Picturing the person

Ann Roth on Tom Hanks, Josh Singer, The Post, Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce and more

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Ann Roth with Anne-Katrin Titze on Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee in Steven Spielberg’s The Post: “I said ‘Put your thumbs back here or jam your hands in your pockets. Put your cigarette out at the door. Jam it into a thing. And fly down the middle aisle’.”
Ann Roth with Anne-Katrin Titze on Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee in Steven Spielberg’s The Post: “I said ‘Put your thumbs back here or jam your hands in your pockets. Put your cigarette out at the door. Jam it into a thing. And fly down the middle aisle’.” Photo: Virginia Cademartori

In this part of my series of conversations with costume designer Ann Roth, she tells me what The Day Of The Locust director John Schlesinger and Mike Nichols have in common with her and how Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, starring Joan Crawford, differs from the one she did with Todd Haynes, starring Kate Winslet. It was the day after Ann Roth’s birthday and there was a cake, sent by Meryl Streep, who was decked out by Roth in Ricki And The Flash, Hope Springs, Julie & Julia as Julia Child, Doubt, Mamma Mia!, Angels In America, The Hours, Before And After, and Heartburn.

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee in The Post
Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee in The Post

Meryl Streep stars as Washington Post publisher Kay Graham opposite Tom Hanks as the paper’s executive editor Ben Bradlee in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, costumes by Ann Roth. Hanks and Roth had previously worked together in Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, screenplay by Eric Roth.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Where do you start when dressing an actor for a role, let’s say Tom Hanks?

Ann Roth: I’ve worked with Tom Hanks a bit in my life. And we were doing The Post. A simple show about an editor. Did you see the movie?

AKT: Of course.

AR: Well, I knew everything about that guy [Ben Bradlee]. In fact, I dined with them at their house in Washington a couple of times. And I knew who he was. But I wasn't about to give a lesson in that in the fitting room. But I knew all of those guys in that period, going to St. Mark’s [School], and then they'd gone to Harvard and they were all Boston guys. This was before it became an elegant … Before Harvard was what it is now. It was definitely a place where Boston kids of a certain economic quality went.

Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce with her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth)
Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce with her daughter Veda (Ann Blyth)

And he was part of that crowd. So I would say to Tom [Hanks]. And I gave him a very expensive suit. Now he would not have had a very expensive suit, but the suit that I wanted him to have isn't made anymore by Brooks Brothers. When he was in prep school, his family called up and said he's grown two inches in the waist and they'd say "Never mind Mrs. So-and-so, we know him and we'll send up the suit and we'll have a guy there to fit it for you.”

And that would be a certain kind of Brooks Brothers suit with a slight suppression here. You could tell sitting on an airplane - I did many times, or I was on Vineyard with those guys - what kind of family they came from. They didn't pay a hell of a lot of attention to what they had on. It just was a certain quality. And probably his father's suits came like that.

They were sent up to school, stuck under the bed and when they needed a fancy suit for a tea dance at Smith, they put them on. So they were born to high quality. Without being particularly interested, except eventually they would look at the other kids and know that theirs was the right thing.

AKT: And they would see it too.

AR: Yes. And so I had Tom walk in the front door of the paper and into the newsroom. And walk down the aisle, maybe ten minutes late, or whatever. And I said "Put your thumbs back here or jam your hands in your pockets. Put your cigarette out at the door, jam it into a thing. And fly down the middle aisle."

Meryl Streep’s Magnolia Bakery Happy Birthday Cake for Ann Roth
Meryl Streep’s Magnolia Bakery Happy Birthday Cake for Ann Roth Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

He did that maybe seven or eight times. And he tells me that that really was the time when he got the character. It's a ballsy character. Played hockey, da da di da di da. You have to have a picture of the person. That's the answer to that question.

AKT: The picture is made up out of all these many details …

AR: … that appeal to me! That I was interested in. You might have seen a different view. But that's what I saw.

AKT: And that's why it's always somehow personal.

AR: That's correct.

AKT: That it's always you. Show me some scenes and I might be able to pick out this is a costume by Ann Roth.

AR: That's true. John Schlesinger told me after we started working [on The Day of the Locust] that he and I could go to a funeral and we would be in the room having a drink, before, after, whatever it is. And we'd see all these particular kinds of people and there'd be somebody there terribly pompous, very grand, and with egg on his tie or something.

And we'd both see it. Now everybody else in the room, it might have passed right by them. But my eye went to it and so did John's. Same is true with Mike Nichols, we always saw the same thing.

Veda (Evan Rachel Wood) with Kate Winslet as Mildred Pierce, costumes by Ann Roth
Veda (Evan Rachel Wood) with Kate Winslet as Mildred Pierce, costumes by Ann Roth

AKT: Is that good for a film when working with a director?

AR: It's nice.

AKT: Before you arrived, I was talking to Stephen [Pardee] about ageing clothes.

AR: Stephen is a genius.

AKT: At ageing?

AR: Do you know how many there are in the world? Not many.

AKT: It bothers me so much and throws me out of a film when everything looks made yesterday. They read one book about the 1950s ...

AR: Don't get into that. I'll go crazy.

AKT: What happens, for example, when you do something like Mildred Pierce ...

AR: I don't even remember it.

AKT: Where there is the iconic Joan Crawford movie beforehand and then you did something so drastically different.

Spotlight director Tom McCarthy with Brian d'Arcy James and his screenwriter Josh Singer, who is also co-screenwriter of The Post with Liz Hannah
Spotlight director Tom McCarthy with Brian d'Arcy James and his screenwriter Josh Singer, who is also co-screenwriter of The Post with Liz Hannah Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AR: The director didn't mind it. What did I do?

AKT: You did something drastically different. Joan Crawford was wearing movie star shoes from beginning to end, for instance.

AR: There's something to be said about women of that age who went to the movies and dreamed of being Jean Harlow. But that is not what that director [Todd Haynes] wanted. Who wrote that? James Cain, was it?

AKT: I think so.

AR: I think so, too. At any rate, he [James M. Cain] didn't write that movie [Mildred Pierce, screenplay by Ranald MacDougall, directed by Michael Curtiz,1945]. And the director [Todd Haynes] wanted it to be very much the real James Cain, not the movie version.

AKT: Sometimes I am so impressed by costumes that are not pretty but so on the spot. Wendy Chuck, for instance, who did the Spotlight costumes.

AR: I never saw that movie, but I did suggest the writer [Josh Singer] to help on The Post, because I had read it. And they got it right away.

AKT: She did a fantastic job on the khaki pants.

Ann Roth on Alexander Payne’s longtime costume designer Wendy Chuck: “Oh, very nice girl.”
Ann Roth on Alexander Payne’s longtime costume designer Wendy Chuck: “Oh, very nice girl.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AR: Who was that?

AKT: Wendy Chuck.

AR: Oh, very nice girl. I'm glad to hear that.

AKT: She does amazing work on contemporary clothing that can be ugly or off, but so right.

AR: Oh I'm glad to hear that. Good!

AKT: I read that for 2021 Wicked is in pre-production. You are not working on that?

AR: No, Stephen Daldry has wanted me to do that. I don’t think it’s going to happen.

AKT: You've been busy just now with Mockingbird?

AR: 4th of January a whole new cast goes in. So that's what I've been doing, is the new cast. Every day. Every night.

Read what Ann Roth and Carlo Poggioli had to say on working together during The English Patient and Roth on creating the backstory.

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