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February 29 2012

What Angelina Jolie's leg and Renaissance art have in common

I can't help but wonder if Versace got the idea for the revealing dress Angelina Jolie wore to the Oscars from the 1504 Giorgione painting of the Biblical hero Judith

Angelina Jolie's right leg was the star of the Oscars, I hear, and apparently quite a subject of conversation on Twitter as well. Of course, I am above all that, but I can't help pointing out that centuries before Versace clad Jolie in her eye-catching slit dress, the Venetian Renaissance painter Giorgione had the same idea.

In about 1504, Giorgione painted the Biblical hero Judith standing over the severed head of Holofernes. In the Old Testament, Judith goes to the tent of this enemy of the Israelites, gets him drunk and chops off his head. She has been portrayed many times in art, but rarely with such striking dress sense as she shows in Giorgione's painting.

He pictures her resting her foot on the gruesome head, nuzzling her bare sole in its tangled locks – hair against skin. That's an oddly sensual touch in a religious painting. Giorgione adapted it from Donatello's bronze statue of David, whose pose his Judith imitates. This kind of visual allusion to one another was what Renaissance artists loved to do. But what really takes your breath away is Judith's exposed leg. From her bare foot it rises magnificently, revealed by a slit in her pink dress, to the thigh.

Usually Judith wore a long dress to be modest – being a Bible character and all. What Giorgione has therefore done is to turn a polite, conservative dress convention into something sexy: the long dress that ought to hide Judith's body becomes a way of revealing it. The game is quite similar to Jolie's show-off leg performance at the Oscars.

Giorgione has given a lot of thought to Judith's dress. As so often in these Renaissance paintings you have to wonder – did such a garment actually exist? Was it worn by a model? Or did he imagine it? The top of the slit is extravagantly ornamented, with beautiful gold thread creating an effect like the gothic windows of Venetian palaces. It is all a frame for Judith's leg – a leg Giorgione has painted with consummate sensuality.

I can't help wondering if Versace got the idea for that Oscar dress from Giorgione's painting. After all, its head designer must be interested in Renaissance art with a name like Donatella. Perhaps fashion, like the human body, changes less than we think.


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October 16 2011

Ray Aghayan obituary

Award-winning costume designer who dressed Judy Garland and Diana Ross and oversaw the Oscar red carpet

Now that television talent contests are gussied up to Vegas standards, it's less easy to appreciate the discreet glamour that was the speciality of Ray Aghayan, who has died aged 83. But for 60 years, he guaranteed that difficult divas would arrive on screens and stages projecting perfection. Glamour was so much his habitat, he supervised over a dozen Oscar shows.

His initial diva, he remembered, was even more terrifying than Barbra Streisand: Princess Fawzia of Egypt, first wife of the last Shah of Iran, a woman of movie appearance and wilfulness. Aghayan came from an Armenian family in Tehran, and his widowed mother, Yasmine, designed clothes for the ruling Pahlavi family; the boy, starstruck by Hollywood, was certain he, too, could create, and the amused Fawzia summoned him via her ladies in waiting. She explained to him that she had to wear mourning dress, but didn't want to be extinguished by it. So he drew her "this big black tulle thing trimmed with droopy red ostrich feathers". It was sewn, defiantly worn, and after that no grand dame scared him.

His mother took his cinema passions seriously enough to send him to California to study. In Los Angeles, he dropped out of architecture and into acting, then: "I was directing a play and found we didn't have enough money to hire a designer. So I designed the costumes."

He went into television in the mid-50s, when most of its costuming was re-used from movie stock, or agency hires. NBC or CBS budgets for original commissions were reserved for big variety specials, and Aghayan was confident that whatever the level of luxe, he could supply it. It was steady work, culminating in 1963-64, when he costumed Judy Garland's regular shows. Edith Head had been commissioned, but exited, fast. Garland was trouble. But Aghayan was a fan ("If you can sing like that it doesn't matter how hard you are", he said), and her demands were minimal: she wanted to wear spike heels. As her legs were long and thin, Aghayan thought this was a great idea, and he was sure of the way she should look. "The lady was like the Statue of Liberty: you know what she wears." He defrumped Garland with slacks under over-blouses, simply cut but surface-decorated at $350 a time, to catch the light in monochrome. Garland wore them on her late tours, including the famous 1964 London Palladium gig.

Aghayan's success meant he needed assistance. It arrived at his door in the form of Bob Mackie, a young designer who sketched better than anyone and became Aghayan's professional and personal partner for life. They shared an aesthetic based on old Hollywood and burlesque – fearless with feathers and rhinestones, but lightened up and styled for wit. Sometimes as a duo, sometimes solo, they produced costumes for Diana Ross in her Supremes days, Dinah Shore, Julie Andrews and Carol Channing – the latter getting a Broadway gown with 80lb of crystal beading, its scarf so weighted that Channing, flinging it over her shoulder, damaged the scenery.

