Deja vu in Oscar's costume design race

Commentary: Sandy Powell, Colleen Atwood facing off again

Because ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are pulling out all the stops to promote the 82nd Annual Academy Awards, they might consider billing the best costume design category as a smackdown for the "Project Runway" set.

In what other race this year can you find two nominees who have been nominated eight times apiece, who have gone head-to-head on five previous occasions and who have won two Oscars each in their earlier face-offs?

This year, they're back again.

Sandy Powell, who took home Oscars for 1998's "Shakespeare in Love" and 2004's "The Aviator," is nominated for Apparition's "The Young Victoria," in which her costumes chart the transition the young queen made from embattled princess to fledgling monarch.

Joining her once more in the nominees' circle is Colleen Atwood, nominated for outfitting some of the most iconic actresses in the world in the Weinstein Co.'s "Nine." Atwood won Oscars for 2002's "Chicago" and 2005's "Memoirs of a Geisha."

Turns out, though, theirs is a friendly rivalry.

"We laugh about it; we're always up against each other, and we have enormous respect for each other," Powell says. In fact, on one of the rare occasions when Atwood was nominated (for 2007's "Sweeney Todd") and Powell wasn't, Atwood dashed off a note to Powell, telling her how much she missed her on the red carpet.

Seconds Attwood, "Sandy, her husband Alfie and my family have gotten to know each other with our common nominations. The night is huge, and it is always fun to see familiar faces."

One reason the two have earned so much Oscar attention, Powell theorizes, "is we're lucky. We both work with the same directors regularly."

Although Powell's nomination this year came from collaborating with Jean-Marc Vallee for the first time, she has worked most closely in recent years with Martin Scorsese. She designed the costumes for his just-opened "Shutter Island" and is about to begin work on his next project, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret."

"Nine" marks the third time Atwood has worked with Rob Marshall, and she also frequently joins forces with Tim Burton -- the upcoming "Alice in Wonderland" is their latest film together.

Come Oscar Night, the two designers will be part of a group that also includes four-time nominee Janet Patterson for "Bright Star" and first-time nominees Catherine Leterrier for "Coco Before Chanel" and Monique Prudhomme for "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."

Powell and Atwood's name recognition aside, it's a relatively equal playing field because none of the films in the category is riding the coattails of a perspective best picture winner.

Adding interest to the race is the fact that in several of the films, the costumes, far from being mere window dressing, provide a veritable subtext.

"Coco," for example, looks at the early life of fashion designer Coco Chanel, played by Audrey Tautou, subtly pointing out the influences that would later find expression in Chanel's work as a groundbreaking innovator of haute couture. The film, which harkens back to a classic like 1939's "The Women," even concludes with a full-fledged fashion show.

Similarly, in Jane Campion's "Bright Star," John Keats' love interest Fanny Brawne, played by Abbie Cornish, is herself something of a home-taught fashionista who stitches her own outfits, setting herself apart from the crowd.

Even "Nine," which swirls around Daniel Day-Lewis' film director Guido Contini, offers a shout-out to designers, with Judi Dench playing a costume designer on whom Guido leans for advice.

Although there are no obvious markers to suggest which way the Academy might lean, Powell did earn the corresponding BAFTA on Sunday. "I was genuinely shocked," she says. "I wasn't expecting it." Although she had won one BAFTA, for 1998's "Velvet Goldmine," Powell had become accustomed to leaving the BAFTAs empty-handed -- "Gangs" and "Aviator" earned her BAFTA noms but not the final award.

The BAFTA choice isn't necessarily predictive of the Academy's, though, because two of the Oscar-nominated films, "Nine" and "Parnassus," weren't included, with the BAFTA list instead filled out by "An Education" and "A Single Man."

But in a kind of dress rehearsal for the Oscars, Powell and Atwood will go up against each other Thursday night, when the Costume Designers Guild holds its 12th annual CDG Awards at the Beverly Hilton. They are nominated in the period film category with "Coco," Ann Roth for "Julie & Julia" and Jenny Beavan for "Sherlock Holmes."

Powell, who will be flying in from London for the event, also is to receive the Lacoste Career Achievement in Film Award, which Atwood received in 2006.

Neither Powell nor Atwood has entered the territory of costume designer record-holder Edith Head -- Hollywood's doyenne of design was nominated 35 times and won on eight occasions, including her final Oscar for 1973's "The Sting" -- but Powell says that with familiarity, the awards process has become easier.

"You know the ropes," she says. "And you know what's going to happen. Having said that, you still have the same emotions and buildup. It's like doing a job. You have to be so organized, have a speech, so it is quite pressured."

At least, though, these nominees don't have to turn to another designer for help. On the two evenings when Powell was called to the stage, she was wearing her own designs, "which came out of whatever I was working on at the time." This year, she expects to opt for something vintage.

On the other hand, they can't blame another designer for any fashion faux pas, either. "I think as a costume designer dressing myself for Oscar night is daunting," says Attwood. "In my experience, I have always been working and tend to leave it to later than I should."