The 2010 Theater Development Fund (TDF) Irene Sharaff Awards were bestowed on Friday, April 23 at Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre. The recipient of the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award was, however, absent. The honoree, Costume Designer, Albert Wolsky, far from at the end of his career, was working that night in Los Angeles on Tom Hank’s new project, Larry Crowne.
Albert was born in Paris, November 24 1930. These were perilous times in Europe with the spread of Nazism culminating in the occupation of France. For over two years Albert and his family traveled to the port city of Marseilles where eventually they were able to secure transit to the United States when he was 10 1/2. “It was constantly about escaping,” the designer says, “We were frightened a great deal of the time.”
Even considering wartime challenges, life in the United States proved successful for the Wolsky family. They settled in Manhattan’s Inwood section and Albert’s father created a successful travel business. After a stint in the Army and receiving his degree in English from City College of New York, Albert found himself at loose ends so he joined the family business. “My father truly loved his business,” he says, “I felt badly, but I just didn’t share his passion.”
He was always drawn to all things fashion and had an abiding love of theater. He realized it was in combining these
interests he could find his passion. He decided he wanted to study theatrical costuming. Through friends he found himself at the doorstep of the costume shop of the legendary Helene Ponz. Though he had no experience, she hired him on the spot. “She hired me because she was smart,” he laughs, ” I was supervising twenty people at the travel agency, so she got a manager for $100.00 a week.” So, literally, on Friday he was in the travel business and Monday he began his journey in the world of costuming .
While studying the craft was his intention, his shop responsibilities resulted in his being able to manage only one formal course, the rest of his training was in the trenches.
After a year and a half with Ms Ponz the shop went through a very slow period. Albert knew Helene wanted to lay him off, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. He realized that he had gotten all he could at the shop so he went to her and simply said, “it’s time”. The two remained friends for the remainder of her life.
Albert was thirty when he made the move into costume design and was apprehensive his age would be a handicap. He quickly found the opposite was true, his age and experience were an asset and made him a sought after assistant as he went on to assist on some seventy-five plays with many designers.
While he was working with the renowned designer Alvin Colt, Theoni Aldridge called inquiring about his availability, he demurred as he was already committed, she called again and yet again, but the third contact came when previews were about to begin on his show. “They are trying to get the assistant out the door by then,” Albert says. When he told Ms Aldridge he could begin assisting her, she said, “No dear, I want you to design it, I’m unable to do it.” Thus, Albert’s design career began with “Hamlet” in the Park. It wouldn’t be long before Albert would give up the “Boards” for the sound stage.
Impressed with the show’s look, Ms Aldridge recommended Albert once again. This time the project was the film adaptation of Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. After having assisted Ann Roth on only one feature film, Albert began his film designing career with this 1968 classic and 72 films later it continues. Over the years he has earned 5 Oscar Nominations with 2 statues on his shelf as well as numerous other accolades.
It is his design process that has helped his success. Of course, it all begins with a thorough reading of the script. He believes that the director is the most important figure. In developing the look of the film his first question is “why did the Director decide to do this film.”
In a recent interview he confided that he didn’t believe directors to be particularly visual people. It is within the synergy
among the costume designer, the cinematographer and the production designer that the director is able to articulate his images onscreen.
Through the collaboration among this triumvirate along with the director the basic color scheme is established. In the Road to Perdition, for example, he describes the look as very muted while at the same time, “very rich in browns.”
That, however, is in the ideal world. Sometimes the director’s “eyes” don’t see the same image as the Designer. What then? “Quite, simply, I adjust to the director’s image, sometimes they see something I don’t.” Several Supervisors, who have worked with him when this “adjustment” has been necessary say that while he, of course, defers to the director, there is some serious seething in the wardrobe truck.
When dealing with actors, here again there will be compromise. This time it is in reaching a balance between “the truth of the character and the reality that they are movie stars,” he says. You begin by proposing the truth of the character then adjust as necessary. Even Tom Hanks has reminded him, “You know Albert, I am a movie star.” The two worked together twice before Mr. Hanks, in his directorial debut, asked him to design Larry Crowne, no faint praise from a “movie star”
A conversation he recalls having more times than he would like is “when an actor says, ‘I wouldn’t wear that,’ and I answer, ‘neither would I, that’s why I call it a costume’.”
The one part of the process Albert admits a dislike for is prep. When this effort at candor on his part is shared with Assistants and Supervisors who know him the response is universal – they laugh and say he hates it – thinks it is torture. It is when shooting starts that everything comes together for him.
It is often said in the film business that a test of a pro is how often he works with the same “boss”. By that measure, Albert is a super-star.
Bob Fosse as a hard task master because he was so hard on himself. He would think nothing of calling at 2:00 AM if he had an idea. The other side of that coin is, Albert says, he could could actually feel himself “going from one plateau to the next.” He felt himself rise to the next level in his craft through his collaboration with this entertainment icon.
His relationship with Paul Mazursky was more extensive and more peaceful. “He was lucky about his times,” Albert says, “they made ‘personal movies’ at that time.”
Of the eleven films they worked on together, Albert feels that Enemies: a Love Story is his best.
For Albert, however, the jewel in his crown is his collaboration with Sam Mendes on Revolutionary Road. His evaluation of this visual masterpiece is illustrative of his standards. “It is so close to 100% it’s one of my favorites,” he says, “Nobody ever said, ‘we won’t see that on film, forget it’”. That phrase is the bane of every designers existence. They know they and their colleagues will see it.
Albert says he feels somewhat guilty about the TDF award as he has only done films for so long, “I guess the film thing counts.” When he is told of the display set out on the Hudson Theater’s stage, which included the beaded gown worn by Annette Benning in Bugsy , Albert goes into a detailed description of its’ construction, the number of beads and its’ final weight (nine pounds).
This passionate recounting of a single garment is illustrative of his over-riding philosophy for success – ” You have to have that fire in your belly.”
On January 22, 2010 Albert lost his longtime partner, actor and teacher, James Mitchell. How this will affect Albert’s professional future is unknown. In a recent interview, however, he did say, “I love to work. You know, when you love what you do, you are energized”
Albert found the passion his father had for his travel business so when he says “I’m winding down” it begs incredulity, until he qualifies, “They’ll ‘cherry pick’ me,” he says, “why should I call them.” And just as Tom Hanks did, they will go on “cherry picking” the man with the “fire in his belly”.
Cheryl & Tommy (with roger kimpton)