On my living room wall hangs four signed costume sketches by Edith Head which she did for a movie that I produced, W C. Fields and Me, with Rod Steiger and Valerie Perrine. I was reminded of them when I entered the new Hollywood Costume Exhibition and, at the entrance, viewed 8 Oscars won by Edith Head, described as the most important costume designer in the history of film. The show is being presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), of which I am a proud member. This groundbreaking multimedia show is at the old Wilshire May Company building at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax in midtown, adjacent to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It will be the future home of the Academy Museum of of Motion Pictures. Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum of London (V & A) and sponsored by the swank crystal company, Swarovski, this ticketed exhibition explores the central role of costume design - from the glamorous to the very subtle - as an essential tool of cinematic storytelling.
The show is absolutely breathtaking, a stunning assemblage of costumes from the early origins of movies until today. The Academy enhanced the original British show with some 40 more costumes of its own. There is Jared Leto's costume from Dallas Buyers Club, designed by Kurt and Burt, just acquired, and it includes more than 150 costumes from over 60 lenders. Some of the other movies whose costumes I saw today, and their designers, are: The Hunger Games, Judianna Makovsky, 2013; Django Unchained, Sharon Davis, 2012; Lee Daniels' The Butler, RuthE. Carter, 2013; American Hustle, Michael Wilkinson, 2013; and The Great Gatsby, Catherine Martin, 2013. In addition, Hollywood Costume showcases the Academy's most famous shoes in the world - the original ruby slippers from 'The Wizard of Oz", Adrian 1939, encrusted with 2,000 Swarovski crystals, a size 5, shown with Dorothy's blue-and-white gingham pinafore dress.
As a film producer, one of the things I love about this show is that it not only displays some of the most well-known costumes from our favorite movies but it explores the impact designers have in creating our beloved characters. Upending the conventions of what is considered 'costumes,' Hollywood Costume reveals what is hidden in plain sight: that films are about people and the art of the costume designer helps create these characters. Co-Curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who designed the costumes for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Coming to America, Michael Jackson's musical video,Thriller, and many other films, she quotes Harrison Ford: "The role of an actor is to serve as a mirror. My job is not to show you that the character and I have something in common. My job is to show you that you and the character-even one who may seem a little crazy-have something in common." Deborah, wife of director John Landis, told me that many people told her such an exhibit was a bad idea; who would want to see a dreary collection of stick figures wearing old garments? Well, she fooled them all. Joining with Sir Christopher Frayling, noted British set and costume designer. Over the course of five years they created a show which is so unique, so stimulating, that one viewing is never enough. It ran in London for 3 months, viewed by 250,000, and people were coming back several times. I have been back here once and look forward to my next visit. (The exhibition hall is in utter blackness, with people holding flashlights to guide you around. I think letting in a little light would not detract from the effect, and I wish there was a yellow stripe on the floor to follow so I would not miss any galleries.)
The innovative show takes you on a four gallery journey that tells the story of costume design from early Charlie Chaplin (The Tramp, 1914, his bowler hat, suit and bamboo cane, courtesy of the Chaplin family in Switzerland), to Mary Poppins' outfit and open umbrella, to Man of Steel, 2013. It fills your eyes with montages, animation, dozens of great film clips and projections (amazing stuff!), supported by a musical score by British composer Julian Scott. Instead of traditional labels, each costume is identified by a screenplay page. The clothes are exhibited alongside quotes and interviews with costume designers, directors and actors, discussing the role that costumes play in creating the characters on screen. There is a section where Meryl Streep on film sits in a chair and calmly discusses the costumes on all of her films (Out of Africa, Sophie's Choice, Mamma Mia!) as they swipe each one on a table in front of you. It is was so real I wanted to talk back to her about a script I have. In five specially-commissioned interviews, we see five key directors (Marty Scorsese with Sandy Powell, Mike Nichols and Ann Roth, Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, etc.) talking about a number of films. James Cameron is there with Avatar. Fascinating stuff. Another gallery has memorable costumes on the actors who wore them. Imagine Marilyn Monroe in that pleated white halter dress from Seven Year Itch (when the subway grate blew it up. This dress sold for $4.6 million at auction in 2011.) Or Danlel Craig as James Bond in Casino.There's even Marlene Dietrich (Morocco, 1930) leaning over to light Sharon Stone's cigarette while she was wearing that infamous white shift which Catherine Tramell wore when she uncrossed her legs in Basic Instinct. My friend Edith Head was the legendary designer of The Golden Age, and we see her costumes from All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard (directed by Billy Wilder, whose last film, "Buddy, Buddy", I produced), Rear Window and Vertigo. I was fascinated by Head's pale green dress in which Tippi Hedren was nearly pecked to death in Hitchcock's The Birds. Edith is even represented by a cape of real peacock feathers for Samson & Delilah which director Cecil B. DeMille handpicked on his farm. Landis tells how she used a Swiss Army knife, steel brush and sandpaper to 'age' Indiana Jones's leather jacket in Raiders, seen here with the hat and whip. A model of Spiderman is hung upside down and Superman is suspended from the ceilng. There is a whole section dedicated to royalty; you will feel royal when viewing all the versions of Queen Elizabeth I (played by several actresses, from Bette Davis to Cate Blanchette.) Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra called for 60 costume changes, some of which are seen here. I was saddened that they didn't include any of Bob Mackie's stunning gowns worn by Diana Ross in my Billie Holiday film, Lady Sings the Blues.
This new technology brings each garment to life, and the total experience is not unlike watching a feature film. It augers well for the Academy Museum opening on this site in 2017. The show will be running here until March 2nd, 2015. The Wilshire May building is at 6067 Wilshire Blvd. You can valet park at night or go to the LACMA garage at Fairfax and Sixth street ($12). The museum's number is 310-247-3049. The show is open Monday and Tuesday 11 am to 5 pm, closed Wed., Thursday 11 am to 5 pm. Friday is 11 am to 8 pm, Saturday is 10 am to 7 pm and Sunday is 10 am to 7 pm. Cost of tix is $20 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $10 for students. There are various discounts, discuss with boxoffice.
A strong suggestion: Give yourself about an hour-and-a-half for the show, and then make a reservation at the wonderful RAY'S & STARK BAR (323-857-6180) on the patio. Exec Chef Viet Pham offers a special Movie Menu of dishes and drinks tied to the show, and we will be doing a Huffington piece shortly going into more details about this exciting culinary adventure.
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