Saturday, March 2, 2024

“Barbie” vs. “Poor Things” For Best Costumes And Production Design

Barbie” or “Poor Things?” That is the question awards pundits may face all season leading up to the 2024 Academy Awards. Those two heavy hitters are in contention for multiple categories across the board, from Best Picture and Best Director to Best Actress and Best Screenplay. But, two crafts in particular are proving to be more of a competitive nail-biter: Best Costume Design and Best Production Design. Between the Victorian steampunk fantasy of Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things” and the bright pink color palette of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” who has the upper hand in both categories? The two films take wildly different approaches to an unwittingly similar subject matter: Their central characters embark on journeys of self-discovery in new worlds. Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) and Barbie (Margot Robbie) dance and float through spaces that shine with tremendous detail. From the layered set pieces to the textured wardrobe, “Poor Things” and “Barbie” present unique, tangible worlds for the characters to inhabit. Each film plays with scale and scope to achieve a close-knit look in the realm of fantasy, and the results could not be more different.BarbieThe visual languages of “Poor Things” and “Barbie” are so fully realized and distinctive that the costume and production design race may just come down to which film the Academy likes more overall. Both films are off to a consistent start among critics’ groups, with “Poor Things” winning costume design and “Barbie” winning production design from the Chicago Film Critics and Las Vegas Film Critics. “Barbie” also picked up production design wins from the Washington DC Area Critics, the LA Film Critics Association, the San Diego Film Critics Society, and the Phoenix Film Critics Society, as well as costume design wins from the San Diego and Phoenix critics. Both films are nominated for costume and production design at the Satellite Awards and the Critics Choice Awards, the latter of which has become a strong precursor in the awards race. Over the last 13 years, 11 of the Critics Choice costume design wins, and 10 of their production design wins went on to win the Oscars. The last film to win the Critics Choice in both categories was 2018’s “Black Panther” (costume designer Ruth E. Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler). “Black Panther” also went on to win both categories at the Oscars. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Another film had put up competition when the BAFTAs chose their best costume and production design of that year: Lanthimos’s “The Favourite.”Poor Things” and “Barbie” are likely embarking on paths similar to the trajectories of “The Favourite” and “Black Panther.” To help determine whether “Poor Things” or “Barbie” has the edge, we can await the upcoming costume and production design guild nominations for some clarity. For instance, the Costume Designers Guild (CDG) Awards honor the best in Contemporary Film, Period Film, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy. While the guild made a clear distinction between “The Favourite” being a period film and “Black Panther” being a fantasy, “Barbie” and “Poor Things” can both be considered part of the fantasy genre. While the categories of contemporary (the Real World in “Barbie“) and period (the Victorian era in “Poor Things“) respectively apply, a much bigger spotlight shines on the films’ fantasy elements.

With “Barbie,” two-time Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran — who won for Greta Gerwig’s previous film “Little Women” (2019) and Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” (2013) and has an additional six nominations — shows why she’s one of the greatest ever to do it. She crafts an astonishing wardrobe collection that cherry-picks from the most iconic outfits in Barbieland. The detailed fabrics range from 1950s to 60s pastels and 1970s to 80s glittery disco pieces to 1990s nostalgia and structured modern fits. Durran works within a cohesive color palette and balances various shades and styles of pink, from soft and patterned to punchy. Plus, she has a whole set of goofy Kens to dress, including Ryan Gosling and his white faux-mink coat inspired by Sylvester Stallone. There is more than enough fantasy in “Barbie” for the CDG to categorize it as such, and if the film wins, it will follow in the footsteps of “Black Panther’s” CDG win in Sci-Fi/Fantasy.Three-time Oscar-winning British costume designer Sandy Powell won the CDG’s Best Period Film costumes for her edgy, regal work on the 18th-century-set “The Favourite.” Will the guild also classify “Poor Things” in the period category? The film’s costume designer, Holly Waddington — whose previous credits include William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth” (2016) and Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” (2011) — draws from 19th-century inspiration to bring the fabrics of Lanthimos’s otherworldly vision to life. Each outfit charts the evolution of Bella Baxter, a surgeon’s brainchild who gets carried away on a whirlwind adventure. From the childlike baby-doll dresses and puffed sleeves to the sexually liberated flesh-colored condom gown to the dark academic ensemble, the clothing is a pure extension of Bella finding freedom through self-expression. While Waddington is working within a Victorian-era story, the costume design is such a fantastical mishmash that it can’t be defined as being from one specific period of time. The clothing transports you into a parallel universe, a world like no other. If “Poor Things” is nominated alongside “Barbie” in the CDG’s fantasy costume category, look for the winning film to have an edge leading up to the Oscars.

The best production design category is just as much of a nail-biter as costume design. In “Barbie,” six-time Oscar-nominated set decorator Katie Spencer and six-time Oscar-nominated production designer Sarah Greenwood craft a smooth, pink plastic world that plays with scale and miniatures. From Barbie’s midcentury Palm Springs-inspired Dream House and the layered architecture beyond it to the spoilt aesthetics of Kendom’s horse decor and mini-fridges to surreal hand-painted backdrops, there is no shortage of neat details in which to relish. Greenwood and Spencer expertly highlight the visual cues that remind audiences of the famous doll and accessories. The textured set design harkens back to old-school Hollywood productions where you could almost reach out and touch what you’re seeing. While the Real World in “Barbie” lacks the same magical wow factor, there is something to be said about how immaculate Barbieland is on its own — not only for its hyperrealistic “toydom,” but also for the fresh interpretations that combine Barbie’s global familiarity and Mattel designs with Gerwig’s specific vision and the evolution of characters.Life in plastic might be enough to make a splash with the guilds. The ADG Excellence in Production Design Awards, presented by the Art Directors Guild, honor films in three categories: Period, Fantasy, and Contemporary. In the last 13 years, ten films that won the ADG went on to win the Oscar. Six of those films won in the period category (including “The Favourite“), three in fantasy (including “Black Panther“), and one in contemporary. Much like the CDG awards, the ADG’s categorization for “Barbie” and “Poor Things” could either shed light on which film has the edge (if both compete as fantasy) or make the race even more of a close call (if the two are split between period and fantasy). Another helpful precursor for production design will be the Set Decorators Society of America (SDSA) Awards. First held in 2021, the awards honor set decor/design in four categories: Period, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary, and Musical or Comedy. There is a strong possibility that “Barbie” lands in musical/comedy, which leaves room for “Poor Things” to win elsewhere.

