A legend in film costume design who continues to revisit her theatrical roots
Ann Roth never claimed not to be outspoken. "Let me tell you something," says the costume designer, who in her nearly 50 - year career has distinguished herself equally in film and theatre. "I am the first girl in this business to use real period clothes. I've always done this, because I come from this coast [East] and they come from that coast [West]." The "they" Roth refers to is composed of the Hollywood costume design establishment. "When they were doing The Sting," she continues, "I was doing Day of the Locust. I had some real stuff I brought from this coast, and I had some stuff from museums copied. I work out of museums; they go into the stockroom and pull stuff that was used in another movie."
The epitome of the Hollywood style was, of course, Edith Head. "I'm not taking anything away from Edith," says Roth. "She was there to invent the glamour of Hollywood. I love that, but I'm not interested in doing it." Instead, the designer takes after her mentor, Irene Sharaff, whom she spent five years apprenticing with in the 1950s. Roth, a Hanover, PA native and graduate of Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) in Pittsburgh, was painting scenery at Bucks County Playhouse when she met Sharaff. "She said she thought I would be happier in costume. She asked me to come with her to California and do the film of Brigadoon. She put me in charge of dyeing all the tartans." Unlike Head, Sharaff insisted on designing everything on her films, including the men's and background characters' costumes.
Roth went on to work with Sharaff on the films A Star Is Born and The King and I, and on such Broadway shows as Candide and Happy Hunting. Soon after going out on her own, the young costume designer established long-running working relationships with Broadway heavyweights Neil Simon and Mike Nichols, starting with the original production of The Odd Couple. Major Broadway credits through the years have included Purlie Victorious, Play It Again, Sam, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, They're Playing Our Song, Biloxi Blues, and Nichols' productions of Hurlyburly and Death and the Maiden. Roth has received Tony Award nominations for her work on The Royal Family, Crucifer of Blood, and The House of Blue Leaves.
The designer's film career has arguably been even more distinguished. Her first costume design credit in movies was George Roy Hill's The World of Henry Orient, shot in New York in 1964. She started out specializing in contemporary costumes for such East Coast - based projects as A Fine Madness, Up the Down Staircase, Midnight Cowboy, The Owl and the Pussycat, and Klute. But The Day of the Locust, set in the 1930s, helped put her firmly in the period column. Her Depression-era costumes for Places in the Heart garnered Roth her first Oscar nomination, an honor she won in 1996 for Anthony Minghella's The English Patient. She collaborated again with Minghella on the stylish 1950s clothes for 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley, and won another Oscar nomination. The list goes on: The Goodbye Girl, Hair, Nine to Five, Dressed to Kill, The World According to Garp, Sweet Dreams, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Q&A, Sabrina, In & Out.
Roth considers it important that her taste and sensibility mesh with a director's. "Mike Nichols and I are the same person," she says of the filmmaker she has worked with on Silkwood, Heartburn, Working Girl, Postcards From the Edge, The Birdcage, and Primary Colors, to name a few movies. "If we walk into a room and there's a pompous person with egg on his tie, we both see that." Other favorite directors include John Schlesinger, Robert Mulligan, and Sidney Lumet. In addition to the EDDY Award, Roth has recently been given the Edith Head Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Fashion Institute, and most fittingly, the Theatre Development Fund's Irene Sharaff Award.
The designer says her favorite part of the process, in theatre or film, is fitting the costume. "I do every fitting, and I choose every fabric. I like to create the character, or if it's a lot of background people, I like to create the look of it - the spectacle, the atmosphere." She has also inherited another habit from Sharaff: mentoring young talent as varied as costume designer Gary Jones, who shared many credits with Roth before going on to a solo career, and production designer Neil Spisak.
And Roth has continued to have a busy career of her own. In the last year, she has designed her latest film for Nichols, What Planet Are You From? as well as Gus Van Sant's Finding Forrester, starring Sean Connery. Her smart Upper West Side costumes for Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, starring Michele Lee, Linda Lavin, and Tony Roberts, can now be seen on Broadway. The medium she works in, or the period, is not important, to her, she stresses: only the director is. "If Mike Nichols says he wants to do early Greek tragedy, we do it."