Aghayan never went as far into parody as Mackie, but he did enjoy pastiche in a short movie career, rebranding Doris Day in a mad mod mode for Caprice (1967). The terrible seriousness, and serious terribleness, of Doctor Doolittle (1967) put him off big films, although he and Mackie rallied to Ross and Streisand, picking up Oscar nominations for Lady Sings the Blues (1972) – the shoulder treatments of Ross's dresses amplifying her slight frame to more closely match Billie Holiday's broader form – and Streisand's Funny Lady (1975), the sequel to Funny Girl, a masterclass in bias cut. Aghayan alone had a nomination for Gaily, Gaily (1969), and among his Broadway productions was nominated for a Tony in 1970 for Applause, the musical of All About Eve: he draped rows of fringe from Lauren Bacall's loping frame, to dance in lieu of her feet.

Aghayan campaigned successfully for an Emmy category for costume, and he and Mackie shared the first award, in 1967, for a television movie of Alice Through the Looking Glass. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences still assumed that nothing on the box was purpose-made, however, and a member asked Aghayan what he did that was worth recognition, stating: "You shop for clothes and you bring it in and you put on stars and they wear it." Aghayan replied: "I want you, tomorrow, to go to the May Company [a department store] and buy me, and bring here, the Red Queen's costume."

He and Mackie were aware that the studio workrooms of trained craft hands were closing in LA; New York was a long way to go to get 10,000 sequins applied at speed. So in 1968, along with Elizabeth Courtney, formerly of Columbia Pictures, they set up their own Californian atelier, later exporting its output to Broadway. Many showbiz customers also wanted unique dress-up ensembles, at a time when Paris couture was low on handworked glamour. So the duo obliged, a custom-making venture that turned into retail collections in the 1980s. Mackie had the wow factor, Aghayan supplied the subtle flattery. The Costume Designers Guild executive director, Rachael Stanley, said: "Whenever there was a problem trying to make something work, Ray could come in and take a look at it and say, 'Oh, the problem is ...'" The guild gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2008.

Aghayan was asked to advise on the televising of the Oscar shows from the late 1960s. He didn't have a veto over red-carpet choices, but up until the mid-1980s, when couture houses began to fight to place their designs on stars' backs, his recommendation was heeded. By his last Oscars, in 2001, he felt costume design – the dress as character or an extra asset on a charismatic performer – had been overtaken by fashion advertising.

He won an Emmy and several nominations for the Oscar shows, and designed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 LA Olympics,  with 50 designs mass-produced into 11,000 outfits of white sportswear: happy, summery, the summation of his fantasy America.

Mackie survives him.

• Ray Aghayan, costume designer, born 28 July 1928; died 10 October 2011


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February 20 2011

James Franco: actor or artist?

He's recording an album. He's published short stories. And he's not just up for an acting Oscar – he's hosting the awards. But the only thing James Franco wants to talk about? His new art show

I fear I have wounded James Franco's manhood. "Is that you?" I had asked, referring to some film in his new art exhibition that features a closeup of a penis emitting an arc of urine. "You think that's what I look like?" he spluttered. I don't know, James – didn't you wear a prosthetic for Milk? "That's a 75-year-old man!" he says, before pointing out, with good humour, the grey hairs I had failed to notice.

If you go to Berlin and check out Franco's first European exhibition, at the hip gallery Peres Projects, you should probably know that that's not his bottom you can see defecating in On Masculinity and Me, either. He does feature in a lot of his art, though. "Everything I do, I look for opportunities to collaborate with people," he says. And if that means persuading others to go to the toilet on camera, so be it.

It is not easy to get time with Franco. He has just finished promoting 127 Hours, Danny Boyle's climbing and amputation film for which he's up for an Oscar; his Allen Ginsberg biopic Howl is out this Friday; he has half a dozen other films in the pipeline (including, allegedly, a Wizard of Oz prequel); he is presenting the Oscars on Sunday with Anne Hathaway; and there are some directing projects in the offing.

Plus he's doing a PhD in English at Yale; a course in digital art at the Rhode Island School of Design; he's just published his first collection of short stories; oh, and he's recording an album with a drag artist called Kalup Linzy. Nonetheless, he has taken time out of his ridiculous schedule to fly to Berlin to talk about his first solo art show, The Dangerous Book Four Boys, which, as well as 19 films and various installations, features pages of the bestselling Dangerous Book for Boys with scribbles all over them.

