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Remembering Janet Patterson

This past October, Costume Designer Janet Patterson, passed away. The four-time Oscar Nominee passing was somehow quite unexpected and very much ignored by much of the mainstream media, which is such an incredible shameful thing on their part.

As a 19th century specialist, her work is rather brief (restraining itself to movie focused on that period of time). But that makes it no less impressive as it is, as it includes such costume design masterpieces as The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993), The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion, 1996), "
Oscar and Lucinda (Gillian Armstrong, 1997), Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009) and Far from the madding crowd (Thomas Vinterberg, 2015), which I actually included in my Favorite Costume Designs of 2015 list (read here).

What all of her movies share, and in great part thanks to her, is an incredible sense of realism and sensibility. And, because of it, her work has become one of the best examples that accurate historical costume does not detract from the audience's experience when watching a movie.

A FAREWELL

We first came to know her through her first collaboration with Jane Campion in The Piano (1993), a partnership that would span a lifetime for Patterson.


The movie went to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and became quite the hit, earning 8 Academy Nominations (including Costume Design for Patterson) and winning 3 of these (Best Original Screenplay for Campion, Best Actress for Holly Hunter and Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin). Best Costume Design, unfortunately, was lost in favor of Gabriella Pescucci's Age of Innocence, which was very much deserved as well.


Set in the mid-19th century, the design, with its incredible attention to accuracy and detail, was made to clash with the wildness of New Zealand.


The movie and its designs managed to capture and unspoken beauty and strength that mirror perfectly Hunter's character.


Three years later, in 1996, Patterson teamed up again with Campion for the adaptation of Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, and even though it wasn't as critically acclaimed, it still received numerous nominations and awards across the board, including a second Oscar Nomination for Patterson (which was lost to The English Patient, a rather unfair win if you ask me).


Set in the second half of the 19th century, roughly around 1880, the story of Isabella Archer is one of pain and suffering despite her economic wealth and independence. And that is more than reflected in the beautifully somber array of black, maroon, and grey gowns that Patterson designed for her.


The film can boast of having one of the most accurate costume designs for a movie set in this period. This, paired with the fact that it was shot almost entirely on location in Italy and England, makes for a painfully realistic film that manages to breathe life into the pain-stricken words of James' novel.


The bitterness of her life choices, the unfairness of her circumstances, the deceit in which she surrounds herself... all come into clear definition under Campion's direction and, in great part, thanks to Patterson design.


Her next collaboration, though, would not be with Jane Campion, this time, instead, choosing to partner with Gillian Armstrong (who had previously helmed the direction of 1994's Little Women). The two of them partnered up to create 1997's Oscar and Lucinda.


The film was fairly well received and earned Patterson a third Oscar Nomination for Costume Design, which she lost again, this time in favor of Deborah Lynn Scott's Titanic.

The movie is a romantic drama, based on Peter Carey's book by the same name. And it's set in the 1870s-1880s in Australia. Rather forgotten, the film is much more remembered for featuring a very young, pre-fame, Cate Blanchett, than by anything else.


Whilst being pretty entertaining, the movie certainly can't be labeled as a masterpiece. And its most brilliant aspect is, without doubt, it's Costume Design, which is, once more, spot on.


Her extreme care and devotion towards accuracy and detail are more than welcome in an industry that still considers historical accuracy as a hindrance to the box office.


After that, she worked in a few more films, none of which really got any publicity around themselves, And so,  her next big project wouldn't come until 2009, when she teamed up once more with Jane Campion for the wonder that is Bright Star.


The film is a biographical fiction centered around Fanny Brawne and her love affair with poet John Keats and it's a masterpiece in its own right. The movie was critically acclaimed, as it premiered at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival and managed to land a fourth Academy nomination for Costume Design (which, once again, she lost; this time to Sandy Powell's Young Victoria).


Bright star is a richly textured ode to Keats' poetry; a subtle and nuanced take on love and artistic expression (him through poetry, her through clothing) that will move any grown man to tears by the end of it.

Here, Costume Design plays, even more, a pivotal role in the development of the story, as the main character happens to be a dressmaker herself. This allows Patterson to display an incredible array of 1820's dresses, jackets and bonnets that light up the screen completely turning Fanny's spirit into visual items.


The incredible sensibility and emotionality of the story are matched beat by beat with the visuals at absolutely every level, which is what makes this such a memorable film.

I could go on about it for hours, but if you want to read more about it, click here to read my article about Bright Star that I published a few months ago.


Her last cinematic work came only this past 2015 when she teamed up with Thomas Vinterberg in the latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, which, to my knowledge, is her only collaboration with a male director.


The film, despite rather positive reviews, flew relatively unnoticed under the awards radar and hardly got nominated in any of the major Awards, only scratching a Satellite Award nomination for Patterson's designs. A bit unfair, if you ask me.

It takes place in the 1870's Victorian Britain, and it boasts a stellar cast of actors as well as Hardy's masterful story. And, even though it changes some of the source material, it still maintains its spirit and sensibility wonderfully.


Once more, the costumes look amazing and help the story a great deal. It has to be marked, though, that this the only instance in her whole career where historical accuracy in the designs was not spot-on (there are a few non-period elements laying around), but one must assume, particularly with her track record, that it was a directorial request.


Still, these are magnificent designs with a wonderful use of patterns and stripes (which is not that common in movies) that highlight the main character's wildness, joy and toughness.


Certainly, an amazing final nail to a perfect career.

LAST THOUGHTS

Janet Patterson's career is one filled with masterful designs, and it's such a shame that it won't continue to expand anymore. So, we'll have to simply rejoice in what she left behind.

But, at the end of the day, what bother's me the most, is that, after four nominations, she never actually won the Academy Award, and that's a true shame, for she deserved it many times over the span of her career.

Her amazing attention to detail and love for historical costume is, in the end, what made her a great Costume Designer, and that is not that common in this business. Because of this, she's really a name to revindicate on our part. Actually, all of these movies have been on my to-do list since I started this blog, and it's a shame, on our part, that we still haven't talked about them in-depth. And that will be fixed as soon as possible.

What's your favorite design by Patterson? Tell me in the comments!

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