Anthony Powell and Deborah Landis: In Conversation

Just quickly…

So after previous V&A talks with Susannah Buxton and Deborah Nadoolman Landis, I went to another one! This one was open to the public so, I guess, there was a wider range of audience members. (I say I guess because my friend Tom and I got to the auditorium early and secured front row seats as early as we could.) When I attended the curator talk with Deborah Landis, she was verging on being late having attended the OBE ceremony for Jenny Agutter earlier in the afternoon; however on this occasion she (and John Landis) were as early as Tom and me. (Amusing me when she was “introduced” later.)

Two of Anthony Powell’s costumes from ‘102 Dalmatians’ (2000) – Cruella before and after her rehabilitation.

For those who don’t know, Anthony Powell is a theatre and film costume designer with three Academy Awards to his name – Travels with my Aunt (1972), Death on the Nile (1978) and Tess (1979) – as well as a Tony Award for School for Scandal (1963) and the Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004; among others. Tom is a designer that I have worked with on two shows and am in the midst of working with at the moment and he cites 101 and 102 Dalmatians (1996 and 2000) as the films that confirmed his desire to go into costume design (although he works as a theatre designer). Powell’s designs for those films are fairly legendary and two costume are featured in the Hollywood Costume exhibition. An interesting note about having Landis in conversation with Powell is that, after Landis designed Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Powell went on to design Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1983) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1988). Sadly due to time restraints (and a stern V&A lady) discussions of this “hand over” were skated over. Besides Powell calling Landis “the Queen of Indiana Jones” and Landis calling Powell “the Prince”. The talk followed a fairly chronological order of Powell’s film career – but missing a number of films. Powell regularly interrupted Landis with stories to be told “very quickly”. Never true!

Anthony Powell’s designs for ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photos.)

Anthony Powell trained as a theatre designer at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, now Central School of Saint Martins. Working as a designer wasn’t quite paying the bills so he was taking odd jobs as well. Someone he worked with was married to an American and invited Powell to dinner one evening with her parents – assuring Powell that they would get along. The father turned out to be film director Irving Lerner. The next day he rang up Powell and asked if he’d ever designed a film, if he would like to and if he’d join him in Spain in a few days time to design The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969). Powell’s advice for designers trying to break into the film business?

Just go to lots of dinner parties.

Anthony Powell’s illustrations, research, costume and still of one of Bette Davis’s costumes from ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photos.)

He also believes in luck. “Total chance. Being in the right place at the right time.” You also need to recognise opportunities. He completely believes that had he not attended that dinner his life would have taken a completely different journey. When Powell arrived in Madrid he was thrown in the deep end and asked numerous questions about armour (no knowledge of) by the wardrobe master. The armour was all made specially in Toledo and has (or was) been put into the Royal Armoury in Madrid as “real” armour. Powell was also very gullible and believed the crew when they told him that no-one in Spain made hats or jewellery. So he made them all himself!

Anthony Powell’s illustrations, research, costume and still of one of Bette Davis’s costumes from ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photos.)

His next film was Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) where he was one of four costume designers. This talk led into discussions of his process. Powell is his own illustrator. He accepts that many designers work with illustrators but he himself could never understand that process. Then again, he illustrates beautifully so it wouldn’t be an issue! Powell reads the script in a quiet and tranquil place. If no ideas come to him in that first read-through he won’t do the film because he knows it won’t be a right fit for him. He wouldn’t sketch at this point but would make notes in the script. In theatre you can take a young, thin actor and pad him out into Falstaff. In film, “the camera sees untruth”. You can’t impose a character onto an actor. Powell would always meet with an actor before sketching designs.

A closer look at one of Anthony Powell’s dresses for Bette Davis in ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photo.)

Travels with my Aunt (1972) was prepared for Katharine Hepburn. Days before shooting she was fired by MGM. The director George Cukor convinced Maggie Smith to take the role but a wardrobe had already been created for Hepburn. They started with costumes that had already been made and would work on Smith and then made more costumes as the film went on. The film was working fine until the new owner of MGM wanted it changed. He wouldn’t release the cast or crew from their contracts so they had to continue filming with a re-written script. “It was a mess.” Powell won an Oscar for the film but he maintains that it was because of the Academy’s fondness for George Cukor:

They wanted him to be connected with an Oscar.

