Material girl: Sylbert’s keen sense of story pays off

Lacoste Career Achievement in Film: Anthea Sylbert

It’s hard to pin a label on Anthea Sylbert. She has donned many hats during her career — costume designer, studio exec, producer, screenwriter. The thread that ties them all together is story. Sylbert really gets the material.

“She has that kind of brain that can get down to the character very quickly,” says Deborah Landis, prexy of the Costume Designers Guild, which will present Sylbert with the Lacoste Career Achievement in Film Award at its Feb. 19 gala.

Landis calls Sylbert a real intellectual, a designer who can hold her own with Roman Polanski and Mike Nichols, “two of the smartest people on the planet.”

Sylbert studied art history at Barnard College, but abandoned her plans for a master’s degree after landing a research gig with a Broadway costume designer. “It occurred to me that this might be more interesting than 12th-century manuscripts,” she recalls.

Sylbert took Off Broadway jobs paying about $50, most of which she spent on the costumes. She supported herself designing shoes for Capezio, which allowed her to continue working on low-budget projects.

When the Off Broadway play “The Tiger” became the 1967 film “The Tiger Makes Out,” Sylbert got the job “because none of the successful Broadway designers would deign to do such a small film.” The director happened to be Arthur Hiller, with a cast that included Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson and newcomer Dustin Hoffman. Sylbert’s instincts for picking compelling projects were in evidence.

She met production designer Paul Sylbert on that film and after marrying, they set off for Europe. Brother-in-law Richard introduced them to Polanski. “You can’t be luckier than that,” she laughs.

Polanski hired her for 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” the first Hollywood film for both of them. It showcases her uncanny ability to convey subtext through costumes. She creates a sense of dread in the audience by placing Mia Farrow in girlish frocks that grow shorter as the film progresses.

For 1974’s “Chinatown,” Sylbert took Polanski’s cue to dry out the color scheme so the audience would thirst for the water that feeds the plot. She eschewed blue, draping Jack Nicholson in desert-colored suits and Faye Dunaway in widow black. The costumes oozed film noir sensuality and earned her an Oscar nomination.

Nichols, who collaborated with Sylbert on “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), “Day of the Dolphin” (1973) and “The Fortune” (1975), says her work in costumes “is brilliantly alive, witty, recognizable and has a very strong sense of character and story. She is an important member of a production in that she supports and helps to define the entire film.”

Evidence of her wit can be seen in 1975’s “Shampoo,” in which she dressed Julie Christie in a high-neck, low-back sequined number. “I just thought it would be funny when we first saw her, if she looked so proper, like the queen mother, and then when she turned around, there she was, right down to the crack of her ass,” she says. The dress made headlines.

She earned a second Oscar mention for 1977’s “Julia,” transforming Jane Fonda into Lillian Hellman. Recalls producer Paula Weinstein, who knew Hellman personally, “Lillian had a completely different body type than Jane, yet Anthea captured the feeling of Lillian on Jane. She captured her persona, how sensual and stylish she was. There was always that slight edge to the clothes, a subtext of sexuality.”

A horrible fight over the costumes for 1978’s “F.I.S.T.” led Sylbert to rethink her career. After hearing Nichols’ glowing reports about her, then-Warner Bros. boss John Calley offered her a job as VP of production.

“I thought she was exceptional and extremely savvy, and had an enormous amount of hands-on experience on films, which was sorely lacking at Warners at that time,” Calley explains. “She was incredibly valuable, incredibly wise, and created a sense of connection to the process for the other executives.”

Sylbert proved a natural, later moving to UA as exec VP, then into partnership with Goldie Hawn on films like “Overboard” and “My Blue Heaven.” Though far from retired, Sylbert has found her own bit of heaven on the Greek island of Skiathos. She and thesp husband Richard Romanus have penned two TV movies and are working on a feature. Naturally, she plans to produce.