I had been promised 30 minutes with the 32-year-old polymath – but only, said gallery owner Javier Peres, if I kept on-topic. So only the art. Not the films. And none of the tittle-tattle. So no chance to ask about the cover shoot he did for the "transversal" style magazine Candy, which featured him in full drag. Or him recently teasing a journalist by saying, "Maybe I'm just gay" when asked why he had taken three gay roles in three years: as the young lover of the congressman Harvey Milk in Milk, as Ginsberg in Howl, and as the poet Hart Crane in the just-wrapped The Broken Tower.

(For the record, given his warm response to two friends of mine who introduced themselves to him at the afterparty with the killer line, "We're Swedish and we're sisters", I think it is fair to say he is appreciative of the female form. Note to lawyers: nothing happened, and anyway, his sexuality was never really in doubt; he has apparently been in a relationship with the actor Ahna O'Reilly since 2006.)

In the end, I get 12 minutes and 31 seconds in a noisy backroom. Franco, dressed in outdoorsy walking shoes, black jeans and aviator jacket, is sitting on a crate of beer. Unnervingly, we are surrounded by fans, including one dressed as Spider-Man, who take pictures throughout our conversation. Later, Madonna, in town to try to persuade distributors at the Berlin film festival to buy her latest directorial effort, turns up at the opening.

So how do his artist colleagues feel about the attention being paid to his art? Jealous as hell, one imagines. "No," he says. "My friends that are artists have been great and very, very supportive." Anyway, he says, "considering I'm getting to collaborate with all of my favourite artists, I would say they like something about it." Aha – the attention and the money? "No. They like the ideas, I guess."

As the title suggests, The Dangerous Book Four Boys is primarily concerned with boys' stuff. So in the film Toys and Books, you see, erm, toys and books being peppered with machine-gun bullets. And in Plastic, you see a wendy house blown up, apparently with the help of the Spider-Man special effects team. Then there is the poo, the wee, and what appears to be (and I could have interpreted this wrongly) a spot of bestiality in Goatboy, and gang rape in Feast of Stephen. In my favourite, Star Trek, models of Kirk and Spock act out a homoerotic fantasy, until Kirk discovers that Spock lacks testicles and orgasms via his finger.

Franco is an intense conversationalist. He would never have lost the stare game at school. He never gives trite, easy answers. Asked what he gets from art that he doesn't get from film, he launches into an interesting, somewhat Brechtian explanation about creating video installations that remind the spectator the film is a confection, rather than a reflection of reality itself. "In a normal commercial narrative film, I'm playing a character in order to support the imaginary world of that film. I'm acting in such a way that people will believe in that world, right? And if I act in a way that draws attention to the fact that I am a performer in a commercial film, usually people will consider that bad acting. But if I do it in this context, I can act in all sorts of ways. I can act badly, I can act silly, I can draw attention to the fact that it's all a performance."

And a lot of it is silly. He covers his face in shaving foam for no obvious reason in one film, and puts on a grotesque wolf mask and daft voice in another. A New York Times review of the show, which premiered in New York last year, called Franco's work "a confusing mix of the clueless and the halfway promising". Judging from the guestlist in Berlin, however, his art is being taken very seriously. Halfway through our interview we are interrupted by two grey-haired men who turn out to be none other than Hans Ulrich Obrist, director of the Serpentine Gallery, and Klaus Biesenbach, curator-at-large of Moma in New York.

'I'm not in it to make a living'

Franco once said he doesn't get much out of acting because it's a director's medium: the actor has little or no creative input. But he insists that he doesn't primarily enjoy making art because here he's in control. "It's not like working with a great director like Danny Boyle or Gus Van Sant is a bad thing – it's actually great. And more and more, I would say, I look for opportunities to collaborate with people. So whether I'm directing, or doing an art show, or acting in a film, I am most inspired when I am collaborating with someone. So I don't necessarily like to be my own boss. I think what I like is to be part of the conversation, all the way through the piece."

As I viewed the exhibition earlier in the day, I overheard Peres talking to two men – art dealers or buyers, I assumed – about the price of the works. A video piece called Double Third Portrait was, said Peres, "Forty." I took this to mean $40,000. He later tells me a Franco original costs between $5,000 and $50,000. But does it matter to Franco that his art sells?

"No," he says. "I'm in a fortunate position where we don't have to worry about that too much. I mean, it's nice. It's nice when people I respect, you know, like the work. That's really great. But I'm not depending on this show to make my living." I've always wondered, I tell him, whether he packs so much into his life because he's one of those people who thinks they will die young. He will be 33 in March, the age Jesus was supposed to have carked it.

So what are you crap at?

