By Dody Tsiantar
Clothes make the man, or so the saying goes. Costumes make the movie too. They may not be the most glamorous part of filmmaking, but they do help create movie magic. Without them, movies would be flat, colorless and shapeless. Simply put, movie costumes, along with sets and cinematography, shape the look of a movie—invariably becoming part of a film’s visual tableau. Often, they are part of what we remember, almost unconsciously, after the final credits have rolled.
Think of “Casablanca,” for example. What’s floating in front of you? Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat and a fedora, no doubt, or maybe an image of Bogie in his white tuxedo jacket pops up instead. Or think of the 1994 Farrelly brothers slapstick comedy “Dumb and Dumber.” Sure, you might think of Jim Carrey’s goofy haircut, but almost as likely, the ridiculous get-ups worn by Carey and fellow actor Jeff Daniels —the whimsical orange and turquoise tuxedos, Harry’s shaggy dog suit and Lloyd’s fringe leather jacket— also come to mind. Quick, think “the Dude” in the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic, “The Big Lebowski.” I dare you to try not to think of Jeff Bridges in his bathrobe shuffling along the supermarket aisle. Impossible.
Last week Mary Zophres, 46, the woman behind Dumb and Dumber’s whacky outfits and the Dude’s look, received an Oscar nomination for creating the costumes for another Coen brothers production, the western, “True Grit,” starring none other than the man who played the Dude, Jeff Bridges. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the Costume Designers Guild have also nominated Zophres’ costume design for an award this year. Though she’s been widely hailed for her work by movie critics through the years, the Oscar nomination is her first, an achievement in and of itself. “I’m so excited,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “I probably feel the same way anyone else who’s been nominated feels. It’s like ‘Oh My God!’ I can’t believe it.”
It was about time the Academy recognized her excellence. Full disclosure: I am biased. Mary is my first cousin. She was baptized, Areti, my grandmother’s name; Mary is her middle name. But we all affectionately call her Babe, since she is the youngest of seven cousins. My mother and her father, both raised in Ioannina, are siblings. For as long as I can remember, she always loved clothes—when she came over with her brother on Sunday afternoons after church, she always made a beeline for my Barbie collection and later as a teenager, she worked part-time in her parents’ clothes shop. She also loved movies—I must have gone to see Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh” with her at least five times.
My pride for what my cousin has accomplished however comes from more a far deeper source than our family bond. Through the years, I’ve admired her drive and her determination. To follow a dream, and seize an opportunity, in 1989, she abandoned a good-paying job with a clothing company to work as a costume assistant on the set of Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” without pay. To make ends meet, she bartended at night. And a year later, she uprooted herself from her comfortable New York life to go to Los Angeles to make her mark, taking a chance that someone with zero connections to the Hollywood machine would make it on her own merit.
And she did, working hard to build a reputation for getting it right. For each film, she did extensive research to make sure the costumes she created were historically accurate. For the 2009 black comedy “A Serious Man,” for example, she headed to the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest to explore its photo archive because the film was about a Jewish family that lived in the Midwest in 1967. She adapted the movie’s color palette of “avocado green and pumpkin orange” from a kitchen advertisement in a 1967 department store catalog. For the 2000 film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” a comedy set in the Deep South during the Depression, she dug up a photo book about Mississippi by the writer Eudora Welty in a Miami bookstore. She also has a keen, almost obsessive, eye for detail. In one scene for that movie, she had to dress over 100 extras—she noticed one was wearing very 1990s-like running shoes and made her change them.
It didn’t take long for her research-driven approach to seal her reputation as a designer who cared deeply about getting it right. No doubt, it drove director Steven Spielberg to hire her to capture the swinging 60s look of the 2002 film bio-caper, “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. As the magazine Entertainment Weekly put it when it named her as one of the 50 smartest people in Hollywood in 2007. (She ranked no. 39): “She marries clothing to each milieu so well, her work seems almost invisible; that’s made her the top pick for directors who prize authenticity.”
Designing clothes that seem almost invisible isn’t exactly easy. The outfits need to blend into the movie, to enhance it, but at the same time, they must never dominate what’s on the screen. Mary knows that instinctively. As she told W magazine in 2008: “The clothing should never distract from the actor or the plot. I love clothes, but I love movies and telling stories more.”
That love has made her the go-to costume designer for Joel and Ethan Coen ever since 1996 when she did the costumes for “Fargo,” the dark comedy set in North Dakota (think pregnant police officer!) because the original designer they’d hired couldn’t do the project. At this point in their careers, the Coens wouldn’t think of hiring anyone else; they trust her, almost blindly. And she’ll rejigger assignments accordingly, so she can work with them, even if it means sometimes having to work on two projects simultaneously. Her collaboration with the Coens has included the 2007 Oscar-winner, “No Country for Old Men” starring Javier Bardem, “Intolerable Cruelty,” featuring the glamorous Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney and “Burn After Reading” (2008) with Brad Pitt and John Malkovich.
You’d think she’d be starstruck working with so many Hollywood legends, but she isn’t. For Mary, who studied art history at Vassar College, it’s never been about that at all. For her, it’s all about the clothes—and the movie. From that very first day in 1989 when she showed up to work on the set of the Born on the Fourth of July without pay, she’s never looked back. She remembers that as she sorted through a big pile of clothes that day to figure out which decade they belonged to, she knew that she’d found her calling. “I was so happy that day,” she told W magazine. “I knew what I was doing. From that day, it was very clear that not only did I want to become a costume designer but I was cut out for it.”
And now with the Oscar nod, everyone else knows she’s cut out for it too. The timing couldn’t be more auspicious. A week ago, legendary Broadway designer, Greek-born Theoni V. Aldredge (aka Theoni Athanasiou Vachlioti) who won an Oscar for designing the outfits in 1974 film “The Great Gatsby” starring Robert Redford, passed away. It’s fitting that a week later, another Greek American costume designer landed on the list of Oscar nominees. On Feb. 27, Greeks the world over will be watching to see if Areti Mary Zophres inherits Alderidge’s legacy—and becomes the second Greek American to win an Oscar for costume design.