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The category of Best Costume Design is always one of my favorite races, particularly in the pre-nominations stage. It can be so unpredictable. This is also the first year where the costume designers have formed a separate branch from the art department. While it is difficult to know precisely how this will affect the race, it only increases my curiosity in what appears to be a very open category beyond two rather obvious leading contenders.
This category is so fun to watch because it always seems to go out of its way to recognize achievements in the field that may well be off the coattails of other sweeping contenders. Though some nominations each year are usually taken by Best Picture nominees, that's not as consistently so as in other categories. More notably, dreadful and/or divisive films are frequently cited, and it is commonplace for at least one, if not two or even three nominees, to be the only nomination received by their films. Only the makeup branch seems to be as original or adventurous in its selections.
Somewhat paradoxically, despite this branch’s proud and unabashed originality, it is also the place where period pieces tend to most dominate. While there is usually (but not always) a fantasy film nominated, this is not as frequently the case as in Best Production Design. And contemporary films tend to be nominated but a few times a decade (if that). Within this realm of "period," clothes which are foreign and/or exotic are especially welcome, as is royalty.
This category certainly cites its favorite costume designers more than once. Even so, room is always made for at least one, and usually two or three, new nominees each year. Also, with a few notable exceptions, it is rare for a costume designer to accumulate more than three or four career nominations.
Having said all of that, it looks like a costume designer will be getting her sixth nomination this year. Patricia Norris was a staple in this category 25-35 years ago, when she received five nominations in the decade between 1978’s "Days of Heaven" and 1988’s "Sunset" (also being cited for "The Elephant Man," "Victor/Victoria" and "2010"). Now 82 years old, she looks poised to return to the race for Steve McQueen’s "12 Years a Slave." Headed for nominations across the board, this is the sort of period sweeper I can’t see missing here. It could also finally be Norris’ time to ascend to the podium.
She’s going to face tough competition, however, from Catherine Martin. Baz Luhrmann’s wife, co-producer and production designer is also his costume designer. Her Best Production Design nomination for "Romeo + Juliet" and her Best Costume Design nod for "Australia" were the only mentions those films received from the Academy. She won both categories for "Moulin Rouge!" I expect her appropriately glamorous and, well, Lurhmann-esque take on the Roaring ‘20s will earn her nominations in both categories this year, too. Heck, she could even win.
After this duo, this race gets trickier.
Michael O’Connor has already proven his ability to be a lone nominee for a film ("Jane Eyre") and to win for a film with only one other nomination ("The Duchess"). "The Invisible Woman" is Ralph Fiennes’s second directorial effort, telling the tale of the mistress of Charles Dickens. Once again, O’Connor is designing 19th Century England, which has earned him two previous trips to the Oscars and is simply a preferred period in this category. I think his chances are strong.
Another Michael in this year’s race would be Michael Wilkinson. Designing the late-1970s world of Abscam for David O. Russell on "American Hustle" is a far cry from 19th Century England. But this looks to be incredibly memorable work and now the film is a New York Film Critics Circle winner! Wilkinson (who also designed "Man of Steel" this year) could well get his first nomination.
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