Can Costume Designer Colleen Atwood Pull Off an Extremely Rare Oscar Feat?

The 10-time nominee could become only the ninth costume designer to score two noms in one year if she is recognized for 'Big Eyes' and 'Into the Woods'
Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company; Courtesy of the Weinstein Company
'Into the Woods,' 'Big Eyes'

An actor cannot be nominated for an Oscar for more than one project in the same category in the same year — but can a costume designer? That was a question that I was asked by a colleague this week after she noticed that costume designer Colleen Atwood, a 10-time nominee and three-time winner, worked on two of this year's highly anticipated awards hopefuls: Tim Burton's drama Big Eyes and Rob Marshall's musical Into the Woods.

The answer: absolutely — it has happened 13 times in the past to eight people — although Atwood would be the first person in more than a decade to pull it off.

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"Wait a second," you're thinking, "aren't we getting a bit ahead of ourselves, considering that nobody has even seen either of Atwood's two 2014 movies?" Actually, no. We've seen enough of them in their trailers to conclude that they feature the same sort of creative, flashy, eye-catching work that Atwood has always done and to which the Academy has responded. And whether or not the movies themselves "work" is largely irrelevant. To the credit of the Academy's costume designers branch, few movies have gotten costume design noms on the coattails of their overall popularity (as happens frequently in other categories), and many movies that didn't appeal to the Academy in any other category were still celebrated for their costume merits (including, from just the last three contests, I Am Love, The Tempest, Anonymous, Jane Eyre, W.E., Mirror, Mirror and The Invisible Woman).

Moreover, if anyone's mere association with a project suggests a likely nomination, it is Atwood's. The 66-year-old's 10 noms have come, rather remarkably, from a pool of "only" 31 feature films over the last 20 years, which makes for a Hall of Fame-worthy .323 batting average. To put her achievements in some context, the only costume designers who ever accumulated more noms were the late Edith Head (35), Charles LeMaire (16), Irene Sharaff (15), Jean Louis (14) and Dorothy Jeakins (12) — and Head and Louis, because they ran studio costume departments during the Golden Age, got nominated for some projects with which they were not integrally involved, something that no longer happens.

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So what is the secret to Atwood's remarkable Oscar track record, apart from being extremely talented? I would submit that it's that she almost exclusively works on period films and fantasy films, the two types of movies from which the best costume design Oscar nominees are almost always drawn. (Get this: The only non-period, non-fantasy film to receive recognition in the category in the 21st century was The Devil Wears Prada eight years ago; contemporary stories simply don't provide costume designers with the same sorts of opportunities to show what they can do.)

Atwood also has impressive track records for her work with both Burton and Marshall. She was previously nominated for her work on three of Burton's fantasy films: Sleepy Hollow (1999), Sweeney Todd (2007) and Alice in Wonderland (2010), winning for Alice. And while Big Eyes may be grounded in reality more than the usual Burton project, it is still a period piece set in the 1950s and '60s. And she was also nominated for three prior Marshall-directed films, Chicago (2002), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and Nine (2009), the first and last of which were also musicals. (She won for the first two.) None, though, were as grounded in fantasy as Into the Woods.

So, while nobody is ever a "sure thing" for an Oscar nom, Atwood comes pretty close.

For the record, the others who scored multiple Oscar noms in a single year for costume design — a category that has been presented at the last 67 ceremonies, and that recognized black-and-white and color costumes separately at 17 of them — were:

  • Edith Head in 1951 won for All About Eve in the black-and-white category and won for Samson and Delilah in the color category
  • Charles LeMaire in 1951 won for All About Eve in the black-and-white category and won for Samson and Delilah in the color category
  • Walter Plunkett in 1951 was nominated for The Magnificent Yankee in the black-and-white category and was nominated for That Forsythe Woman in the color category
  • Charles LeMaire in 1952 was nominated for The Model and the Marriage Broker in the black-and-white category and was nominated for David and Bathsheba in the color category
  • Walter Plunkett in 1952 won for An American in Paris in the color category and was nominated for Kind Lady in the black-and-white category
  • Helen Rose in 1953 won for The Bad and the Beautiful in the black-and-white category and was nominated for The Merry Widow in the color category
  • Charles LeMaire in 1954 won for The Robe and was nominated for How to Marry a Millionaire in the color category and was nominated for The President's Lady in the black-and-white category
  • Charles LeMaire in 1956 won for Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing and was nominated for The Virgin Queen, both in the color category
  • Irene Sharaff in 1962 won for West Side Story and was nominated for Flower Drum Song, both in the color category
  • Edith Head in 1964 was nominated for Love With the Proper Stranger and Wives and Lovers, both in the black-and-white category
  • Danilo Donati in 1967 was nominated for The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Mandragola, both in the black-and-white category
  • Sandy Powell in 1999 won for Shakespeare in Love and was nominated for Velvet Goldmine
  • Ngila Dickson in 2003 won for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and was nominated for The Last Samurai

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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