There’s an old expression that, to understand someone, you need to walk a mile in their shoes. This is what many actors do. Literally. They find the character through the clothes.
That’s why the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition, which closes on Jan 27 (tickets sold out online but still available on the day), is such an eye-opener. “There’s no doubt costume is character,” says Martin Scorsese in a video interview. “You can feel the transformation.”
There’s Matt Damon’s grey clothes from Bourne: simple, utilitarian, designed to blend into a crowd. They made 25 identical outfits due to the abuse received in the action sequences. At the other end of the scale, there’s Marlene Dietrich’s exquisite dress for Angel, on which a score of embroiderers worked for two and a half weeks.
And, best of all, Indiana Jones’s outfit. “A cultural icon is born when the character can be instantly recognised in his silhouette,” says costume designer Deborah Landis. The designer has to bear in mind practical as well as aesthetic considerations: the famous beaver-felt hat was given a specially short brim to allow the cameras to see Harrison Ford’s eyes.
My own revelation came on the featurette I co-wrote with director Ben Charles Edwards, Animal Charm, starring Sadie Frost, Sally Phillips and Boy George. In the opening scene, Frost’s character is kidnapped by terrorista fashionistas objecting to her promotion of fur. (See trailer here: http://bit.ly/y78KML.)
We wrote the scene as “three women in balaclavas”. But when it came to filming, it was decided that these ex-models would wear something more daring: knitted balaclavas by Piers Atkinson were procured, with full make-up and attached wig. Stylish, provocative, more than slightly sinister, they became a defining image of the film.
It’s a timely reminder that even character, as Joaquin Phoenix pointed out in his gracious London Critics’ Circle Award speech this week (bit.ly/10D8sra), is a collaboration. Critics sometimes write as if the director is the only person who matters. They are the person responsible, of course, and it’s their vision, ultimately, that is being served. But they are only as good as their team: costume, lighting, cinematography, sound, score, editing, actors and, yes, writers.
One reason I predict great things for Ben Charles Edwards (talent, youth and fearlessness apart), is that he knows how to get the best from that team. When last we met, he was a whisker away from getting funding for his first feature, written by the brilliant musician Al Joshua of Orphans & Vandals. If so, it will be one to watch.