Will Fantasy Titles “Crimson Peak” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” Make the Cut in Oscar’s Costume Design Race?

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Fashion is on display every Oscar night. Fashion also is rewarded in the category of the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. The wardrobe for a film can provide exceptional glamor. But more importantly, well-designed costumes tell us something about the characters who wear them, in terms of their time, place, class, age, and self-image.

The Costume Designers’ branch is without question one of the most original in AMPAS. Every year, films that are usually forgotten in other categories, either due to being too poorly reviewed, too small, or too un-Oscary, manage to score here. It’s very rare that at least one of the nominees isn’t the “sole representative” of its film.

But notwithstanding its originality in terms of films rewarded, the branch is conservative in two other ways. The first is the love of past nominees. Though there is usually at least one first-timer nominated each year, the costume designers are far from the most welcoming branch when it comes to prospective first-time nominees. The second is the love of the period piece. Usually featuring relatively showy costumes and frequently research-intensive, period films tend to grab four-to-five of the nominations. There is typically one fantasy title, but not always. And truly contemporary films tend to be nominated only once or twice a decade.

Leading the way this year may be the great ten-time nominee/three-time winner Sandy Powell, who has both “Cinderella” and “Carol” in contention. Todd Haynes’s 1950s New York City drama will undoubtedly draw comparisons to his 1950s Connecticut film “Far From Heaven.” While Powell was remarkably not nominated for that effort, I suspect “Carol” will be a bigger hit with the Academy. “Cinderella,” on the other hand, blends period and fantasy with an extraordinary array of colors and costumes. While one may wonder how hard Disney will push this March release, the fact remains that the costumes were praised by virtually everyone who saw the film and if it gets a nomination anywhere, one would expect it to be here. At the end of the day, I think Powell is destined to repeat her 1998 feat and get a double nomination (as she did then, for “Velvet Goldmine” and “Shakespeare in Love”).

Also set in 1950s New York is “Brooklyn,” with costumes designed by Odile Dicks-Mireaux. The costumes are not only top-notch and spanning cultures, but they were instrumental in illustrating the protagonist’s transition between cultures and countries. I suspect Dicks-Mireaux is headed towards a first nomination.

Paco Delgado earned his first nomination three years ago for “Les Misérables.” “The Danish Girl” brings him to a different historical period – the early 20th Century, in various locations in Western Europe. He also is responsible for illustrating the protagonist’s transition between genders. How much this film will score overall is still an open question. But the quality and nature of the costumes lead me to believe that Delgado is a very solid bet for nomination #2.

I feel strangely confident that those four films will end up nominated (unless the costume designers decide that one nomination is enough for Powell). But the race for the fifth spot remains very open.

Michael Wilkinson earned his first nomination two years ago for “American Hustle.” He is again costuming Jennifer Lawrence on a David O. Russell film this year, with “Joy.” But while the film may feature more historical time periods than were present on “American Hustle,” it’s unlikely to have the glamor of that previous effort.

“Trumbo” will feature glamor, being a tale of 1950s Hollywood. But I don’t know if the film will actually end up a particularly big player. And costume designer Daniel Orlandi seems to have been an “also ran” for more than a decade (“Down with Love,” “Cinderella Man,” “Saving Mr. Banks”) and I think he’ll need a bigger player than “Trumbo” to actually make the final five.

Kasia Walicka-Maimone has been doing solid work for years on films such as “Capote,” “Amelia” and “Moonrise Kingdom.” This year, she has two titles set in the latter half of the 20th Century – “Bridge of Spies” and “Black Mass.” But while I think Walicka-Maimone is headed to her first nomination in the next few years, I’m not sure either film this year will be showy enough to take her there.

Jane Petrie’s “Suffragette” threads convey many different classes in early 20th Century England. If this were a big player overall, I’d have little reservation in predicting Petrie for her first nomination. But the film seems to have underwhelmed, and that could pose a problem.

Back in the United States, albeit set in an earlier time period, is Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” The costumes here will not be changed regularly but I suspect they will be carefully tailored literally and figuratively to the characters wearing them. So Courtney Hoffman may get her first nod.

Still earlier in 19th Century America is Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s much-anticipated “The Revenant.” Jacqueline West has two nominations to her name (“Quills” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and might have a very good chance for what will undoubtedly be minimalist and character-driven costumes. But will the work be too subtle in this crowd?

Shakespeare films score here from time-to-time (“The Tempest,” “Henry V,” and two 1990s versions of “Hamlet” come to mind). And “Macbeth” has been well-received to date, with costumes courtesy of recent favorite Jacqueline Durran (four nominations and a win in the past decade). Durran also has “Pan” out this year, and her fellow costume designers may be inclined to invite her back to the dance.

I noted at the outset that “Cinderella”’s blending of period and fantasy may work to its advantage. The same could be said of “Crimson Peak,” with costumes designed by Kate Hawley. Guillermo Del Toro’s latest may be too much even for the design branches of the Academy but if it could survive anywhere, one would expect it to be in the categories of Costume Design and Makeup & Hairstyling, with their open-minded voters.

On the note of “too much,” one wonders what the Academy will do with “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Despite its amazing reviews, it is hardly the stuff that usually leads to Oscar nominations, and the costumes aren’t likely to be the first craft that viewers will most remember. Even so, the visual work of the whole film was exceptional and Jenny Beavan has nine nominations to her credit (the first five are for Merchant-Ivory films). So let’s consider her.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is another wild card, largely due to uncertain reception. And even if it starts sweeping the crafts categories, I can think of six places (Original Score, Production Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects, Makeup & Hairstyling) that seem likelier than Costume Design to lead to a nomination. But I have no doubt that the costumes will be innovative (to say nothing of potentially iconic) and could earn Michael Kaplan his first nomination.

I’ll end by mentioning Janet Patterson, who designed the threads for “Far From the Madding Crowd” earlier this year. Though the film didn’t set the world on fire, it developed a loyal following and is the sort of period piece that seems like it could earn a nomination here and nowhere else. This is assisted by the fact that Janet Patterson has four nominations, the latter three for films that earned one non-Costume Design Oscar nomination between them. Call it a hunch but I think we may see Patterson in the final five.

So if I had to project the final five, I would say “Brooklyn,” “Carol,” “Cinderella,” “The Danish Girl,” and “Far From the Madding Crowd.” Though as you can see from the above, there are many contenders indeed. We will see which costume designers end up making the cut in January. In the meantime, we’ll have to watch and envy the talents of those who dress our actors on screen.

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