Gilbey on Film: Dressing to impress

Hollywood Costume - review.

Top of most cinemagoers’ to-do list over the coming months should be to catch the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition, which opens on Saturday and runs until 27 January next year. (Get there before 18 November if you consider yourself any sort of friend of Dorothy’s: that’s the day her ruby slippers will be spiriting themselves back to the Smithsonian in time for Thanksgiving.) This collection of more than 100 costumes from cinema history incorporates the work of the most visionary practitioners in their field, from Edith Head (All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, Rear Window, Vertigo) to Sandy Powell (Orlando, Shakespeare in Love, Gangs of New York, Far From Heaven).

I’m especially glad that the great Eiko Ishioka, who died last year aged 73, is represented. It was said during an item about the exhibition on Front Row this week that the work of a costume designer should be invisible - that if the viewer notices it, then it probably isn’t serving its function. Ishioka’s costumes, in their chilled flamboyance and geometric opulence, were always eye-catching, but then the films to which she contributed were hardly kitchen-sink dramas; her work was an expression in fabric of the themes and ideas that permeated on every level the films in question. She collaborated four times with Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall, Immortals and Mirror, Mirror) and also did extraordinary work on Paul Schrader’s Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters; she won an Oscar for Francis Ford Coppola’s film of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, two costumes from which are included in the exhibition. You can read an interview with her here, and see a brief slideshow of some of her work here.

I had occasion recently to interview the brilliant costume designer Mary Zophres, whose credits include everything from glossy superhero blockbusters (Iron Man 2) to elegant period pieces (such as Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can and the forthcoming Gangster Squad). She has also worked regularly with the Coen brothers since The Hudsucker Proxy in 1994; a friend reports enthusiastically that the V&A exhibition features the distinctive dressing gown which Zophres came up with for the Dude (played by Jeff Bridges) in the Coen brothers’ finest film, The Bjg Lebowski. Below she explains to me her working process, and specifically her collaborations with Bridges and the Coens on The Big Lebowski and the 2010 version of True Grit.

The first thing I did for The Big Lebowski was talk to Joel and Ethan [Coen] and to do sketches and research, then to talk with Jeff. The first fitting was at his house in Santa Barbara. For a contemporary movie like that, we did a lot of pulling stuff in, thrift store shopping, shopping in surf stores and vintage stores in Venice Beach and Santa Monica, looking for different things; I felt the Dude’s clothes should be things he’d owned for at least 10 years.

Jeff tried on a lot of different clothes until we felt we’d nailed some really good looks, we took some 35mm photos and showed those to Joel and Ethan, and we plotted out the arc of the character in costume changes. There’s a line of description in the script which says that the Dude had made a whole career out of being relaxed; those kinds of cues really help me. The fact that he lives in Venice Beach, doesn’t have a job, likes White Russians—all that gives a strong idea of how he might dress.

Over the years, there’s been quite a bit of controversy over the Dude’s cardigan. I can’t even remember where that famous cardigan came from. I think we found it in a thrift store. We ended up having to make six because it was going to be used in scenes where there were stunts, so it could get ripped or damaged. The original one was always in the long scenes but we ended up with those six; I think there was one that was going to fetch quite a bit of money at a costumes auction, only there was some question over its authenticity, and whether it was actually the original…

Jeff is one of the most fun actors I’ve ever dressed. He’s the definition of a character actor. Not all actors are helped by their costume, and he’s an example of someone who is. Because the costume fitting happens so early on in the process, we’re sort of the first information he gets about the character. On True Grit, he was the first person cast, and my method is to design the lead character—that’s who I figure out first—and then the second lead, then it all fans out like a blooming flower. He was doing press for Crazy Heart while he was preparing for True Grit, but I had done all this research, so I had all this information that I was sharing with him about the historical period. He took it in like a sponge. He loves the costume fitting because it helps put him in that era. On the fittings for both True Grit and The Big Lebowski, there was a distinct moment where his posture changed and he went into character right before my eyes. That is such a thrill for a costume designer—it’s why I do movies, to contribute to the story by helping an actor find his character.

Hollywood Costume is at the V&A, London SW7 until 27 January 2013.

Exhibits from the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A (Photo: V&A)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser