Jewish World Review Jan. 17, 2003 / 14 Shevat, 5763

Greg Crosby

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Dressing the Part | I opened the newspaper the other day and saw a photo of a man in a topcoat and fedora. The hat and overcoat were the type that all men used to wear in cold weather back in the thirties, forties, and fifties. The photo was a fuzzy long-shot so I really couldn't recognize who the man was. I knew one thing right off, however. I knew from the moment I laid eyes on the photo that the guy was not from decades ago -- he was "today."

Then I read the caption. The picture was a still of Tom Hanks from "The Road to Perdition" -- a movie set in the thirties which was made about a year or so ago. I knew it! How did I know? Easy -- it's the way today's actors wear their clothes. I guess because they don't wear hats and overcoats in their real lives, they don't know how to wear them in a movie either. The fedora hats are the first give-away. Almost without exception, they are ill-fitting -- either too big, or too small, or too goofy, or just not suited to the actor's face. In Hanks case, the hat was pulled down way too low on the head accentuating his big ears.

Getting a fedora to look right on a guy shouldn't be such a tough thing. Men took pride in their appearance back then, and a man's hat was a reflection of his personality. So choosing the correct hat for the face is first -- then placement on the head, at just the right angle and snap of the brim. When it's done right it can look great. When it's done wrong, you either look like a hobo or a comic strip character. If the actor doesn't know any better, then where are the wardrobe people?

But the overcoat was wrong, too. It was much too large, hanging on Hanks like he was wearing a hand-me-down from his big brother's wardrobe. I saw the film so I know the character Hanks plays is not exactly a Beau Brummell, but he shouldn't look like a shlub, either. He's a thirties wise guy. An Irish gangster who would have been portrayed by Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, or George Raft sixty years ago. Remember how those guys looked in their clothes? No hats pulled down around their ears nor sleeves hanging down below the wrist.

There's more to it than simply the fit of the clothes -- it's the way the man carries himself in those clothes that makes the difference, too. I don't think today's actors feel all that comfortable in period dress clothes, for one thing. They don't walk right, sit right or even stand right. Their posture is slouchy and kid-like. Not even close to a Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy, let alone William Powell or Cary Grant. It seems most of today's actors, no matter how talented they may be, just can't pull off characterizations from the periods when people dressed. I guess culturally we're moved too far away from that era.

One would think, with all the classic old films around today, it would be a no-brainer to get the period costumes right, but they usually don't. A story that takes place in the fifties many times has people looking like the thirties or even the twenties. Women usually look even worse then the men -- not only do they have the costuming to contend with, but the period make-up as well.

To begin with, they over make-up their faces -- applying bright red lipstick and orange rouge, which makes them more clownish then sultry. And they never get the hairdos right -- if it isn't way too exaggerated, then it's not period enough. Mostly they give the appearance of cartoon characters, not real people.

I like the Rex Stout Nero Wolf stories, but I can't stomach the current A&E television series because it's so broad and cartoony. The producers could have taken those books and created a believable time period with wit and charm -- they chose to do out and out burlesque instead, I'm afraid. In the case of this show, at least it was done on purpose. Too many other shows and films attempt to honestly portray an era and wind up with that same comic strip result.

It's too bad. Considering what the typical picture cost and all the attention to detail the production gets in so many other areas, it's really a shame that the illusion totally falls apart when it comes to the actors in the thing. Of course there are some exceptions. Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson know how to carry themselves well in 30's and 40's dress clothes -- but then again, they're not today's generation of actor, either.

I just wish the actors and production folks would spend a little quality time watching TCM before they begin their next multi-million dollar period epic. Most of the audience might not be able to tell you why they didn't get into the picture or care about the characters, but it just might have something to do with the believability of the period the film attempted to project. Getting the hat to sit on a head correctly isn't brain surgery, but you have to care a little bit.

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.

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© 2001 Greg Crosby