Reel life challenges

Biopix designers balance art and reality

Designing costumes for biopics requires certain skills of the designer. Skills that are sorely tested when an actor does not easily match the image of a celebrity that is fixed’s in the public’s mind.

Before stepping into the part of Ray Charles, actor Jamie Foxx lost around 50 pounds, which made it easier for costume designer Sharen Davis to create the type of well-fitted suits that became the singer’s trademark.

She had a harder time with the character of Charles’ longtime bandmate Fathead Newman, who in real life was not bald like the actor Bokeem Woodbine who portrayed him. “That’s so not ’40s or ’50s,” says Davis of Woodbine’s bald pate. “I had to think of what I could do to make him believable,” she says. The answer was to dress him in hats of the era, even though that wasn’t his personal style.

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In Liam Neeson, who played sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in Fox Searchlight’s “Kinsey,” costume designer Bruce Finlayson found the perfect match.

“Liam is tall and long and wears clothes very well,” says Finlayson, so Neeson looked just fine in Kinsey’s bow ties and double-breasted suits.

Actress Laura Linney was more of a challenge. Linney’s slender frame was too far removed from the full figure of Clara Kinsey’s to make it believable, so her bust size and tummy were bumped up with a series of fat suits, making her appearance more accurate as she aged throughout the film.

Later in the film he had her wearing knits he’d hand-made for her, even showing her knitting a sweater in one scene that Neeson will wear.

“Clara was a homemaker, I was very aware of that and tried to make her clothes look like she made them for herself,” recalls Finlayson.

Costume designer Ruth Myers, whose work on Bobby Darin biopic “Beyond the Sea” presented a slightly heightened reality, remembers a magical moment where she found a shirt-maker in Beverly Hills who owned the actual patterns that had been used by Darin’s shirt-maker Nat Wise back in the ’50s.

It helped an older Kevin Spacey portray a character who tends to be stuck in the public’s mind from photos and footage of his younger days. “Sometimes people’s memories aren’t as accurate as they think they are,” says Myers. “You have to negotiate those choppy waters, with tact, charm and a certain amount of bullying.”

All three designers agree that for a biopic to work, it’s all about authenticity. “You can’t do fashion displays,” rues Davis. “You’ve got to make it look like a documentary. It’s fun, but you can’t be too creative.”