He lets out a big sigh. "No, I actually don't think that I . . . I think there are a lot of people who pack a lot into our lives. For whatever reason, it looks like I'm doing more." But, he says, "I see all these things as related. And if they are not fully integrated, I am looking for ways to integrate them and have them all influence each other. So for me, it's not like, 'Well, I've ticked THAT off my list.' In most contemporary art schools, they really push you to try different disciplines. Maybe you will be accepted as a painter. But it wouldn't be unheard of for a painter to make a video or a performance. They really encourage cross disciplines. It's just a little more unusual in the film world when people cross into a different job – although when an actor becomes a director, somehow that's accepted. But when you do something else, it feels more extreme. For me, it's just searching for the right kind of outlet for each subject matter or form of expression."

Franco's multitasking has become so notorious that a feature in Rupert Murdoch's new iPad paper, the Daily, recently listed "Things James Franco Can't Do". These included: give birth; become prime minister of Canada. So Franco, what are you crap at?

"I'm crap at . . ." he pauses to laugh, before offering: "I'm not the best dancer. I'm not the best singer, either."

Not that it has stopped him making what he describes as "Motowny" music with Kalup Linzy. There is, apparently, little limit to what the man can do. Though he probably will not expose his genitals.

Crystals and Rocks: the greatest Oscar presenters

Billy Crystal

Still holds the record for number of hosting jobs: eight between 1989 and 2003, including four in a row. His 1996 turn, in which he got himself inserted into clips from that year's nominated films, including Jerry Maguire, The English Patient and Secrets & Lies, remains a tour de force.

David Niven

Though his hosting was back in 1974, David Niven's ice-cool savoir-faire has gone down in Hollywood legend, and contributed as much as any single incident to America's fixation with the imperturbable Englishman. As he prepared to introduce one of the other presenters, a bearded streaker raced past. Niven responded with a classic putdown: "Probably the only laugh he'll ever get is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings."

Chris Rock

The comic, at the top of his game, brought his lacerating standup to the ceremony in 2005. He laughed at Nicole Kidman, dumped on the Rocky films and poked fun at Michael Moore. "Right now he's thinking, 'I should have made Super Size Me. I've done the research.'" Sean Penn wasn't impressed, taking it upon himself to apologise for Rock's jab at Jude Law.

Whoopi Goldberg

One year she paraglided in as a Moulin Rouge-style dancer, another she adopted an Elizabeth I-style royal costume and brought the house down by declaring: "I am the African queen." Goldberg was the first woman to solo-host the awards in 1994, and her mixture of buffoonery, costume changes and self-deprecating humour got her invited back three more times.

Andrew Pulver


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January 30 2011

Jason Solomons's Trailer Trash

Oscar-nominated Brits turn up the pressure on Bafta, Norman Foster makes an embarrassing noise… and Trash loses a grand but gains an opportunity

Put Bafta in the doc

The Facebook campaign to persuade Bafta to create a category for documentaries grew last week when three British film-makers were nominated for documentary Oscars. Lucy Walker's Waste Land, about "catadores" living in Rio de Janeiro's huge landfill site; Bansky's Exit Through the Gift Shop; and Restrepo, co-directed by British photographer Tim Hetherington among American troops in Afghanistan, revealed the strength in fact-based film -making among our native directors.

"It's madness that three Brits will be fighting it out at the Oscars but not at Bafta," Lucy Walker told me from the Sundance film festival, where she's currently on the World Documentary jury. "It's amazing to be back at Sundance, where Waste Land began its own journey exactly a year ago," she said. "British talent obviously excels in the documentary format, and everyone here from around the world seems to be with us on this one — why can the American academy recognise us but not our own British one?"

Lucy's thrilling and uplifting film, which traces the characters of the favela as they become part of Brazilian artist Vic Muniz's photographic project, does, however, receive a wide theatrical release in the UK next month.

Squeak as you find

I had the pleasure of interviewing architect Sir Norman Foster last week to discuss the documentary about his life and work, How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster? We were granted an audience with him on the 38th floor of the Gherkin, where I found him in immaculate blue corduroy suit and navy polo neck, framed against the building's huge glass panes, with London stretched out beneath him. The interview was going well until my producer interrupted to ask Sir Norman to stop swivelling in his chair, which was issuing a loud squeak. "I'm terribly sorry," said Sir Norman, looking somewhat vexed that his perfectly constructed world wasn't functioning properly. He added hastily: "I didn't design the chair."

And the winner is… not me!

Trash predicted all 10 Best Picture nominees last week and was rather proud… until people asked if I'd put my money where my mouth was with a bet? No, but I haven't been able to sleep since, so I rang William Hill, which offers odds on all Oscar matters, to see what I would have won. Their spokesman, Rupert Adams, told me: "We didn't reckon on Toy Story 3 getting in there, so if you'd have come to us with that 10 beforehand, we'd have given you 100-1. Yes, a tenner would have got you a grand." Cripes. They're now offering me a special accumulator for the night itself, for charity. I've got a week to predict winners of the eight categories for which they take bets. The Oscars just got that bit more exciting.


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