As fun and vibrant as Barbieland is, some may find the heights of the film’s production design are concentrated on that portion, whereas “Poor Things” has a more perpetual sense of discovery. Frame by frame, the opulence and intricacy of those sets are on maximum display. Production designers Shona Heath and James Price and set decorator Zsuzsa Mihalek craft a kaleidoscopic fantasy that stretches across different chapters of Bella’s cognitive progression. From Lisbon and overseas to Alexandria, Paris, and London, the sets play around with scope and texture to create worlds unlike any other. The interiors and exteriors make each setting feel grandiose yet also intimate and welcoming. It’s a neat parallel to Emma Stone’s bold performance as Bella; the production design has a transformative quality that twists and bends to the development of her character and how she views the world. Many of the spaces Bella inhabits are spliced together in the way a surgeon like Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) would experiment. While rooted in real places, the architecture of “Poor Things” appears off-kilter and unearthly.The look of “Poor Things” stems from Lanthimos’s unique vision, which the Academy has shown to be on board with in the past. “The Favourite” received 10 Oscar nominations, including costume and production design. “Poor Things” is shaping up to be just as well-received across the board. However, there is a distinction in terms of how “The Favourite” played during awards season. While the visual language of the film was embraced, the focal point of the film’s reception was Olivia Colman as the tumultuous Queen Anne. Colman’s Oscar-winning performance, not to mention her endearing acceptance speeches all season, enamored audiences and the film industry at large. “Poor Things” is more scattered regarding which elements are being talked about and focused on, which could bode well for costumes and/or production design as the film’s best chances of an Oscar win.

Also, leading up to the Oscars, the BAFTAs and Critics Choice will shed light on whether “Poor Things” and “Barbie” become “The Favourite” and “Black Panther” of this season. So far, the British Academy seems to love Lanthimos. Out of 12 total BAFTA nominations, “The Favourite” won 7, including costume design (Sandy Powell) and production design (Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton). Recognition for “Poor Things” would mark the first BAFTA nomination for Waddington, who has worked on numerous British productions from “Happy-Go-Lucky” (2008) to the BAFTA-nominated “Another Year” (2010). While “Poor Things” seems to be the comparable film to follow in “The Favourite’s” footsteps, “Barbie” might be the better-suited comparison in this scenario, more so for the costumes. Durran is a three-time BAFTA winner and nine-time nominee. The BAFTAs may be inclined to go with a previous favorite again, as they did with Powell for “The Favourite.” Then, there’s eight-time BAFTA nominee Sarah Greenwood, whose first and only win was for “Atonement” (2007). “Barbie” is the perfect opportunity to award another favorite.The billion-dollar global success of “Barbie” could parallel the awards trajectory of “Black Panther,” which also surpassed the $1 billion mark. “Black Panther” had a massive impact and presence throughout the 2018 award season. Directed by Ryan Coogler, the film was nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Original Song, and won 3 (Best Original Score, Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design). Plus, the soundtrack topped the Billboard charts and earned Grammy recognition, which feels a little similar to the awards buzz “Barbie” has been generating. The visual and musical language of “Barbie” continues to strengthen, from early critics’ groups wins to multiple Grammy nominations for the film’s soundtrack. In addition, the presence of “Barbie” can be felt everywhere in the industry, whether it’s the local radio playing Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For” on a loop or the newly-released holiday version of Ryan Gosling’s “I’m Just Ken.” When it comes to staying fresh in voters’ minds, “Barbie” won’t have a problem. The film’s titanic success could see it sweep the costume and production design categories a la another $1 billion grossing film.

So, who has the upper hand? While “Poor Things” could dominate at the BAFTAs, as Lanthimos’s previous feature did, “Barbie” feels more comparable with how both “The Favourite” and “Black Panther” performed during award season. “Barbie” has strong BAFTA-winning British talent behind the scenes (from Durran to Greenwood). Plus, the zeitgeist popularity and continuous love from critics and audiences. “Barbie” is leading the Critics Choice Awards with a record-breaking 18 nominations, surpassing “Poor Things” (13), as well as “Black Panther” (11) and “The Favourite” (14). “Barbie” could also follow in the footsteps of “Black Panther” and win the Critics Choice awards for costumes and production design. With the early critics’ group wins, “Barbie” is shaping up to be the early favorite in both categories. While it’s still early enough for these two categories to be anyone’s game, the overall popularity of “Barbie” and its place in the public consciousness could be the film’s edge over “Poor Things” in the long run.

What did you think will win the Oscars for Best Costume & Production Design at the 96th Academy Awards? Will it be “Barbie” or “Poor Things” for both, or will they split? Please check out our latest Oscar Predictions here, the 2023-2024 precursor tally here, and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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