Fom her glorious illustrations to her film achievements to her eccentric personal wardrobe, Theadora Van Runkle personifies the role of legendary costume designer.
With credits spanning three decades and a portfolio of sketches worthy of a museum, the Costume Designers Guild will have quite a challenge editing Van Runkle’s life into a five-minute film when it presents her with the Bulgari Lifetime Achievement for Film Award at its March 16 award ceremony.
Guild prexy Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who relishes the challenge of creating the film tribute to Van Runkle, calls the designer “all talent all the time.”
She cites “Godfather II,” for which Van Runkle received an Oscar nomination, as a masterpiece in which “the costumes work with the lighting and production design to reveal just enough about the characters,” with the overall effect that of a Rembrandt painting.
Landis compares Van Runkle’s costume sketches to those of celebrated Ballet Russes costume designer Leon Bakst, where the characters appear to come alive on the page.
Indeed, her artistic abilities are what earned Van Runkle her first film assignments. She began her career as a fashion and magazine illustrator, then became a sketch artist for costume designer Dorothy Jeakins.
“I worked for her for only a month, either because I was too good or because (the project) was over. I’ve never known,” Van Runkle recalls.
But Jeakins admired her work enough to recommend her as the designer on “a little cowboy picture” starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway that she was too busy to do.
Van Runkle’s costumes for “Bonnie and Clyde” not only launched her costume design career but set worldwide fashion trends that are influencing fashion designers today.
That film led to her partnership with Dunaway on such stylistically influential films as “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “The Arrangement.” Her collaborations with the thesp heightened her reputation as a glamour designer.
“She’s a very talented woman and she made a great difference in the fashion design of my career,” says Dunaway. “Her gift endures.”
Van Runkle says her work for “Bonnie and Clyde” came from pure intuition, informed by being a lifelong student of history. “I knew from the first page of the script exactly what it should look like. I made little drawings alongside the speeches as to what they would look like when they were making that speech, and it never varied.”
Van Runkle says her ability to synthesize the character, the color, the line, the era and the particular star into one drawing gave her an advantage because people knew what they were going to get.
She attributes the public’s attraction to Beatty’s and Dunaway’s clothes in “Bonnie and Clyde” to the mix-and-match travel ensembles that she created for the characters. “They wore clothes that people could wear to work and wear in their real lives.”
Yet Landis also points out that Van Runkle’s ability to fully realize the onscreen sex appeal of the characters through clothing is what made them irresistible to audiences. “It’s not the clothes people want to emulate, it’s the characters.”
Like many costume designers, Van Runkle says some of her favorite designs ended up on the cutting-room floor, including 57 costume changes for one actress in “Godfather II.”
And another Francis Ford Coppola film for which she achieved industry recognition was mired by a thorny relationship with the lead actress. Though she received her third Oscar nom for “Peggy Sue Got Married,” she says, “(Kathleen Turner) was so hideous to me that I can’t remember that film with much pleasure.”
Relationships that proved successful on- and off screen include Steve McQueen in “Thomas Crown,” “Bullitt” and “The Reivers”; Lucille Ball in “Mame”; Dolly Parton in “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”; and Steve Martin in “The Jerk.”
Though Van Runkle doesn’t consider herself retired, her work has come full circle of late. She’s taken up the paintbrush again to illustrate a book she’s written. It’s a fairy tale.