More than a wardrobe

Times Staff Writer

When costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis interviewed Piero Tosi last year for an upcoming book on the craft, he confided that clothes alone don’t make the man or woman

“If the face and the hair are not right, then the costume really isn’t successful,” Tosi told Landis, who worked on “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Spies Like Us,” among others.

“When you look at a movie like ‘Ludwig’ and you are looking at Romy Schneider’s hair, which is 4 or 5 feet long,” Landis explains, “or you are looking at a movie like ‘The Leopard’ and Claudia Cardinale’s hair is flat with the big braid in the back, the hair and the makeup is definitely part of the piece. [Tosi] had control from the top of the head all the way down to the soles of his feet.”


Although Tosi has never worked outside his native Italy -- he’s afraid to travel -- he is one of the most influential costume designers who worked in the movies in the last half of the 20th century. At age 22, he got his first job with the help of former schoolmate Franco Zeffirelli, on the 1951 Luchino Visconti comedy “Bellissima.”

For the next 25 years, he designed 10 films for Visconti, receiving Academy Award nominations for his lush, vibrant period costumes for “The Leopard” (1963), “Death in Venice” (1971) and “Ludwig” (1972). Tosi also received Oscar nominations for his colorful, light and amusing costumes for the gender-bender “La Cage Aux Folles (1979) and for Zeffirelli’s acclaimed filmed version of the tragic opera “La Traviata” (1982).

Nominated five times for an Oscar, he never won but he’s getting some recognition by his Hollywood peers.

On March 16, Tosi will receive the inaugural President’s Award at the fifth annual Costume Designers Guild Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. On Thursday, the film department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art presents a rare screening of “Death in Venice.” The haunting drama is based on Thomas Mann’s novel about an avant-garde composer relaxing at a Venetian resort who develops an unsettling attraction to a young man the composer sees as the embodiment of ideal beauty.

Landis, president of the Costume Designers Guild, will speak at the LACMA screening, which will also feature a nine-minute thank-you speech Tosi taped for the upcoming awards ceremony.

To describe Tosi as the master of authentic period costuming, says Landis, is “really diminishing him because he finds the truth in whatever period it is.”

Costume design, she adds, should work on two levels. “Costume designers have to support the written narrative with the development of character,” she says. “It also works on a parallel plane which is supporting the visual style of the movie.”

Tosi worked with strong storytellers and visual stylists in Italy such as Visconti, Federico Fellini and Liliana Cavani.

“It just so happened in the ‘50s and ‘60s in Italy, it was a hothouse of incredibly talented, groundbreaking directors. They were all peers and collaborators. Tosi’s work enriched Visconti and Visconti understood that, and he considered Tosi someone he simply couldn’t make a movie without. Tosi improved everything he worked on,” Landis said.

Argentina-born writer-director Martin Donovan (“Apartment Zero”) worked as an assistant to Visconti on “Death in Venice” and “Ludwig,” and observed the relationship between the director and Tosi.

“They understood each other so well,” he says, that they worked in “code.” In the case of “Death in Venice,” Donovan recalls attending an early design dinner meeting between Visconti and Tosi. “Luchino had produced a series of pictures of his own mother on the beach or in a garden. She used to sit in chaise longues and covered herself with a wonderful blanket. He said to Piero, ‘Look at my mother. That is the mother of the boy.’ Everything that Silvana Mangano wears in ‘Death in Venice’ was inspired by Luchino’s mother. If you see photographs of his mother, you see Silvana.”

Oscar-winning costume designer Jim Acheson (“The Last Emperor”) describes Tosi as the master. “What I sense about his work is a wonderful modesty,” he says. “It is not what I call the ‘look at me’ school of design, but yet it has such skill and such a kind of resistivity that it vibrates.”

In Italy, Acheson says, costume designers “are respected as a contributor and a collaborator on a movie. I am putting words in his mouth, but I am sure that Visconti would see Tosi as one of his main collaborators along with his production designer. Tosi would have the last shout on his extras and turning them down if they weren’t right.”

Acheson felt that respect himself when he worked with Bernardo Bertolucci on three films. He says that type of collaboration is sorely lacking in Hollywood. “Here the stars bring in their own hairdressers and makeup persons,” he says. “Here most of [the decisions] are done by committee.”

In the late ‘90s, Acheson once had dinner with Tosi in Rome. “He was not interested in the past, he was interested in the now,” he says.

Part of Tosi’s success, he adds, is derived from the fact that the designer has a “hugely profound knowledge” of the 19th and 20th century. “Until you know the steps, you can’t interpret the dance,” Acheson says. “You can sense that real respect for the period. It is about accuracy, but it is also about being able to move in the rules and manners and regulations of the epoch with such ease you know that it feels absolutely right.”

Accepting the CDG award for Tosi is his good friend production designer Dante Ferretti, who is nominated for an Oscar for “Gangs of New York.”

“All the costume designers around the world think he is one of the most important designers,” Ferretti says. “I think he’s giving a lot of inspiration to other costume designers.”

Ferretti acknowledges that Tosi lost out on work opportunities because of his aversion to travel. “He doesn’t even like to travel in Italy,” he says.

Tosi hasn’t designed for film in a decade. These days, he can be found teaching aspiring designers at the Cinecitta studios in Rome. “It’s not easy to do movies in Italy,” Ferretti says. “Our cinema is very low and they don’t want to spend money for his type of movie. But he is doing just what he likes to do. He has a lot of freedom.”


Piero Tosi tribute

Where: Leo S. Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.

Price: $8, general admission; $6, museum members, American Film Institute members, students with ID and seniors 62 and older.

Contact: (323) 857-6000