luck of the Irish on her side. We’re still in the European Union, we haven’t elected a megalomaniacal Dorito as our leader, and we can drink the lot of you under the table and back over it again.
With 17th Century Jesuit and Japanese designs, witches, wizards and mobsters in 1920s north-eastern US, and movie stars, both real and wannabe, in 1950s and 2010s Hollywood, that’s a fair bit of variety for your nerve in there, and scope for a bit more. At the least, this lineup encompasses all three of the CDG’s categories: Contemporary, Fantasy and Period. But as for PADDY POINTER #2, advising against adhering too closely to what the CDGA picks in making your predictions, watch as I go and break my own rules. Here are my current CDGA projections:
CDGA Excellence in Period Film
- Renee Erlich Kalfus (Hidden Figures)
- *Dante Ferretti (Silence)*
- Madeline Fontaine (Jackie)
- *Jacqueline West (Live by Night)*
- *Albert Wolsky (Rules Don’t Apply)*
CDGA Excellence in Fantasy Film
- Colleen Atwood (Alice Through the Looking Glass)
- *Colleen Atwood (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them)*
- Colleen Atwood (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children)
- Alexandra Byrne (Doctor Strange)
- Jany Temime (Passengers)
CDGA Excellence in Contemporary Film
- Renée April (Arrival)
- Courtney Hoffman (Captain Fantastic)
- Leah Katznelson (Collateral Beauty)
- Arianne Phillips (Nocturnal Animals)
- *Mary Zophres (La La Land)*
*Predicted Oscar nominee*
So that’s all five (and a grand total of three for Colleen Atwood alone), just as I’d warned you about. But that’s no worry, since that’s not an unlikely scenario either, though since fantasy films have historically had trouble getting in, and contemporary films yet more trouble, there’s plenty of scope for some heretofore-unmentioned films to sneak in, particularly from period films: Suzy Benzinger for Café Society, Sharen Davis for Fences, Lizzy Gardiner for Hacksaw Ridge, Jennifer Johnson for 20th Century Women, Joanna Johnston for Allied, Amy Roth for Indignation and Mary Zophres for Hail, Caesar! Don’t necessarily look to the category to match up with Production Design now that the two branches have been separated – possible nominees there such as The BFG, A Monster Calls and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story are long shots here.
And now you know what to do when approaching your Best Costume Design predictions, because Aunty Paddy has shown you the route to success. Forget not, I’m a below-average predictor at best! Good luck, bitches!
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