WRITER’S NOTE: 2012 marks the 70th birthday of Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese. So during the year, the National Classic Cinema Examiner will present a series of articles marking this great milestone. This article focuses on the filmmaker’s collaboration with Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell.
Martin Scorsese has always managed to work with the same people on every film, no matter what roles they play in front of and behind the camera. Besides his many great collaborations with the likes of De Niro and DiCaprio, the director has always kept his creative team mostly consistent. He has worked with Thelma Schoonmaker as editor on nearly every film since Taxi Driver, and has gone back and forth on different DPs (Michael Ballhaus & Robert Richardson). Yet since the 2000s, Scorsese has had only one woman in charge of the costumes – and Sandy Powell already had a strong track record before meeting him.
The British designer had a mountain of critical and commercial success throughout the 1990s, first earning an Oscar nomination for the 1992 Virginia Woolf adaptation Orlando. Powell was also a designer of choice for Irish-born filmmaker Neil Jordan, working with him on three ’90s hits: the 1992 breakthrough The Crying Game, 1994’s Interview with the Vampire and the 1999 Ralph Fiennes-Julianne Moore drama The End of the Affair. She would win her first Academy Award in 1999 for her work on the Bard-influenced dramedy Shakespeare in Love – during a time in which she received a second nomination that same year for the ’70s glam drama Velvet Goldmine.
In 2002, Powell began working with Scorsese on the epic drama Gangs of New York. She designed the looks of the warring gangs led by the treacherous Bill the Butcher and the Irish lad driven to kill him, along with the upper and lower class citizens of 19th century New York. Her efforts landed an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design, but was shut out of a win – as well as Scorsese and the entire film. Powell would return to the Scorsese fold for the 2004 Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, and she managed to create an old-school glamorous style needed for the entrepreneur’s experiences with actresses Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). She would earn an Oscar for her work, the first win for a Powell-Scorsese collaboration (so far).
The designer has worked with Scorsese on three other 2000s projects – dressing up the cops and hoods of present-day Boston in 2006’s The Departed, crafting the looks of the officers, doctors and patients of a 1950s Massachusetts mental hospital in Shutter Island, and styling the cinematic world of 1930s Paris in Scorsese’s recent work Hugo. Powell would earn an Oscar nomination for Hugo, landing her fourth Oscar nomination for a Scorsese-helmed project – adding her name to the list of Scorsese collaborators who have received critical success through their work with him.
Besides her work with Scorsese throughout the 2000s, that period also had other directors looking for Powell’s services. Todd Haynes brought her in to recreate the world of 1950s melodrama for his 2002 drama Far from Heaven, while fellow Brit Stephen Frears utilized her knack for crafting a beautiful 1930s vibe for his theater drama Mrs Henderson Presents. Multi-disciplined director Julie Taymor also had Powell’s talents, helping her craft her unique vision for the 2010 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s majestic epic The Tempest. Powell would also design two royal period dramas in 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl and 2009’s The Young Victoria – the latter film co-produced by Scorsese, and it would lead to her third Oscar win.
Sandy Powell has been a vital behind-the-scenes force on Scorsese’s filmmaking legacy for more than a decade, adding her costume expertise to the style of his work. She can also claim credit as one of the director’s best non-American collaborators, joining the likes of German DP Michael Ballhaus and Italian art director Dante Ferretti. With her association with Scorsese, Powell only added more acclaim to what was already a highly-successful resume of costumed greatness.