Gretchen Rau, 66; Decorated Sets for Several Major Films

Times Staff Writer

Delicate teacups perched on a low table. Opaque rice paper screens sliding shut with a snap. Smoky oil lamps flickering in the corners.

The details paint a picture of a time and place.

In "Memoirs of a Geisha," set decorator Gretchen Rau brought all those elements together to engage the moviegoer, sharing an Academy Award for her work on the film.

Rau, a veteran of more than 30 films over 25 years, died March 29 of a brain tumor at her home in Northport, N.Y., her son Taylor Pattison said. She was 66.

Her last film was "The Good Shepherd," directed by Robert de Niro and due for release this year.

"She had moments of absolute inspiration," Jeannine Oppewall, a production designer who worked with Rau on "The Good Shepherd," told The Times on Friday. "It takes a special touch to tell you who the character is without words.... That was one of her great strengths, being able to ferret out things that tell you about the character."

Rau was too ill to attend the Academy Awards presentation at the Kodak Theatre last month, but when production designer John Myhre accepted the Oscar for art direction on "Memoirs of a Geisha," he noted his partner's contribution to the lavish production set in early 20th-century Japan.

"She had exquisite taste and always knew the right thing to bring onto a set," Myhre said Friday.

He and Rau worked together for the first time in 1993 on "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," and he said he was happy when they found another project to collaborate on.

"It's a complicated job," he said. "Getting all the little things right, that's what she did. And she made it seem effortless, when it's not."

Although Rau's only other Academy Award nomination (with Lilly Kilvert) came two years ago for another film set in Japan, "The Last Samurai," it was coincidence, Myhre and her son agreed.

"Wherever the jobs took her, she went," Pattison said.

Born July 6, 1939, in New Orleans, Rau moved to New York City in 1966 and soon began her career working as property master for Ampersand, a commercial production house.

From there she moved to feature films, working in the art department on "Atlantic City" in 1980 and "Once Upon a Time in America" in 1984.

"That was back in a time when you could learn by doing," she told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2004.

Rau worked steadily as a set decorator on such films as "A River Runs Through It," "Six Degrees of Separation," "Nobody's Fool," "The Crucible," "City of Angels," "The Horse Whisperer" and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou."

In addition to Taylor Pattison, a prop master, Rau is survived by two other sons, all of Northport, N.Y., George Pattison, a cameraman and director, and Jean-Paul Menard, a prop man; two daughters, Anne Pattison, a homemaker and makeup artist of London, and Stephanie Pattison, a schoolteacher of West Palm Beach, Fla.; a sister, Roli Deeves; a brother, Forrest Rau; and four grandchildren.

Services will be private.

Her sons George and Taylor attended the Academy Awards ceremony March 5 while Rau watched on television with the rest of her family.

When she finally held the statue a few days later, Taylor said, "She just lit up."

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