She tailors to characters

Times Staff Writer

It was Ann Roth's idea to give Nicole Kidman the nose.

The much-discussed prosthetic nose that helped Kidman change physically into Virginia Woolf for her Oscar-nominated role in "The Hours" came from Roth, a veteran costume designer whose suggestion, said the film's producer and director, allowed the actress to transform more fully into the famous English writer.

The attention Kidman's fake nose has received disturbs Roth. Like any other kind of prop or costume or hairstyle, the idea was to give the actor what Roth calls a "jolt, a kick-start," to make the character come alive, not to call attention to itself. Throughout a career spanning five decades, Roth has become known for those "eureka" moments when actor, designer and director see the character form in those crucial fitting-room sessions.

"It's not just costumes," said producer Scott Rudin of her work, "It's storytelling." He's become such a Roth fan that he's hired her for his next productions, a dark-comedy update of "The Stepford Wives" and an adaptation of the book "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." Her 100-plus credits also include the films "Hair," "Marathon Man," "Silkwood," "The World According to Garp" and 27 major projects in the 1990s alone, including "Sabrina."

As a costume designer for movies, television and theater, Roth operates more like a subliminal image maker. If her designs look like a flashy fashion show, or draw attention to themselves, Roth labels them a failure.

Full of praise for Roth, her industry colleagues readily describe the 72-year-old as a filmmaker, artist, historian and confidante, who happens to have a way with dressing people and understanding actors.

"She is as likely to talk to me about light and sound and what is the most important moment in the film as she does about costumes," said director Anthony Minghella, whose 1996 film, "The English Patient," won Roth a costume-design Oscar. "She has a filmmaker's mind."

She has earned Oscar nominations also for "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999) and for "Places in the Heart" (1984). In February, Roth earned her fourth Academy Award nomination for her work on "The Hours," a movie adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. As in the book, the filmmakers wove together the stories of three women in three eras who are joined by Woolf's powerful novel "Mrs. Dalloway."

Tonight, Roth also will be honored for career achievement in film when the Costume Designers Guild meets at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel for its annual awards gala. Roth became a leading candidate for the award, said guild President Deborah Nadoolman Landis, even though the field of competition has grown large. But so has Roth's resume.

"What she does magnificently is transform contemporary costume," Landis said, noting how the designer has worked in a wide range of time periods, genres and locations. Roth's skill is perhaps most appreciated by other costume designers and art directors, about 130 of whom cast the votes for Oscar nominations in their field. The full membership votes on winners.

Always researching

Speaking from her country house in a remote, coal-mining region of Pennsylvania, Roth scoffed at the idea that she'll win again.

"I am not known for pretty clothes," said Roth, an assessment that also acknowledged the academy's habit of favoring the flamboyant and sexy over the subtle and serious. With her nomination, however, she's already beat some formidable odds in a year full of the kind of fantasy and period pieces that often win. "The Hours" will be up against the crowd-pleasers "Chicago" and "Frida," and the period pieces "Gangs of New York" and "The Pianist."

Roth will tell anyone who asks (or not) that any time the audience is particularly conscious of a film's costume design, it's a failure of sorts. No one should notice that Ed Harris' bathrobe in "The Hours" was made from the same rocket-print flannel that covers the bed of his character as a child, said Roth. No one should be conscious that the goatskin coat Meryl Streep wears for her 1990s character is the same tone and silhouette as Woolf's in the 1920s. All are symbolic, subliminal hints at connections between character and plot.

"Her work is invisible in service to the characters," said Streep, who requests that Roth outfit her for roles whenever possible. "She is not someone who is making a generic Ann Roth imprint on a picture. She is designing the people in a particular world," she said. "She's like a novelist designer."

As a voracious reader, Roth's conversations are more likely to mention book titles (mostly fiction bestsellers) than boldface names. Though she is a Hollywood insider, she doesn't abide by the town's thirst for glamour, hype and artifice. She isn't a big name on the social circuit, though her friends are A-listers, such as Streep and any number of directors. When she's on location, she explores.

"I'm an outrageous traveler," she said. "I'm everywhere." She explored Romania while filming Minghella's Civil War epic "Cold Mountain." "I was in the schools, flea markets, shepherds' houses, gypsy camps," she said. "It all soaks in there."

