“Nothing wrong with having nice shoes. A man gotta have some shoes to dance like this.”— Chadwick Boseman aka Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Nicole’s nose. Meryl’s caftan. Tippy’s mink coat. Brenda’s red fox coat. Viola’s gold teeth and horsehair wig. And Chadwick’s yellow shoes. Just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the signature accoutrements devised by legendary costume designer Ann Roth to transform mere mortals into iconic film and stage characters.
In a career that has encompassed more than 200 feature films, Broadway and regional plays, TV/cable films, operas and ballets, Ann Roth has costumed every character no matter how minor, down to their nail polish, shoelaces and noses (The Hours). Her skill set defies pigeonholing.
There’s Miami Beach drag (The Birdcage); period literary adaptations (The Day of the Locust, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain); social issue-driven classics (Midnight Cowboy, Silkwood, The Paper and HBO’s Angels in America); aliens (Signs) and the alienated (Hair); big hair (Working Girl and Mamma Mia!); women in crisis (Klute, Doubt, The Reader and HBO’s Mildred Pierce); Broadway buffoonery (Gary) and burlesque (The Nance).
Ann & Tony & Oscar…
The breathtaking range of Roth’s creative talent and exacting demand for period detail was never so evident than during the 2018 New York theater season when she was nominated for Tony® Awards for three critically-acclaimed revivals: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women and Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. In the 2019 season, she nabbed Tony® nominations for Taylor Mac’s quirky Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus and the blockbuster hit, To Kill a Mockingbird. Prior recent Tony® nods include The Book of Mormon (2011), Shuffle Along (2016) and a win for my personal favorite, The Nance (2013).
Her Academy Award® nominations—Places in the Heart (1984), The English Patient (1996), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), The Hours (2002), and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)—have spanned five decades. And despite the industry’s yearlong pandemic pause, Roth’s run for the gold hasn’t skipped a beat. A quarter century after winning her first Oscar® for The English Patient, she is poised to win her second for Ma Rainey’s head to toe costuming. Should the film adaptation of August Wilson’s play seal the deal, as I believe it will, the Oscar® will land a cozy spot on her trophy shelf next to her 2021 BAFTA (British Academy Award), CDGA (Costume Designer’s Guild Award), and Critic’s Choice Award, as well as her boatload of regional critic’s awards and nominations for the film.
Ann Roth & Ma Rainey…
While his themes transcend skin color, August Wilson’s cultural importance in the African-American community is irrefutable. Wilson’s greatest achievement as an American playwright and his enduring legacy is his monumental 10-play cycle: Each play tackles a different decade of the 20th century, beginning with 1900 (Gem of the Ocean) and ending with 1990 (Radio Golf). All but one of the plays—Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1920)—are set in Pittsburgh.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom centers on a fictional afternoon in the life of Southern blues singer and recording artist, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, aka the “Mother of the Blues,” who has motored North in July 1927 with her sexy young girlfriend and nephew to record her signature songs in a steamy, bare bones Chicago recording studio. Flashbacks of Ma’s bawdy travelling tent show recall her dazzling stage presence and spirited fan base.
Hardened by her life as a black performer and gay woman in the Jim Crow South, Ma is wise to the ploys of her racist white record producer and condescending manager and her cocky young black horn player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman). All three men are trying to advance their careers and line their own pockets at her expense.
Big, bold and brassy, Ma is more than a match for the sidewinding white men who exploit her talent for their own financial gain, and for ambitious musician Levee who wants to kick-start his own career on her time, with her girlfriend. Ma has every intention of recording her music her way, on her financial terms, and keep a firm grip on her girlfriend in the process.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom gave Roth the chance to work her magic in one of her favorite decades (the Twenties) and team up once again with director George C. Wolfe, the film’s producer Denzel Washington and star, actress Viola Davis.
“Ma Rainey was a tough, strong woman with gold teeth and a horsehair wig,” said Roth. “I loved it.”
Despite the project’s short lead time and few existent photos of the real Ma Rainey, Roth’s costume designs evolved from hours of meticulous period research in tandem with the film’s talented hair and makeup team. Roth, as always, set about transforming the actors into August Wilson-worthy characters, with viable backstories, no matter how brief their screen time.
“During the tent scene which must’ve had over 100 extras, I kid you not,” recalled Viola Davis. “Ann went up to every one of those extras. She explained where each part of their costumes came from and what it meant to be in that tent. It was a transformative experience.”
