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All About the Unique Edith Head

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joe Mankiewicz could just as easily have been talking about Edith Head, his costume designer on “All About Eve,” as about his fictional character Eve Harrington, in that famous opening line, “There never was, nor ever will be, another Edith Head.”

Ambitious, talented, political, territorial and brilliant. A product of her time and the prolific studio system, Head worked on 1,131 productions from the mid-1920s through early 1970s. She won eight Oscars and was nominated for 35.

“Edith has been a huge influence on all of us,” fashion designer Todd Oldham said last week, echoing the sentiments of several hundred designers, actors, artists and fashion and film industry icons who came to Manhattan, under the auspices of charity, to pay tribute to Head, who would have turned 100 this year.

Michael Douglas, Richard Gere, Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren, Carroll Baker and Julianne Moore were among the sold-out crowd that filled the marble ballroom of the Cipriani.

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“If you look at the top 20, 30 films of all time,” proclaimed Oldham, “she’s done all of them.”

Head didn’t manage to get her hands on “Gone With the Wind"--she would have if she could have, but it was at a rival studio--and she couldn’t rouse herself from the dead to do “Titanic"--though if anybody could perform that metaphysical feat of will, she could. But Oldham’s hyperbole, if technically inaccurate, is substantially true.

“Double Indemnity,” “Notorious,” “Rear Window,” “All About Eve,” “A Place in the Sun,” “The Lady Eve,” “To Catch a Thief,” “Roman Holiday,” “Vertigo,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “She Done Him Wrong” were all hers.

And in the shadow of last month’s searing Vanity Fair profile, which laser-beamed on Head’s “appropriation,” to be polite, of fellow designers’ work under her own name--the Givenchy dresses in “Sabrina” and the trendsetting formal menswear in “The Sting,” the two blatant examples--the script written for the evening’s three-hour event gave its own spin.

Actress Debi Mazar, decked out in Edith jet-black bangs, bun, owl glasses and ‘40s pantsuit, said pointedly that in the script by David Bell: “When Givenchy looked at Audrey Hepburn, he saw Audrey Hepburn. When Edith Head looked at Audrey Hepburn, she saw Holly Golightly.”

And that distinction--the design of dresses for film, for character, for the acting, instead of the singular beautification in real life--was repeatedly underscored by the actresses who had worked with Head and participated in the tribute, which raised an estimated $1 million to be split between the Motion Picture and Television Fund and Design Industries Fighting Against AIDS. The heavy-hitter corporate sponsors ranged from American Airlines to Chivas Regal, Universal Studios, Bergdorf Goodman and Sun Microsystems.

“She would sketch right in front of me,” said Leigh in the green room before the show. “We would discuss the character. She wanted to know how I was approaching the character, so that she could think of things through my eyes as well, and my interpretation of the role.”

And Hedren, who starred in the last wave of first-rate Hitchcock films that Head designed, praised the designer’s understanding of the physicality of film.

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“There are wonderful designers who make you look good, very elegant, whatever. But Edith taught me that you not only design to make the person look according to the character, you have to make sure that the person can do the action,” said Hedren, pointing to the omnipresent green dress in “The Birds.”

“Not only did it have to be a dress that people wouldn’t get tired of looking at; it had to be capable of doing all the action. I was running from the birds, I was getting in and out of boats,” said Hedren.

“In ‘Marnie,’ I’m dressed for a cocktail party. My husband, Mark Rutland, played by Sean Connery, brings my beloved horse that I have missed so terribly. My character runs straight out the door, grabs the mane of that horse, jumps up, races off, jumps the fences. That cocktail dress had to be able to do all of that action.”

But Head’s vintage dresses spoke amply for themselves--and told another fascinating truth. As the parade of original Head creations appeared on the runway, the reaction from the audience, most of them baby boomers, was more than palpably emotional. It was almost primal.

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The dresses have become as much a part of our personal scrapbooks as the movies.

They have a life of their own. Imprinted over and over again from decades of repeated viewings, many are as beloved and familiar as the star with whom they have merged.

The brown taffeta off-the-shoulder evening gown worn by Bette Davis in “All About Eve,” when she warns her guests in clipped phrases to “fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” The white, strapless ball gown with the voluminous tulle skirt Elizabeth Taylor wears to the party when she first discovers Montgomery Clift as he plays pool in “A Place in the Sun.” The fitted slate gray dressmaker suit that Kim Novak wears, and which Jimmy Stewart fixates on, in “Vertigo.” Barbara Stanwyck’s flirty, trashy white outfits as Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity,” and the evening gowns that transformed Stanwyck into a babe for the first time, in “The Lady Eve.” And the striking, deeply plunging black V-neck gown Ingrid Bergman wears to the party in “Notorious,” when slipping the key to Cary Grant.

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“They were seamless, star and dress. You weren’t watching the clothes, you were watching the action. And everything seemed in place,” said Roddy McDowall, one of Head’s oldest industry friends, and the most openly indignant about the attacks on her.

“Edith was a wonderful woman. As a friend, she was highly supportive, tremendously encouraging and kind. In a profession that changes fashion and loyalty every 10 minutes, she had an ability to elongate her stay with immense acumen.”

“It’s very easy to knock successful people,” added McDowall, “but it’s tiresome.”


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