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Anthony Powell, Oscar-winning costume designer, dies at 85
For Cruella de Vil, in two live-action movies based on a 1961 animated feature, Powell conceived wild, villainy-enhancing ensembles.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Anthony Powell, an inventive British costume designer who won three Oscars but is perhaps best known for the outlandish clothing he conceived for Glenn Close as the fur-loving Cruella de Vil in “101 Dalmatians” and its sequel, died April 16 in London. He was 85.

The Costume Designers Guild announced his death but did not cite the cause. His fellow costume designer Tom Rand said he died in a nursing home.

“There’s so much intelligence behind his work, no matter the genre or the character,” said Keith Lodwick, curator of theater and screen art at the V&A Museum in London. “You watch a movie like ‘Evil Under the Sun,’ and you see extraordinary detail — like in one scene, Roddy McDowall’s red socks match the red carnation on his jacket.”

Powell, who brought deep research to his work in both theater and film, won a Tony Award for the 1963 production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th-century comedy of manners “The School for Scandal,” his first Broadway show. He collaborated on movies with Steven Spielberg and Roman Polanski. He won his Oscars for “Travels With My Aunt” (1972), directed by George Cukor; “Death on the Nile” (1978), directed by John Guillermin; and “Tess” (1979), the first of his three films with Polanski.

“Anthony, in a way, is an amazing director,” Kevin Lima, who directed the sequel “102 Dalmatians” (2000), told The Los Angeles Times, “because he has to look deep into these characters and visualize them. And he doesn’t just perceive what they wear, but also who they are and how to create layers of character based on their clothing, which is what we did with Cruella.”

For Cruella de Vil, in two live-action movies based on a 1961 animated feature, Powell conceived wild, villainy-enhancing ensembles. They included a black-and-white silk gown with shark-fin appliqué; a red gown lined with ostrich feathers that appeared to swallow Close in flames; and a couture nun’s habit with a backless gown and an umbrella-sized wimple.

“When we started, Glenn said the most chilling thing to me,” Powell was quoted as saying in his obituary in The Telegraph. “She told me, ‘Just do the clothes, makeup and hair, then I’ll look in the mirror and decide how I’m going to play it.’ That’s a lot of responsibility.”

Close, who would also wear outfits (including turbans) that Powell designed for the Broadway musical “Sunset Boulevard” — both the original production, in 1994, for which he got a Tony nomination, and the 2017 revival — said on Twitter after his death, “He put me into outfits that taught me how to move in and wear a costume rather than being consumed by it.”

Powell received an Oscar nomination for his work on “102 Dalmatians.”

Powell was born June 2, 1935, in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, a suburb of Manchester, to Arthur and Alice (Woodhead) Powell. He attended schools in Manchester and Dublin before serving in the British Army as a wireless operator.

After graduating from the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, he apprenticed with Cecil Beaton, the Oscar-winning stage and costume designer, and the scenic and costume designer Oliver Messel.

While teaching at the Central School, Powell began his career. Beaton introduced him to John Gielgud, who was directing and starring in the 1962 London production of “The School for Scandal.”

In addition to winning a Tony for his costume design for that show, Powell was nominated for best scenic design.

Powell would occasionally return to the stage in London and on Broadway. But most of his work was on film, starting in 1969 with Irving Lerner’s “The Royal Hunt of the Sun,” a historical drama about Spanish conquistadors battling Incas in the 16th century.

With Franklin Schaffner’s “Papillon” (1973), a story of prisoners on Devil’s Island in French Guiana, Powell outfitted Dustin Hoffman in small round-framed glasses and found ways to distinguish his appearance in uniform from that of other the prisoners, including the one played by Steve McQueen.

“I had to make him look as weedy as possible,” Powell said in an interview with the British Film Institute in 2016. “He stood for four hours in a fitting room while I played around with making him seem to have narrow shoulders, and altering subtly the proportions to give him a completely different physical appearance.”

All three of the movies for which Powell won Oscars were period pieces.

Among the many stars in the cast of “Death on the Nile,” based on an Agatha Christie novel and set in Egypt in 1937, was Bette Davis, with whom he met at her home early in the process.

“They had a gin and tonic, or something, and she said, ‘Let’s go upstairs, you need to see what you’re working with,’ ” Rand said. “She took off her clothes and stood there in her bra and panties.”

He added, “He said she had beautiful skin.”

For “Tess,” an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel “Tess of the d'Urbervilles,” Powell clothed the actors, including Nastassja Kinski, in Victorian dress. On the blog The Film Experience, Claudio Alves wrote after Powell’s death that he “showed remarkable attention to detail, nifty tailoring, a keen eye for finding beauty in the pastoral simplicity of the English countryside.”

Powell continued his association with Polanski through the films “Pirates” (1986) and “Frantic” (1988) and a stage production of “Amadeus” in Paris in which the director played Mozart.

In 1984, Powell designed the costumes for “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” Spielberg’s prequel to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He followed that in 1989 with “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” which paired Harrison Ford in the title role with Sean Connery as his father.

Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who designed the costumes for “Raiders,” said that when she first met Powell, he offered his gratitude for creating the costume template for the Jones franchise.

“He knelt when he was introduced to me, looked up at me and said, ‘Thank you,’ ” said Landis, chair of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television. “How could I not want to marry that man?”

For “Last Crusade,” Powell clothed Connery in a three-piece Harris tweed suit, bow tie and hat — a look that he based on his grandfather’s — to provide counterpoint to Ford’s leather jacket and fedora. When filming shifted from Venice to Petra, Jordan, Powell recognized that he had a problem.

“Sean has a thing about heat, and he sweats like a pig,” Powell said in the BFI interview. He added: “Sean said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to wear this Harris tweed in Petra.’ So what we had to do was photograph a length of the Harris tweed, then screen print it onto a thin cotton voile. It cost a king’s ransom!”

Powell’s other film credits include Spielberg’s “Hook” (a retelling of the Peter Pan story in which the tresses of Hoffman, as Captain Hook, were modeled on the wigs of King Charles II of Britain) and “Miss Potter,” starring Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter, the author of the children’s book “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”

No immediate family members survive.

During the filming of “Death on the Nile,” a new scene was written, requiring a new costume for Mia Farrow. Powell had enough silk to make pajama pants but had nothing to make a top from. As he wandered around, he encountered his tailor’s mother cooking paella and using a striped linen that was covered in grease, garlic and olive oil.

“I thought there will be just enough to make a little waistcoat,” Powell said in an interview with Lodwick of the V&A Museum in 2018. “So we boiled it and boiled it till it was sort of the color it was meant to be, and we whizzed up this very pretty little waistcoat.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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