Roth bulked up Viola Davis with a rubber body suit, a mouthful of gold teeth, an authentic gold coin necklace, newsboy cap and fur stole, bodacious street and beaded stage garments, and advised the film’s hair and makeup team (also BAFTA winners and Oscar® nominees!) to top it all off with an extraordinary horsehair wig.
“Viola started moving in this new body, and experimented with how Ma’s going to swing that behind, and she started to find that woman and make her fabulous,” marveled Ann Roth.
And lest we forget Levee’s fancy yellow shoes—the shoes he spots in a store window and splurges on en route to Ma’s recording session—Roth punched the character’s Florsheims up a few notches, tempting him instead with conspicuous yellow wingtips, signalling not only Levee’s exaggerated career aspirations but also their futility.
Ann Roth’s lifelong fascination with all things dramatic, including the lives of the directors, writers and actors she admires, continues to propel her into grueling, overlapping film and theater assignments, most with repeat talent. She worked on 13 feature and cable films and numerous Broadway projects with her great friend, Mike Nichols; made three sweeping period films with director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, Cold Mountain and The Talented Mr. Ripley); and lately has linked up theatrically with Ma Rainey director George C. Wolfe. At 89 years of age, with her second Oscar® looming, she is, at this writing, on set in North Carolina working on one of three films in her pipeline.
Just You, Just Me, Just Right…
Coincidentally, after apprenticing with fabled five-time Oscar®-winning costume designer Irene Sharaff, Ann Roth landed her first solo film gig on one of the secret pleasures of my youth: The World of Henry Orient (1964). I wanted to live the lives of those girls, and I never forgot teenage Tippy Walker’s mink coat. Ann told me she got it off the back of a truck.
I first met Ann Roth almost 25 years ago. I was asked to profile her for a lengthy magazine piece. It sounds corny, but it’s true: She “had me at ‘Hello’.” I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have met, interviewed and worked with scores of incredibly talented artists, writers and filmmakers during my career as a journalist, publicist and Awards program director. But crossing paths with Ann Roth for the first time, for me, was akin to being struck by a bolt of lightning.
I grew up with dreams of becoming a fashion designer like Coco Chanel and admired Oscar®-winning costume designer Edith Head for her commanding sense of style and chutzpah. I studied art in college, departed quickly from a post-grad stint at The Fashion Institute of Technology, and happily found my niche in graduate film school at NYU, where I never remember hearing the words “costume designer.” The first thing I learned when I called Ann Roth to set up our first interview? It’s best not to mention Edith Head.
“Edith Head dressed movie stars,” Ann said, punctuating the moment with the deliciously throaty growl she uses to express impatience. “She didn’t dress the elevator man, the mother-in-law, or the secretary. She did the leading lady. I costume characters. I’m not dressing stars.”
To say that I’ve been blessed to have been able to continue my relationship with her over the years is an understatement. My time spent with Ann in her studio, the Costume Depot, in New York, and at her bucolic 18th century farm in rural PA, while preparing my original manuscript, are days I will never forget. And the moments since then when we’ve connected are precious to me. Her concern and comforting words when my mom passed away and during my own brief hospitalization were especially touching and very much appreciated given her exhausting work and travel schedule.
Little did I know when I received that fateful phone call from my editor more than two decades ago asking me to interview a costume designer (not named Edith Head!) that a window would open for me that would not only turn my preconceived notions about costume design on their ear, but also…and more importantly…bring a feisty and captivating new friend into my life.
Extraordinary talent, creative vision and an indomitable spirit got Ann Roth where she wanted to be. “I always wanted my life to be an adventure,” she confided to me. Knowing Ann has been one of my life’s great adventures.–Judith Trojan
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by George C. Wolfe, adapted by screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, from the play by August Wilson, was produced by Denzel Washington, Dany Wolf and Todd Black, and is available for streaming on Netflix. The 93rd Academy Awards® will be telecast on ABC, Sunday, April 25, 2021, 8:00 p.m.ET/5:00 p.m.PT. Ann Roth is the subject of The Designs of Ann Roth (2014), one of the USITT’s series of monographs on theatrical designers. Costume Magic: Ann Roth Turns Burlap into Velvet by Judith Trojan, was published by Carnegie Mellon (Spring 1998). And you can source Ann Roth’s November 16, 2014, CBS News Sunday Morning profile at www.cbsnews.com/sunday-morning/ or on YouTube.–JT.