Director Stephen Daldry quickly came to appreciate the value of her intellectual hunger when he shot "The Hours," his second feature film. He said having Roth on set is like "having a close confidante who takes you through the whole process. I would use her on every possible thing."

Praise comes with recognition of her quirks. "She is a proper eccentric," Daldry said. "Her Christmas card this year was her with shepherds in Romania. She gravitates toward people or situations that are going to feed her."

That's why she is, above all, a tenacious people watcher, an anthropologist of attire.

"I cannot imagine living in California and not standing on the subway," she said. "Where do you see people? I think of all these directors who leave New York, get rich, buy a house and stare at the Pacific."

A mutual understanding

Off the set, she cannot stop from studying real-life versions of interesting characters, a habit that greatly aids the veracity and accuracy of her reconstructions. "I remember something that struck me a very long time ago in a terribly fancy restaurant," she said. "There was a man at the table, European, very, very well-off, and very well-known. He had on a suit from a famous Austrian tailor.... He looked glorious in the suit. And the cuffs and the collar were shining with starch."

But there was something off, she thought. "There was a burn hole in his tie and something like dried egg on it," she said. "I don't think a valet dressed him. Who knows?"

Production designer Maria Djurkovic marveled that Roth's research included visiting all of the locations for "The Hours" before they were shot -- an unusual step for a costume designer, she said. The homework helped create a mutual understanding, "an empathy," Djurkovic called it. Consequently, before the two even met, Roth had pictured the Bloomsbury-era color scheme that would unite the three stories and time periods. "She laughs about how she gets paid to do something that comes quite naturally to her," Djurkovic said. "It doesn't come naturally to everyone."

Instead of reading a script, Roth reads between the lines. "When I was doing 'Midnight Cowboy,' the Ratso Rizzo character was sleeping on pool tables down on 42nd Street," Roth said. In imagining him, she thought about such things as when they go to bed at night, do they hang up their clothes? Who does the laundry?

"You have to figure it out," she said. "It's not really psychological. It's sort of a little detective work you do."

Roth brings the results of her investigation to the wardrobe fitting room, the place where actors have their first physical contact with the character, which becomes a target of inquiry.

"We never stop talking during a shoot about all the ways that a character manifests her costumes," said Streep. "She is really into all the different layers and idiosyncrasies of people. She understands how people are. It's a very different way of designing -- very different from a designer-designer," Streep said. That's something Roth understands, but the fashion press, evidently, doesn't.

In the February issue of Vogue, editor at large Andre Leon Talley complained that on screen, most contemporary costume designers just don't do the stars justice, fashionwise (though he did say he liked "The Hours").

A story in the same issue on Karen Patch, costume designer for "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," described the task of designing a fashion show for the film as "frightening," and "challenge enough for a real designer."

As Roth recited the line, indignity rose in her voice. "Daunting? With the implication being that Anna Sui is a real designer and what is poor Miss Patch?"

The idea that costume design is somehow a lesser art than fashion design obviously irks Roth, whom both Daldry and Minghella described as one "who doesn't suffer fools easily." Yet the colors, textures and construction of Roth's clothes make them look as good -- and better -- than most designer ready-to-wear, a fact made clear by the current exhibit of movie costumes at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in downtown L.A.

"I don't like to do a job for the purpose of getting recognition," Roth said. Unlike some Golden Age costume designers, or today's breed of fashion-stylist designers, Roth aims to make the costumes seem natural to the personality and habits of the character. Though they may not be fashion's idea of glamour, directors and actors alike say it's almost impossible to imagine a Roth-dressed character wearing anything else.

Wearing Roth-designed costumes for "Adaptation," Streep earned her 13th Oscar nomination, which made her history's most nominated actor.

"I really think she is the unsung heroine of my career," Streep said. "She's really done a lot for me, and for the women I have portrayed. She has drawn fully half of them."


Art of Motion Picture Costume Design Exhibition

What: Features more than 100 costumes from 28 of the year's movies, including all costume design Oscar nominees ("The Hours," "Gangs of New York," "Frida," "Chicago" and "The Pianist").

When: Mondays-Saturdays,

10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Where: Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum and Galleries, 919 S. Grand Ave.,

Los Angeles

Ends: May 3

Price: Free

Contact: (213) 624-1200

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World