Powell always tries to make the next project different from the previous. A designer’s job is to change their designs and style to suit the next project – even his drawing style.

A closer look at more of Anthony Powell’s illustrations for ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photo.)

Discussions of his work on Papillon (1973) led to high praise of Dustin Hoffman, who was willing to try anything. This included wearing contact lenses so that he could wear the super strong “fishbowl” glasses. There were also stories about Steve McQueen. Culminating in the story of Powell’s motorcycle journey around Jamaica with him – something that Powell regards as a test McQueen submitted him to.

A closer look at Anthony Powell’s illustrations for ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photo.)

To meet up with each cast member of Death on the Nile (1978) Powell had to undertake a ‘world tour’. And of this tour, Bette Davis told Powell to tell her what day would be best for him and she would cancel her arrangements. She also booked a car to drive him from New York (where he had met Angela Lansbury) to Connecticut. When he arrived he smelt home-baked cookies and freshly brewed coffee – by Davis herself. After the cookies and coffee, Davis stripped off so that Powell could see what he was working with! Powell noted that she had the most beautiful Edwardian shoulders, delicate ankles and exquisite feet – that would be what he concentrated on. Davis had strong views about what she wanted but, after some diplomacy by Powell, knew that he would handle everything perfectly and left everything up to him. Including wearing hats – which she had strongly protested in that first meeting.

Anthony Powell’s illustrations for ‘Tess’ (1979) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photo.)

Powell praised Roman Polanski’s direction and understanding of film. He first worked with Polanski on Tess (1979) and also on Pirates (1986), Frantic (1988) and The Ninth Gate (1999). Polanski trusted Powell explicitly and never knew what an actor was going to wear until they turned up on set!

One of Anthony Powell’s dresses for ‘Tess’ (1979) from the Dressing the Stars: British Costume Design at the Academy Awards exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath in 2011. (My poorly taken photo.)

(Time restraints led to very brief discussions on later films so I will breeze through these as well!) Powell was responsible for Cole Porter scoring Evil Under the Sun (1982). There was “something missing” from the film and he said that if they were willing to fork out a lot of money, a Cole Porter score would just complete the picture. Steven Spielberg always welcomed celebrity visitors to his sets and, if they hung around long enough they were dressed as extras. So in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, both Barbra Streisand and Drew Barrymore are dressed as guards, and Glenn Close convinced Powell to dress her as a pirate to get into Hook (1991). She was actually given lines and a full week of shooting. This was Powell and Close’s first meeting and led to their collaboration on 101 Dalmatians.

‘102 Dalmatians’ (2000) costume plot by Anthony Powell

Close gave Powell freedom with Cruella De Vil’s costumes and said that she would know how to play the character from his costumes. A statement that Powell says filled him with terror – if he’d got the costumes wrong, the performance would have been wrong. The one brief discussion concerning Miss Potter (2006) – Powell praised Renee Zellwegger. Her accent particularly. She stayed in her Miss Potter accent throughout shooting and he only ever heard her natural accent once shooting had wrapped.

Anthony Powell’s signature in ‘Hollywood Costume’ by his costume plot for ‘102 Dalmatians’ (2000)

Anthony Powell was a wonderful speaker and I wish the talk could have been longer – he was enthusiastic, joyous and just wanted to tell his stories! Afterwards there was a book signing so I was able to get two out of three books signed by Landis (one I donated to Tom because I’m such a good friend!) and Powell signed alongside his costume plot for 102 Dalmatians in Hollywood Costume. Tom had recently bought two of Powell’s illustrations for The Avengers (1998) so these were signed and dedicated. All in all it was an incredible evening and I loved every second! Now, where are all those films for me to watch/rewatch?

Deborah Landis’ dedication in ’50 Designers/50 Costumes’ – ‘One of three!’ not technically accurate after my donation!

S x

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One thought on “Anthony Powell and Deborah Landis: In Conversation

  1. Pingback: Reel People: Character, Costume and Cinema [Another Talk with Deborah Nadoolman Landis] | Damn, That's Some Fine Tailoring

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