Saturday, December 2, 2023

Will Catherine Martin Become A Six-Time Oscar Winner With “Elvis?”

From the sun-kissed world-building of “Romeo + Juliet” and the vibrant designs of “Moulin Rouge!,” to the technicolor spectacle of “Elvis,” costume and production designer Catherine Martin is a master of her craft. The four-time Oscar winner received three Oscar nominations this year for “Elvis,” her fifth feature with longtime partner and visionary collaborator Baz Luhrmann. Martin’s balance of historical references and fictional enhancements bridge an impressive connection to Austin Butler’s portrayal of Elvis Presley, an icon of presence and style in pop culture. Martin is nominated as a producer on “Elvis,” which marks her first Best Picture nomination, though her chances of winning fall strictly in Best Costume Design and Best Production Design. If she wins both categories, it would be her third time doing so — she previously achieved this honor for 2001’s “Moulin Rouge!” and 2013’s “The Great Gatsby.” Stars are aligning for Martin to repeat history, though she would need a boost, particularly in Best Production Design, and we’re still missing major pieces in the precursor puzzle. 

Depending on how the ADG, BAFTA, and CDG play out this month, the likelihood of an “Elvis” sweep in both categories could lose momentum. Going into these upcoming award ceremonies, “Elvis” leads the precursors in overall wins for Best Costume Design. The same can’t be said for Best Production Design; the film did get a boost recently with its SDSA win for Best decor/design of a period feature, but it has received few wins overall in this category. This factors in last month’s Critics’ Choice awards, where neither Best Costume nor Production Design went to “Elvis.” The former category was awarded to Ruth E. Carter for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” while the latter went to Florencia Martin and Anthony Carlino for “Babylon.” Tempting as it is to follow the Oscar trend of Catherine Martin winning in twos, Critics’ Choice being the strong indicator that they are is enough to take some pause.

The Oscars have matched the Critics’ Choice Best Production Design winners eleven times in the last twelve years and in a row for the last nine years. Similarly, for Best Costume Design, Oscar winners have matched Critics’ Choice ten times in the last twelve years. Martin herself is included in this set of statistics. For her work on “The Great Gatsby,” she won both categories at the Critics’ Choice awards. Her losing not just one but both categories here for “Elvis” casts a bit of doubt over her path to the Oscars. However, she’s still likely to gain frontrunner status with this month’s precursors. Her history of winning awards in twos extends to BAFTA, where she won Best Costume and Production design for “The Great Gatsby” and won the same two categories decades earlier for 1992’s “Strictly Ballroom.” While she hasn’t won a CDG award yet, her lead in precursor wins does bode well for her chances with “Elvis.” Also, of Martin’s three total ADG nominations, which include “Elvis,” she won two (“The Great Gatsby” and “Moulin Rouge!“). Martin will be recognized alongside Luhrmann with the ADG’s Cinematic Imagery Award, which honors filmmakers’ visual contributions to the medium of film. The signature style infused in Luhrmann’s body of work could help sway a growing frontrunner status for Martin. There’s a strong expectation going into his films that the production will be larger-than-life, and Martin is the one who translates Luhrmann’s grand visions into reality. 

The scope of “Elvis” leaves plenty for the costume and production design branches to admire. Martin strikes a critical balance of being truthful to history while embellishing fiction for heightened visual storytelling. She incorporates various decades (the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s) with recognizable detail to the point where her work feels lived-in rather than an impersonation. One key element of why Austin Butler’s performance works so well is that his physicality and presence are synthesized with Martin’s work. The costumes have movability. Whether it’s finding the right leather or fashioning the perfect collar, she gives Butler the wiggle room to thrust or fall to his knees. In terms of production design, The Graceland mansion, for example, while a clear symbol of Elvis’ early success and has a grandeur to its exterior, feels intimate in its interior. Martin’s attention to detail and Butler’s commitment are a song and dance of the vivid portrayal “Elvis” arrives at. From the recreation of iconic outfits to the stages Butler performs on and the sets he inhabits, in watching his performance, you are experiencing Martin’s work doing its job.

