It’s not surprising that awards fatigue has felt especially jarring this year, what with the extended calendar year due to COVID-19. The Oscars will finally have their telecast this Sunday, April 25, whereas the Academy usually has handed out their statues by late February. It seems odd to still be celebrating films that came out in 2020 over a quarter into 2021, but then just about everything this past pandemic year seems unprecedented.
At least this year’s nominees are an honorable lot across the board. There is no cringeworthy nominee in any of the top categories. And in most of the technical categories, the nominees are sublime. One of my favorite categories has always been Best Costume Design for various reasons, not the least of them being that my late brother Greg was a professional costume designer. His craft helped me appreciate the crafting of clothes on film and it’s been an element of the Oscars that was always a highlight to both of us.
My brother is in my mind especially this season due to two iconic costume designers and Oscar-winners who have been in the news this month. First, three-time Oscar-winner Anthony Powell died on April 16 at 85, leaving a great legacy on both screen and stage. My brother’s favorite work of his was DEATH ON THE NILE, the 1978 Agatha Christie star-studded mystery starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. Powell’s costumes for that film were full of wit and panache, even dark humor, and my brother could go on and on about why those fiendishly clever designs wholeheartedly deserved the Oscar that year. Incredibly, so does Amanda Halley in this intrepid YouTube video where she describes all the text and subtext at play in Powell’s designs for the movie.
Powell’s passing was a great loss, but one of my brother’s other favorite costume designers is still alive and well, going strong at 89. Not only that, but the intrepid Ann Roth is the odds-on favorite to win this year for her work in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. Her work is simply the best of the five, in my opinion, even more impressive because of the limited arena she had to play in.
Roth’s job was a tricky one with Ma Rainey because the core of the story takes place on one day in a recording studio. Therefore, each outfit she chose for each character had to say a lot about who they were, what their tastes were, and how they related to the world around them. Roth manages to do that and more, telling us so much about each character, oftentimes merely by focusing on their feet.
Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is a successful Blues singer, and she can afford her expensive duds, though her dress doesn’t fit so well because of her bloated, indulging body. She wears a sash low around the waist to disguise her girth, and that’s just one of the fun touches of Roth’s work for the character. But where Roth really speaks for Rainey is in the slippers that she puts her in.
Rainey is tired of all the fame and pressure and prejudice that goes with being a black singer under contract to a white record label. It’s why she mumbles when she isn’t warbling and trudges around as if she can barely will herself into the studio. She’s exhausted and those slippers provide softness and comfort versus those harsh realities, as well as the unforgiving soles of high heels. Her slippers are also velvety expensive, reminding everyone of her celebrity status. And they’re open-heeled with straps suggesting that she’s now buying an adjustable size because of her burgeoning weight.
Her longtime band members (Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts) are all dressed snazzily like you’d expect proud jazz musicians to dress, even though it's a hot, summer day. They wear pleated pants, starched shirts, and natty ties, even though it will be a long day playing in the studio. They dressed up so because they respect Ma, their art, and being able to make a living as musicians. Such jobs for black Americans were rare in the 1920s and these gentlemen are delighted to be part of those select few.
In fact, the only giveaway of their station, one a number of pegs lower than Ma’s, are their shoes. Each of them has nice shoes but they’re all more than a bit worn. The band members have walked and stood a lot in them and it’s a reflection of their time and hard work, not to mention the fact that shoes were expensive then. (Heck, they still are.)
The one band member whose shoes are as slick as the rest of his threads belongs to trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman), the youngest member of the group. He’s full of energy, hubris, and more than a little piss and vinegar, and he wants to show off both with his horn and shoes. That's why he's come to the recording session in a brand, spanking new pair of yellow-ochre wingtips. He's a show-off, and such an expensive purchase shows his recklessness and how he wants to be on par with the money and celebrity that belongs to Ma.
Not by accident did Roth make Levee's shoes for the film almost the exact color of a brassy trumpet. His shoes are as loud as his horn! Both are instruments to Levee, announcing his presence, his brazenness, and his flair.
Those shoes are referenced often in the film and the entire climax turns on one of the other band members accidentally scuffing Levee’s shoes, along with his pride. In a wonderful adaptation of Wilson's play, one chock full of symbolism, Roth's shoes for the characters might speak the most powerfully. Her designs say so much about each character’s taste, station, and ego. It’s stunning work, thoroughly in step with the actors, script, direction, and the rest of the sterling production.
My brother would be very excited to see Ms. Roth still contributing as she crests into her ninth decade. (If only he had lived so long himself.) And come Sunday night, if Roth wins and takes the stage to claim her statue, I will be cheering for two for her momentous victory.