Oscar History

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Entries in The Furniture (98)


The Furniture: *Not* Another Art Deco Oscars!

Daniel Walber's weekly series on Production Design. Click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

“Hey, how about these sets? Are these sets great? They’re just like the Orgasmatron in Barbarella.”
-Jane Fonda

Oh, would that they were, Jane Fonda. Maybe someday we’ll have a Space Oscars, with gravity-defying holographic moons and an ever-shifting alien landscape. Presenters would enter through a pair of giant airlock doors at the back of the stage. The statuettes would float. The 50th anniversaries of both Barbarella and 2001: A Space Odyssey are coming up -- maybe they’ll do it next year?

Of course, the 90th Academy Awards didn’t escape earth’s atmosphere. But were they able to at least escape the endless parade of Art Deco, the nearly uniform tradition of the past few decades of Oscar telecasts...? 

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Mike Leigh at 75: On Wallpaper, Topsyturvydom and Empire

"THE FURNITURE," by Daniel Walber, is devoted to Mike Leigh this week for his 75th birthday. (Click on the images to see them in magnified detail.)

Topsy-Turvy is a subtle, even deceptive film. It moves like a light-hearted showbiz comedy, almost a Victorian Waiting for Guffman. Yet there’s much more going on. Why is it so long, for example? What is Mike Leigh trying to express with so many characters? Why "The Mikado"?

These are questions that can be answered by paying close attention to its production design, the Oscar-nominated work of Eve Stewart and Helen Scott. This is a film about London at the peak of the British Empire, a metropolis gobbling up the riches and the bric-a-brac of the entire world. And the chosen entertainment of its people, eager to take in the sights and sounds of their imperial fantasies, were the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The first to appear in Topsy-Turvy is "Princess Ida", a fantastical lampoon of Victorian mores that took place in a sort-of Pre-Raphaelite, Medieval court. 

The version presented here involves a stage flanked by a traffic jam of trees, vine-covered Classical architecture and a great many helmets and snoods...

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The Furniture: Canadian Brutalism Comes to L.A. in Blade Runner 2049

Daniel Walber's weekly series on Production Design. Click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

While planning the look of Blade Runner 2049, director Denis Villeneuve asked production designer Dennis Gassner for something very specific: brutality. As Canadians, Villeneuve and Gassner know a whole lot about that, at least architecturally. Canada’s big cities are inflected by brutalist buildings, stark and intimidating structures that have made their mark on cinema. Enemy is a good example, along with a lot of David Cronenberg’s early work.

Of course, Blade Runner 2049 takes place mostly in Los Angeles and was shot in Hungary. But its use of brutalist design transcends the specificity of place, resembling a vaguely Canadian nightmare as much as any waking version of California...

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The Furniture: Into the Marshes with Ida Lupino and Elsa Lanchester

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

This week marks 100 years since the birth of pioneering director and actress Ida Lupino. Twitter has been full of tributes to her work, including the eight feature films she directed. We've discussed a few of her films here before as well. For my part, I highly recommend her two episodes of The Twilight Zone.

However, I’m going to look at a movie from before she made the leap to directing, the only one in her filmography to receive a Best Art Direction nomination. 1941’s Ladies in Retirement is both a thriller and a play adaptation, a genre we don’t see too often anymore. But in that era it was fairly common, from comedies like Arsenic and Old Lace to the more explicitly malevolent Night Must Fall and Gaslight.

The setting of Ladies in Retirement, according to Reginald Denham and Edward Percy’s original play, is the “Living Room of an Old House on the Marshes of the Thames Estuary Some Ten Miles to the East of Gravesend, 1885.”

Of course, this being 1941, a location shoot in Kent would have been impossible even if the studio had wanted it. Instead, the marshes were built into a sound stage. The team was so proud of their ersatz swamp that they even set the opening credits in the muddy water!

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The Furniture: Rejecting a Neon Green Future in The Shape of Water

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

“That’s the future,” the ad man says, “Green.” It’s a ridiculous observation, but it’s also a cruel way to tell Giles (Richard Jenkins) he should find somewhere else to pitch his illustrations. The future, the ad man means, is the replacement of Norman Rockwell with cartoon children selling neon, gelatinous green pie.

The Shape of Water isn’t really about pie. But this comment on 1950s advertising is a helpful key to understanding the rest of this aqueous fantasy...

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The Furniture: The Chicanery and Posterity of 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus'

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus will always be known, perhaps primarily, as the movie interrupted by the tragic and sudden death of Heath Ledger (10 years ago today). This part of its reputation precedes it, particularly given its relatively muted critical reception. The story of its making, and the enlisting of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to fill the void, is essential to its reputation. It’s become a marker in time, an unplanned moment in the history of celebrity culture.

It is also, interestingly, a fairly specific moment in the development of visual effects. It lost the Best Production Design Oscar to Avatar, after all. These films stand for two dramatically different ways of using design and CGI to create cinematic worlds, even if they are both fantasies on the surface. And, perhaps, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus comes out ahead...

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The Furniture: Top Hat's Dancing Sets

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

Only 8 days until Oscar nominations! To mark the occasion, or perhaps to fill the time with something other than anticipation, let’s look back at the 8th Academy Awards. The year was 1935. Bette Davis won a consolation prize, Best Actress for Dangerous after the failure of a write-in campaign for 1934’s Of Human Bondage. John Ford won his first Oscar for The Informer, which beat Mutiny on the Bounty in nearly every category except Best Picture. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the film debut of Olivia de Havilland, won a write-in victory in Best Cinematography.

This was the last year with only three nominees for Best Art Direction. The victory went to The Dark Angel, a drama of romance and World War One. Its biggest competition may have been The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, an imperial adventure set in the British Raj. It apparently promoted European superiority so effectively that Adolf Hitler saw it three times. It received seven nominations, winning for Best Assistant Director.

If this all seems dour, don’t worry...

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FYC: The Furniture's 2017 Oscar Ballot

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail.

Production design can be a tricky thing to award. Like so many other categories, there’s a tendency to simply recognize “most,” rather than “best.” Moreover, great design can hide in plain sight. Brilliantly-conceived sets can seem like ready-made locations, particularly in contemporary films. Transportive design elements sit in the background, working their magic under the radar. It can take both a close eye and a little extra research to identify the year’s best work.

Still, here we are. Oscar voting is open and it’s time to make a last pitch. Below are my ideal nominees for Best Production Design, five films that often press up against detailed realism, while never letting go of their own movie magic...

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