A salute to Tony Walton
Production and costume designer Tony Walton, who has earned three Tony Awards, an Oscar and an Emmy over the last five decades, describes himself as a “theater critter.”
“That is where my home is,” the British-born Walton, 76, said over the phone from New York. “Compared to the great many theatrical productions, I have only done about 20 movies. I was lucky enough to be working with the same people on the movies as I was in the theater, like Bob Fosse [“Pippin,” “Chicago,” “All That Jazz”], Mike Nichols [“The Real Thing,” “Heartburn”] and Sidney Lumet [“Murder on the Orient Express,” “Deathtrap”]. It was the same sort of creative marriage, as it were.”
But he worked only once with iconoclastic film director Ken Russell, on the colorful, zingy 1971 roaring ‘20s-era musical, “The Boy Friend,” for which former model Twiggy earned two Golden Globe Awards (for acting and as best newcomer).
“The Boy Friend” was a decided change of pace for Russell, whose previous features, such as “Women in Love” and “The Devils,” were dramas full of nudity and sacrilegious and other provocative imagery. “The Boy Friend” was sweetly G-rated.
On Sunday, the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre and the Art Directors Guild Film Society will present a screening of the director’s cut of the musical, along with Walton in conversation with ADG President Thomas W. Walsh.
“Tony is kind of the consummate designer,” Walsh said. “He has been an inspiration for me, whether it be [his designs] for graphics or costume or production design for stage, opera and the ballet. He knows no boundaries.”
Walsh had attempted last year to honor Walton, who was Julie Andrews’ first husband, but the designer was battling lymphoma. “It went from my brain through the throat and stomach and bowels and all of that,” Walton said matter-of-factly. “I had a very fierce series of chemotherapy.”
Save for a lingering bout of shingles, Walton is on the mend. “I am pretty sure I’m all clear,” he said cheerily.
Coincidentally, Andrews became a Broadway star in the 1954 stage version of “The Boy Friend,” which was a send-up of the 1920s stage musicals. The film version pays homage to the musicals of the 1930s, most notably those lavishly surreal dance routines choreographed by Busby Berkeley.
Set in a shabby seaside resort theater, the movie features a struggling troupe of actors staging a musical called “The Boy Friend.” Twiggy is the company’s go-fer and understudy. When the show’s star (Glenda Jackson) breaks her leg, Twiggy must go on in her place.
Between the backstage shenanigans and the gaffe-filled onstage performance, the characters break into lavish fantasy sequences, including a lengthy Grecian romp featuring Twiggy, costar Christopher Gable and members of the troupe, and a black-and-white ode to Berkeley featuring, as Walton describes it, nurses “wheeling ancient folk around in wheelchairs making Busby Berkeley patterns.”
But that wasn’t Russell’s initial concept for the film. Originally, he was going to stick close to Sandy Wilson’s book for the original musical. “I had designed a very sort of Deco, lighthearted style,” Walton recalled. But two weeks before production was to begin, he got a call from the director.
“He was on vacation at some English seaside place,” Walton said. “He had been to a seaside theatrical production, and it has many more people on stage than in the audience. And he thought, ‘This is how I should do this.’ He was also reading a book by the author of ‘Lord of the Flies’ [William Golding], and there was one about a shabby theater troupe. He was all psyched up about the idea and the backstage shenanigans. I had to switch gears at the last moment. It became a mishmash of things. Something like grunge Deco.”
Walsh said that what makes Walton special is his sense of joy and whimsy. “He has such a love and passion for what he does,” said Walsh, who worked with Walton as an assistant nearly 30 years ago. “He is an extremely detailed perfectionist in terms of making sure all the nuances are right. He has his own special kind of magical charisma.”
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