Future, past divide costumers

Possible nominees include 'Cell,' 'Quills,' 'Patriot,' 'Grinch'

What’s the difference between a “Grinch” and a “Patriot?”

That’s the question Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ voters will have to ask themselves when they whittle down their choices for this year’s costume design nominees.

Mirroring the wide-open race for sexier categories such as best pic and several of the acting noms, there are plenty of possibilities when it comes to clothing in 2000. Along with battlefields and Whoville, this year’s buzz list includes “Dr. T and the Women” (Dallas’ high society), “The Cell” (serial-killer chic), “Quills” (stylish sadists) and “102 Dalmatians” (poochie fashion).

But while tight races always make for exciting office pools, some — especially the artists being considered — are displeased that the playing field is uneven.

“There absolutely needs to be two awards,” says “The Patriot” costume designer Deborah L. Scott. “One for contemporary projects and one for period pieces.”

Maybe she’s right. “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” invented a whacked-out reality, a bright and bubbly illusionary city created from scratch. But if “Grinch” was all about fantasy, then “The Patriot” was grounded in hard-core reality. And the dissimilarities have more than a few clothiers scratching their heads, wondering how voters are supposed to make concrete distinctions.

“There’s no way to compare the films,” says “Grinch” costume designer Rita Ryack. “How can voters say one film is better than the other when one is imaginary and the other is based on authenticity?”

That’s a popular sentiment within the industry, a feeling shared by costume designers, who point out that documentarians (short, feature) and writers (adapted and original screenplay) have two categories.

Scott, who won a 1997 Oscar for “Titanic,” says that although research obviously plays a part in both types of films, it’s coming from different points of view.

“History is a very personal vision, but it’s all about accuracy,” she says. “It’s a real challenge to bring something to the screen that people haven’t seen, and that’s a completely different test depending on the film. Reality and fiction shouldn’t be compared when it comes to design elements.”

But they will be for now, and costumers will continue to offer up new ways to advance directors’ visions, whether it comes from real life or real imagination. The five tapped titles are sure to reflect that dichotomy.

Timeline treasures

True to form, last year’s nominees were a mixture of history and fantasy, past and present: “Topsy-Turvy” won out over “Anna and the King,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Titus.”

And other years have seen similar ballots. But while nominees seem to be a collection of dissimilar films, the victors have recently been remarkably alike, with the past five honorees — “Topsy-Turvy,” “Elizabeth,” “Titanic,” “The English Patient” and “Restoration” — set in the past.

So does that automatically eliminate “Grinch” and “Dr. T”?

“Voters usually recognize overall quality,” says “Dr. T” costume designer Dona Granata. “I think they ultimately realize that dressing up Dallas residents to fit the appropriate time and place is as challenging as creating another world for another genre.”

Looking ahead

Maybe. But if they do, it will come at the expense of the future.

“I wanted to create a unique and timeless revolutionary idea,” says Eiko Ishioka, who, with April Napier, utilized a dark and stylish vision to elevate helmer Tarsem’s “The Cell” above standard slasher fare. “Our job was to create a culture, not just a typical environment. We used a very theatrical technique.”

That technique has already scored Ishioka some hardware; she won the 1992 Oscar for costume designing Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”

“I pick up ideas from every type of world and combine them to make something absolutely exclusive,” she says.

Ryack’s techniques on “Grinch” were comparable.

“I wanted to take real clothing and turn it into otherworldy material,” she says. “It was basically doll dressing, full of postwar spirit and a 1950s ambiance. The materials were very kinetic and loose.”

Ryack and Ishioka’s imagery is certainly a far cry from the challenges faced by costume designers who are bound by history books. For while nobody voting was around in the 17th century to judge how accurate their work really is, the pressure is certainly on to be “right.”

“I didn’t want ‘Quills’ to be only a costume drama,” says the film’s costume designer, Jacqueline West, “but there really has to be a sense of education. I want to bring people back to a specific time in order to get the best feeling for the era.”

That desire was certainly the driving force behind Scott’s work, too.

“My biggest obligation is to create characters in a specific place and time,” she says. “All films are entertaining, but some of them are more about education than others.”

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