Happy birthday to Anthony Powell, born on June 2, 1935! While not working too actively right now — his last theater credit was in 2012 — he’s won three Oscars for costume design, plus a BAFTA and a César award, mostly for historical work. And his period work is exacting and well researched, whenever he gets the chance, at least. In a 2016 interview with BFI, Powell compared the start of his career with today:
“Nowadays, films are thrown together at a minute’s notice and nobody has the luxury of doing it any more. For Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) they had a year’s preparation. Nowadays you can’t even imagine that. They approached me to do Bel Ami (2012), a very good script and a big production with banquet scenes, balls and a wedding in the Madeleine in Paris. Almost as an afterthought I said, “When are you starting shooting?” And they said, “In two weeks’ time!” I said, “Excuse me – !””
Oh yes, we wish every costume designer had all the time they wanted!
Btw, that name is familiar, his cousin is costume designer Sandy Powell. But today is Anthony’s day, and let’s admire his body of work.
The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969)
Per IMDB: “In 1532, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro leads an expedition into the heart of the Inca Empire and captures the Incan Emperor Atahualpa and claims Peru for Spain.”
1930s French Guyana prison, that’s all I got.
And while there’s a lot of prison uniforms that tend to look the same, Anthony Powell told BFI how he customized each one:
“I did do a lot of work on Dustin Hoffman’s uniform. Dustin has always been in very good physical shape, and I had to make him look as weedy as possible. He stood for four hours in a fitting room while I played around with making him seem to have narrow shoulders, and altering subtly the proportions to give him a completely different physical appearance.
He was wonderful because he would do anything that helped the part. In the book his character was described as having these spectacles with enormously magnifying lenses. I thought it would be a marvellous graphic image on the screen, but that if we gave him such thick glasses he was going to fall over all the time. He’d never worn contact lenses, but we went to an optician in New York to see if they could make contact lenses with the opposite strength to the actual glasses so he’d have perfect vision. And it worked. He could see perfectly, and if he took the glasses off he couldn’t see a thing. I don’t think there are a lot of actors that would go through all that.”
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)
Obligatory western is obligatory. Though this one looks a bit more shiny than others of its time.
Death on the Nile (1978)
This is where it gets good — a big-screen Agatha Christie Poirot mystery with so much ’30s glam! Anthony Powell won an Oscar and a BAFTA for these costume designs.
One costume was a last-minute addition, as Anthony Powell described to BFI:
“When we were doing Death on the Nile, suddenly a new scene was written in and I needed a new costume for Mia Farrow. We were in Egypt, in the middle of nowhere, so I thought what can I make it of? We had just enough pale blue silk in the workshop to make some pyjama trousers, but I needed something amusing to make a little top out of, and there was nothing at all.”
“But as I wandered around, there was our tailor’s mother, a wonderful cook, making her paella on the stove, using this quite grubby tea towel covered in grease and garlic and olive oil, but it was white linen with multi-coloured stripes which you could just see through all the grease. I thought there will just be enough to make a little waistcoat, if I can get all this filth out. So we boiled it and boiled it till it was sort of the colour it was meant to be, and we whizzed up this very pretty little waistcoat. We did the fitting with Mia, and I gave her a big straw hat, and she said, “I like this, this is very pretty, but can you smell garlic?” I said, “No, I can’t.” She said, “There’s definitely a smell of garlic; where could that be coming from?” I thought, it’s coming from you!”
Heart-breakingly beautiful adaption of Thomas Hardy‘s novel with subtle costumes that truly serve the story’s purpose. Powell won another costume design Oscar for this film.
Priest of Love (1981)
A somewhat controversial biopic of D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, mostly set in the 1920s.
Evil Under the Sun (1982)
Another Poirot, not quit as glam as Nile, but with some nice touches.
Anthony Powell explained to BFI why he likes to stay on set:
“Everybody works differently, but I’m sort of hands-on. From bitter experience, I would be there every second that they’re shooting, because the minute you go away, something always goes wrong. For instance, in Evil Under the Sun (1982), everybody was dressed in period costume from top to toe. They had the correct period underwear, everything. James Mason was fully dressed for a scene, including some original 1930s period braces that I’d given to his dresser. I had to go away and do fittings, and when I came back, the director had decided in mid-scene that he wanted him in his shirt sleeves. Which shouldn’t have been any problem, except that the dresser hadn’t given him the period braces and he’d got modern clip-ons. And there they are in the film. I just crinkle up inside every time I see that.”
