Thursday, October 14, 2010

Unsung Heroes: The Costumes of The Big Lebowski

Michael C from Serious Film back again, this time with a Little Lebowski Urban Achiever whose work is already iconic even if few know her name.

I'd like to dedicate this one to the costume designers that don't do movies about dead monarchs or glittery musicals.
-Sandy Powell collecting her third Oscar

It's a common refrain among film lovers that flashier work may win the awards, but the subtler, more invisible work is the stuff that really deserves the recognition. But what about the crafts where the flashy stuff is also brilliant as well? Take costume design. In 1998 when the Oscar race came down to Shakespeare in Love vs. Elizabeth I don't think many would deny that those were two very deserving choices. Even though they were the Oscar's favored "Look at me!" more-is-more style nominees, that didn't make the costumes any less superb. And while a lot of people would agree with Powell's statement that contemporary costume design is woefully overlooked, it will still be difficult to skip over Elizabeth to mark your ballot for my choice for that year's best costume design: Mary Zophres for the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski. 

If you contrast the amount of effort that went into making one of Cate Blanchett's royal gowns against, say, picking out just the right grungy beige cardigan for the Dude, it seems like a pretty indefensible choice on the face of it. But costume design, like any other creative profession, is about making choices. And every choice made about the costumes in Lebowski is a bullseye, right down to getting a T-shirt to properly accentuate the Dude's gut.

Zophres makes every character in the movie instantly recognizable from their attire without ever stretching credibility (at least without stretching it any further than the Coens already did) How many robes did she have to try before she found one that hung off Julianne Moore so perfectly? How many vest and tinted glasses did she go through before she found the perfect combo to give John Goodman that militaristic edge? I could have done a whole post just on John Turturro's legendary hairnet and tight purple bowling outfit alone, to say nothing of all the other bowlers, nihilists, avant garde artists, and young trophy wives who populate the film.

And, hey, if you want traditionally attention grabbing, Zophres and the Coens oblige with a wacked-out Busby Berkeley goes bowling musical showstopper with the most outlandish costumes this side of a Terry Gilliam movie. Sandy Powell was a totally worthy Oscar winner for Shakespeare in Love, but I defy anyone to name me a costume from Shakespeare, or from any other film that year, that has brought more joy to people over the years than Julianne Moore's Viking bowler ensemble.

15 comments:

Volvagia said...

Yes! Yes! Yes! I probably spoiled the idea of covering Heathers, but it's still something that most people wouldn't think of in regards to "great costume design." But, getting back on topic, Julianne Moore's Viking bowler costume? One of the top 5 film costumes ever made and that alone should have secured this movie a Costume Design nomination.

Volvagia said...

The other 4:

The Alien
Kreuger's striped sweater
Veronica Sawyer's funeral wear
"The King of Comedy's" initial routine delivery suit.

Why I made those choices:

The Alien: C'mon, it's The Alien.
Kreuger: 1. Iconic. 2. Part of the fear of Kreuger is tied to how fuzzy that sweater is.
V.S's funeral wear: Costume that most encapsulates the "sumptuous in a modern way" approach of the costuming of Heathers.
"The King of Comedy's" suit: The single most iconic costume in a Scorsese, mostly because it's the only one that has to be. (Say what you will, but Scorsese, visually, is a perfectionist. The acting jobs he gets out of his performers are a bit too egregiously sloppy in the wrong ways for me to say, "We have a winner.")

Michael C. said...

I probably should have mentioned this but my guilty confession is that I've never seen Heathers.

I know, I know. I've never seen Sixteen Candles or Labyrinth either. I've got a real blind spot for 80's pop favorites.

But your enthusiasm has sold me. On the Netflix queue it goes.

And yes the viking outfit is amazing, as are the magenta suits the nihilists wear when they're wielding the giant scissors.

I checked and Zophres worked on True Grit so maybe she'll get her due this year. That is right in the Oscar's wheelhouse.

Also, I want that cardigan the Dude wears. Can you buy that?

Volvagia said...

And I've only been gushing about the costumes!!

cal roth said...

I think she's gonna win for True Grit... Her best work was in Catch Me If You Can. SO Great.

Dempsey Sanders said...

Love the costumes in the pics although never properly seen the movie.

Michael C. said...

Cal: Agreed on Catch Me If You Can. Beautiful work. She's worked on most of the Coen brothers films, a handful of Spielbergs and did very memorable work on Ghost World yet has yet to be nominated! An injustice that looks sure to be remedied this year.

/3rtfu11 said...

The Academy should recognize all variations in each respective category. What I dislike is the stance that being showy automatically makes the less obvious choice superior. This showy versus less obvious debate irks me especially during conversations concerning Oscar choices about acting performances.

It all comes down to – What does the film demand? Less obvious isn’t appropriate for all productions. Same as being showy doesn’t enhance the overall production.

I think the rules should change and only the branches should vote for their own category. Could you imagine how different the Oscars would be – if all the acting wins were determined by actors only?

Boomerang (1992) – I love all of Grace Jones’ costumes which she helped co-design.
Dreamgirls (2006) – I still feel resentful over its lost in this category.

Lucky said...

It's gotta be REALLY hard to make appropriate costumes for period pieces. I mean, you have to know exactly what kind of fabrics and threads they used to make clothes in that time, what was considered "fashionable" and what was way too much. There's a lot of research involved, making the actual costumes is just part of the work.

Celine said...

The funny part is, I remember reading that a lot of the clothes the Dude wears are actually Jeff Briges' own clothes. :)

Anonymous said...

Ask any costume designer which is harder, designing for a period piece or designing for a piece set in the present time- most will answer the latter. The "now" is much more of an amalgamation than the past, simply because history distills fashion. For the most part, it's major trends that are preserved. There's also a bit more wiggle room when dealing with the past.

Faith said...

My vote for that ear actually would have gone to Sandy Powell's also-nominated work in Velvet Goldmine. Still incredibly showy, but more unique and interesting.

I did production design in college and doing anything grounded and modern really is more difficult than anything with a fantasy element. You really have to get inside of the characters' heads.

Volvagia said...

Umm...what's more unique than "Viking Bowler?" That costume probably existed only as miasma in the minds of the Coen Bros before the movie was made. The Velvet Goldmine costumes? Glam Rock cliches. Sorry, but just capturing the style of Bowie doesn't make you unique. It makes the movie stylistically varied, which is more than can be said about the puffed up period wear that often gets costume design noms. Y'know what? After thinking about the competition: Elizabeth + Shakespeare in Love: 1500s fashion. Pleasantville: Sitcom 50s (easiest thing to look up. Just watch Lucy or Leave it to Beaver and you have your in.) Velvet Goldmine: Glam Rock Cliches. The Big Lebowski: The flashiest items you see in the movie are things that HAVE MINIMAL REAL WORLD BASIS. (Horned helmets were rare, the bowling pin chapeau's are way out there and, as for Quintana's body suit, well, would you say you see sommeone wearing something like it every day?)

Ren said...

Personally, just about every one of Judi Dench's peacock queen outfits in "Shakesperae in Love" trump Julianne Moore's Viking getup in "The Big Lebowski." But a nomination in costume design would have been awesome though.

Marilyn said...

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