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Perhaps not everyone feels this way, but I’ve always seen a gratifying kind of dignity in films nominated for a single Academy Award. Granted, for some contenders it can be a disappointing underachievement. For other, more marginalized films, however, it can be a heartening sign of individual voting branches paying careful attention to work that excelled in their own craft, and not just rubber-stamping the buzz-hogging juggernauts.
Think “House of Flying Daggers” cracking the Best Cinematography race in 2004, or “Dancer in the Dark” copping a nod for its haunting signature song (and making Oscar nominees of both Bjork and Lars von Trier in the process). The most rewarding Oscar years are often those with the most individual films nominated across all categories, and comparatively little overlap between disciplines.
This year’s lineup, though on balance a strong one, offers comparatively few such lone-wolf nominees. In the below-the-line races, usually conducive to the singling out of otherwise unloved titles, we have a mere half-dozen across only four categories: Visual Effects, Makeup, Original Song and Costume Design. And it’s the last of these – Eiko Ishioka’s posthumous nomination for the unheralded March release “Mirror Mirror” – that ranks as my single favorite nomination of the year.
The Academy’s costume branch has form in this regard: more than any of their peers, they have a habit of recognizing remarkable work in little-hyped (and sometimes little-liked) releases. It’s thanks to them that such recent films as “Jane Eyre,” “Bright Star,” “W.E.,” “Australia,” “Across the Universe” and “Troy” can indelibly go down in history as Oscar nominees – and if not all those titles seem exactly worthy of that status in and of themselves, that’s precisely why the voters deserve credit for remembering them. “W.E.” may be a terrible film, for example, but that shouldn’t discolor one’s appreciation of Arianne Phillips’s genuinely inspired sartorial contribution.
For some, the tepidly reviewed “Mirror Mirror” may fall into the “that got an Oscar nomination?” bracket. But you already know my feelings about Tarsem’s dizzy spun-sugar reimagination of the Snow White fairytale: I grooved to its sincere silliness and acrylic beauty enough to place it in my top 10 of 2012. I’m happy to see the film rewarded in any capacity, but thrilled that it’s for the work of Ishioka, whose singularly eye-popping sartorial creations have been an integral component of Tarsem’s own auteur brand across four features together. The director himself acknowledged as much in his formal response to the nomination:
“Eiko was unique -- a true visionary. She designed all aspects of a wardrobe, never taking a short cut and working tirelessly to make each and every piece stand alone. I hope this deserved nomination not only reminds the world of her whimsical and spectacular work on 'Mirror Mirror,' but [ensures] they will remember her countless and unforgettable contributions to filmmaking.”
Ishioka, who passed away last January at the age of 73, wasn’t just a film costume designer: her long and varied list of career achievements as an all-purpose visual artist includes directing music videos for the likes of Bjork, winning a Grammy Award for graphic design work on a Miles Davis album, and clothing the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But it’s in the discipline of cinematic costume that her wild imagination and excitingly unhinged visual sensibility produced arguably their loveliest, and certainly their most enduring, work.
She had already won an Oscar – one of the most deserved in the category’s history, for my money – for the sexy, stylized, richly color-coded wardrobe of Francis Ford Coppola’s ”Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” when Tarsem came calling for his dream-styled psychological thriller “The Cell” in 2000. But her most unfettered creativity is to be found in her collaborations with the Indian director whose vision matched hers for extravagance and eccentricity. The sculptural S&M-inspired constructions for “The Cell,” the deep-hued collage of ethnic exotica in “The Fall,” the sexualized, gold-dusted interpretations of sword-and-sandal dress in “Immortals” – all beautiful and bonkers in equal measure, and all deserving of a second Oscar nod that only came her way last week.
Still, if it could only be for one of them, I’m glad it was for “Mirror Mirror” – and not just for the sentimental, career-capping aptness of the gesture. At the time of the film’s release, I devoted an article to the film’s costumes, but it bears repeating just how weird and witty and intricately conceived they are, twisting the puffed sleeves and hoop skirts of Eurocentric storybook illustrations with rococo references, samurai accents and an aggressive primary color palette. (It’s a pleasing bit of symmetry that Ishioka is nominated alongside three-time winner Colleen Atwood’s similarly gutsy, but tonally opposite, sartorial revision of the very same story in “Snow White and the Huntsman.”)
The billowing, atypically mustard-hued cape in which Snow White ventures into the woods, the marshmallow-colored, whimsically animal-themed ensembles at the palace ball, the Gaultier-esque galleons adorning the heads of the Wicked Queen’s live chess pieces, the electric-blue-and-orange pop adaptation of Disney’s iconic Snow White dress in the final sequence, an affectionate nod to tradition – these are all images that have stayed in my head over the last 10 months, and I’m glad they clearly made the same impression on the costume branch voters.
I predicted a nomination immediately after seeing the film, and held on stubbornly as it faded from view, confident that this quirky, conscientious branch would do the right thing. With the voting now opened out to the entire Academy, a win will be tough – particularly with Jacqueline Durran’s marvelous, period-merging creations for “Anna Karenina” leading the pack – but in a race not short of distinguished underdogs to root for, my fingers will be most tightly crossed for Ishioka’s brilliant ghost.
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