Given how closely associated costumes are with production design in creating the physical world of a film and that Martin is a solid favorite to win Best Costume Design at the very least, the inclination might be to give “Elvis” the package deal. Whether the Oscars want to spread the wealth or not is the question. While the last twelve Best Production Design winners have also been nominated for costumes, both categories matched in wins for the same film only five times. The last time these categories matched was for 2018’s “Black Panther,” which was a Best Picture nominee. This also marks a trend over the past eight years where each film that won Best Production Design was nominated for Best Picture. The last person to win this category without their film being a Best Picture nominee was Catherine Martin for “The Great Gatsby.”

This year, two films cross over in the Best Costume and Production Design categories — “Elvis” and “Babylon.” One of those films is nominated for Best Picture. That support boost can work to Martin’s advantage, particularly for Best Production Design, where her chances are more vulnerable. Where “Elvis” stands out is that it has enough Oscar recognition (eight nominations total) across the board, so winning Best Costumes and Production Design wouldn’t feel like the Academy going overboard. This is true when considering Catherine Martin’s own Oscar history and her proven ability to achieve a double win even without a Best Picture nomination. 

Where “Babylon” falls short is its performance as a major awards player. With three Oscar nominations, including Best Score, for which Justin Hurwitz is leading in precursor wins, it’s hard to imagine the film winning more than one out of three nominations, especially when factoring in Oscar history. Every film that won Best Production Design over the last twelve years had at least one or more additional Oscar wins. While “Babylon” has the Critics’ Choice for Best Production Design, and Critics’ Choice matches often with the Oscars in this department, is one big win enough to overcome the film’s underperformance overall? Rather than spread the wealth with “Babylon” here, the support for that film might accumulate towards Best Score and nothing else.

Another film in the competition alongside “Elvis” is “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which received four total Oscar nominations, including Best Production Design, Picture, Sound, and Visual Effects. By the logic of having a Best Picture nomination, could this film swoop in and take Best Production Design home? The path for James Cameron’s ambitious epic to do so would be shaky considering the Oscar performance of 2009’s “Avatar,” which received nine nominations and won three, including Best Production Design and Visual Effects. There’s one essential Oscar “Avatar” won that “Avatar: The Way of Water” missed a nomination for this year was Best Cinematography. Over the last twelve years, Best Production Design and Cinematography matched films at the Oscars only four times. However, each Best Production Design winner of the previous twelve years (except for “Black Panther,” “The Great Gatsby,” and 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland”) either won cinematography or received a nomination for it. Mandy Walker’s cinematography for “Elvis” made the cut this year, and that is very telling. If Walker wins, she will become the first woman ever to win this category. 

The Oscars clearly embraced the visual storytelling of “Elvis,” from the cinematography, makeup, and hairstyling (which the film also has a good chance of winning) to the costumes and production design. Plus, “Elvis” made the cut for Best Film Editing, which goes to show that voters are really on board with the complete vision Luhrmann and crew had worked towards. One film rarely sweeps in each of these categories. Even “Titanic” couldn’t do that. “Elvis” is in a position where it would be genuinely unexpected if the film went home empty-handed. Especially when considering the under-performance of films that could otherwise win over it; Best Picture misses for Best Production and Costume Design contender “Babylon,” makeup and hairstyling contender “The Whale,” and Best Costume Design contender “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” in addition to a Best Cinematography miss for Best Production Design contender “Avatar: The Way of Water.” 

My predicted outcomes would be either “Elvis” over-performs and wins a lot more below-the-line categories than many expect it to. Or, the film takes home the categories that seem most likely and have a special Oscar history behind them, like Best Costume and Production Design. Without a big sweeper in either category, this race might come down to which film is more well-liked by voters. The overall success of “Elvis” and its nomination performance could very well be the edge four-time Oscar winner Catherine Martin needs to win in twos for the third time. 

What do you think will win Best Costume and Production Design at this year’s Academy Awards? Do you think “Elvis” will simply take both? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account, be sure to check out our latest Oscar nomination predictions here.

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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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