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
All about the floorshow. And ignore Kate Capshaw’s hair in the whole flick.
In the BFI interview, Anthony Powell reveals the inspiration for this whole scene:
“I love musicals. Originally that sequence was just a background for the front titles, and I said to Steven [Spielberg], “Couldn’t we expand this, and at a certain point segue into a sort of fantasy sequence, using about 50 girls in completely different costumes, like a Busby Berkeley number, with Kate running down a long staircase with a billowing cloak behind her?” And he said, “Yes, that sounds good. Do some drawings.””
A huge flop, but not due to the costumes, which were more historically influenced than a lot of the ’80s pirate flicks.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Such a fun movie, and while it’s seemingly of minimal historical costume content, check this out:
Also, BFI asked Anthony Powell about Sean Connery’s look:
“I based it on my grandfather. He wore beautiful shirts made with wonderful cotton with stripes that you just couldn’t find now. In the script there was no point at which he could change clothes, but the suit was made of a rather thick Harris tweed, and Sean has a thing about heat and he sweats like a pig. Steven came up and said “I’ve just rewritten the script and after Venice we’re going to be shooting in Petra.” Incredibly hot. And Sean said, “There’s no way I’m going to wear this Harris tweed suit in Petra.” So what we had to do was photograph a length of the Harris tweed and then screen-print it onto a thin cotton voile. It cost a king’s ransom!”
Not historical, but with a few historical pirate costumes, so I’m letting it squeak in. There were even more costumes we didn’t and may never see, according to Anthony Powell:
“When we were doing Hook (1991), there was a wonderful, self-contained, 20-minute fantasy musical sequence, brilliantly arranged by Madonna’s choreographer, which was actually the best bit of the film. There were lots of costumes made specially for it, with the whole Pirate Town set full of people; pirate beauticians and everything. It was very witty and had terrific music. It was all shot, but in the end, Steven [Spielberg] cut the whole sequence from the film. It isn’t even on the DVD as an extra.”
Miss Potter (2006)
Such a sweet biopic, mostly set in the 1900s (with a little flashbacks).
What’s your favorite historical costume movie with costumes designed by Anthony Powell?
Miss Potter and Death on the Nile are tied for first. Evil Under the Sun is a close 2nd and Indiana Jones Ik der Holy Grailen oops I mean Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
Must see “Miss Potter” some day. And now I’m full of admiration for Powell’s cotton-voile-into-Harris-tweed work-around for Connery. However, I forget what was controversial about “Priest of Love.”
O.T.ish, but I have a tender spot for mediocre movies that manage to include just a few charming elements, like Connery and Ford’s relationship in “The Last Crusade” and Hoffman and Hoskins in “Hook.” I would have happily cut 45 minutes of the lost boys and Robin Williams and happy thoughts and all that Spielberg schmaltz just to spend more time with Captain Hook and Mr. Smee.
The Indiana Jones movies were very cheesy,but the costumes were undeniably fine.
Does that “Pirate” movie have such insanely detailed costumes throughout the film?
The look those two are exchanging in the wedding picture under Tess just screams ‘I’m not sure about this’! And ‘Too late now’.
Goddess bless you, i live in Saint Paul and my heart aches for my city and our sister city Minneapolis and I needed this
My favorite of these is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a hair’s breadth behind it. I love the Sean Connery diva story and am greatly intrigued by the lost musical number from Hook. I didn’t connect with Miss Potter at all. I thought Rene Zellweger was miscast, that she Ewan MacGregor had no chemistry, and that the whole movie never quite came together tonally. That said, it did look “right.”
P.S. Can I have a poster of Harrison Ford in the dinner jacket for my locker please?
He also is responsible for the costumes in “Travels With My Aunt” (1972). Yes, it’s a contemporary story but Maggie Smith wears some splendid 20’s and 30’s outfits in the flashbacks to Aunt Augusta’s personal history. I suspect this film is out of print; I think it was only so-so reviewed and popular.
OMG that striped waistcoat on Mia Farrow has always been one of my all time favourite costumes. I saw that movie when it came out and LOVED how her costumes were perfect for her colouring, and have often talked about it. I am so in love with this story, thank you!