Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
This week, we’re pairing a couple of categories that had linked up for years in terms of winners. While that tendency has faded a bit in recent years, there’s no question that they are part-and-parcel similar categories, both tending to recognize splashy period pieces, but also having a fascinatination with fantasy films. It wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time, during the era of costume designer Edith Head, the category often saw nominees that were set in the present, but with gorgeous frocks for the female characters. Head won eight Oscars for her work and remains the most honored woman in Oscar history. While they have been a little less likely to recognize such films today, there’s no question that a lot of dresses means a lot of attention.
I will proceed as I did last week and separate the categories with five favorites in each along with a highlight of some of my other favorite films.
We start off with the Production Design category. Originally called Art Direction, the category was introduced at the 1st Academy Awards ceremony for the films of 1927 and 1928. Although we now know the category to honor both production designers and set decorators, the category recognized only the art directors/production designers through the 13th Oscars. Starting with the films of 1941, set decoration, then referred to as Interior Decoration, was recognized alongside art direction. That said, these individuals only received certificates for their efforts and didn’t start receiving physical Oscars until 1947. One other bit of history that affects three design categories, Production Design, Costume Design, and Cinematography: for these categories, there were several years where black-and-white films were given their own separate categories from color films. In Production Design, this was done from 1940 to 1956 and after two years with a combined category, they were once again split from 1959 to 1966. All other years, only one category was in play.
Before digging into the five films I selected, I thought I would honor some of the films I short listed. Oscar winners on this list include Gone With the Wind (1939), Gaslight (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Ben-Hur (1959), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Batman (1989), Dick Tracy (1990), Schindler’s List (1993), Moulin Rouge (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2005), Hugo (2011), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), andThe Shape of Water (2017).
Oscar losers on my shortlist were Sunrise (1927/28), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968), Blade Runner (1982), Brazil (1985), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Babe (1995), Evita (1996), Pleasantville (1998), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Beauty and the Beast (2017).
The final films I wanted to recognize were both winners and losers. The Lord of the Rings trilogy picked up three consecutive Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction. The film lost on the first two outings and finally claimed the prize on the third. Now, here are the five films I ultimately chose (technically more than five, but I’ll explain in a moment).
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
It’s hard to argue with voters going for Gone With the Wind and its massive plantation and burning Atlanta sets winning the award, but the enduring inventiveness of The Wizard of Oz is ultimately the better, by a hair, design of 1939. Creating the various fantastical settings of L. Frank Baum’s children’s book was an impressive feat. Is there anyone who grew up with this film who doesn’t remember vividly the landscapes and settings of the film? The black-and-white elements giving way to the color? It was a bountifully glorious film.
Star Wars trilogy (1977,1980,1983)
Over the course of six years from 1977 through 1983, the most successful film trilogy in history captured the imagination of millions of people around the world. George Lucas’ original Star Wars was nominated for its art direction in 1977 and won the award easily, but the subsequent two films, which gave us unique and impressive landscapes such as the frozen wastes of Hoth (Empire Strikes Back) and the dense jungles of Endor (Return of the Jedi), were nominated but went unawarded for their superlative work. These are films that linger in the memory and it was thanks to the art directors who gave audiences a wonderful playground in which to exist if only for a few hours.
The Wiz (1978)
What’s most surprising about the Oscar winner in 1978 wasn’t that it was a bad design, but because, of the five nominees, only The Wiz could really claim to have an unquestionably original environment in which its characters could thrive. Trying to take what worked from the original Wizard of Oz on which the stage musical was based and create something unique and original might have proven a challenge, but longtime designers Tony Walton and Philip Rosenberg did just that. Rather than creating a rich fantasy world like the one in the 1939 film was set, the designers chose to imitate the designs of the stage version and enliven them through depth and breadth of environment. The designs unerringly conjured up a fantasy world built around the urban environment in which the film was set and did so with amazing clarity and effectiveness.
There is so much information available about the sinking of the RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912 that building a set that resembled the fabled ocean liner wouldn’t be difficult. Yet, the end result is something far more spectacular than any could have ever imagined. Taking audiences inside a ship that few still alive at the time could have remembered was a massive undertaking and being able to waltz through the corridors above decks and below, including that masterful recreation of the Grand Staircase, allowed audiences to not only acknowledge the splendor of the vessel, but also to dive deep into the absolute tragedy of its sinking.
Harry Potter series (2001,2002,2004,2005,2007,2009,2010,2011)
First released in 2001, the 8-film series based on J.K. Rowling’s popular children’s novels about The Boy Who Lived made billions of dollars worldwide and racked up numerous nominations for all but two of the series’ eight films. Of those six films earning nominations, four of them received nominations for art direction. The first, fourth, seventh, and final films were recognized by the Academy for the tremendous work in putting together a wonderful mosaic of magical locations over the course of the film’s eleven-year run. Although the series never won a single Oscar, audiences will no doubt remember the first time they entered Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry and that’s all thanks to the first film’s tone establishe byd production designer Stuart Craig and set decorator Stephenie McMillan, who controlled the look of the films for the series’ entire run. While they lost the first award to the sensational Moulin Rouge, it would have been nice had the series earned some recognition by the end, much like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King did with its final film in 2003.
As mentioned in the section above for Production Design, the Costume Design category had two periods of black-and-white separation from color. It covered the same period with the two combined years of 1957 & 1958, but with one difference: the Costume Design category wasn’t started until 1948, making it one of the newest categories in Academy history.
There’s not much more that can be said about Costume Design except that it’s a category that I tend to find fewer knock-out selections than any other. Like production design, there is one set of films I wanted to highlight that were a mixed bag of wins and losses. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was nominated for both its first and final chapter. It lost the first time around and won the second time, helping deliver to The Return of the King the record for most Oscars won by a film that won 100% of its nominations.
Once again, I highlight my favorite winners that didn’t make my top five: My Fair Lady (1964), Death on the Nile (1978) (looking back at this one, it seems like rather a big surprise that it won), Moulin Rouge (2001), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), and Black Panther (2018).
As for the films that didn’t win? Other favorites include Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), The Wiz (1978), Victor/Victoria (1982), Dick Tracy (1990), The Addams Family (1991), Pleasantville (1998), Dreamgirls (2006), Carol (2015), and Beauty and the Beast (2017). What’s surprising is that unlike all of my other lists so far (the three from last week and Production Design above), this is the first time all five favorites were actual Oscar winners.
And before digging into my final five favorites, I wanted to give a a shout-out to non-nominated Evita, which was surprisingly left out in spite of its dozens of costume changes. It had some amazing designs and it’s still a bit shocking to this day that it was excluded. Now, it’s on with the show.
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
If you would have told me that in choosing my five favorites that I would unintentionally choose two films based on Russian novels, I might have called you crazy. The first of my two selections is David Lean’s sumptuously mounted version of Boris Pasternak’s novel about a married man who falls in love in the turbulent times surrounding the Russian Revolution. Lean’s film runs the gamut in designs from frilly to furry, but the gorgeously-clad stars, in outfits designed by Phyllis Dalton, were among the highlights of this film.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
My second reference of this film so far in this series, Francis Ford Coppola’s handsome film about Bram Stoker’s villain Dracula was an exceedingly beautiful film and part of that masterful world building were the designs by Eiko Ishioka. Ishioka’s work evokes the Gothic setting with delight creating some of the most deliriously bountiful designs in cinema history. There were so many designs in the film that it’s hard to isolate any particular construct as standing out, but if there were one that remains most memorable, it’s the lacy white dress worn by Sadie Frost on her death bed.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
There is little dispute that the costumes Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel came up with for The Adventures of Priscilla are the most original in film history. The film, about Australian drag queens traveling across the desert for a show in Alice Springs, featured some absolutely outrageous outfits, the most famous of which is a gown made out of flip-flops. It was so ostentatious that the more traditional looks of Little Women and Queen Margot would seem to have had the upper hand with the Academy’s alley, but they went bold and gave the Oscar to this film, which might well be one of my favorite wins ever.
Anna Karenina (2012)
The second film on my list adapted from a Russian novel, Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina adapts Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel into a fascinating meditation on love and loss. While the staging of the film was framed as if the story were being acted out on stage, there is nothing at all stagy about Jacqueline Durran’s bountiful costumes in the film. While no one outfit stands out above the others, the superlative quality of the costumes on display stay in the memory long after the film is over, much like those of Doctor Zhivago did. Perhaps there’s something about Russian styles that makes them so appealing?
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Far outside the traditional stuffy nature of the costume dramas that typically win this award, Jenny Beavan’s outlandish post-apocalyptic garb takes the outfits of the previous films in the series to an otherworldly level. The bountiful designs that set the place and time of the film are creative and marvelous. While it might seem that a film with a lot of painted bodies and naked torsos might seem like an ill-fitting choice for this award, there’s little denying that what Beavan did with what she had available was perfectly orchestrated.