Monday, January 2, 2012

It's a Van Runkle. Isn't it fabulous?

Thus speaks Phyllis Nefler (Shelley Long), the spoiled fashion plate/housewife who tries to get earthy in 1989’s Troop Beverly Hills. Phyllis cycles through costume after elaborate costume, each one more fantastic than the next, and even when she dons her Wilderness Girl uniform, she does so with perfectly tailored—albeit, absurdist—flare. All of this is thanks to the brilliant Theadora Van Runkle, who died this past November.

When I was a kid, my dad said we had some sort of relative who was a Hollywood costume designer. It seemed like a strange thing for him to make up, so I always assumed it was true, although I never found out any details about the relative. Years later, as an adult, I happened to catch the costume designer’s name in the credits of Troop Beverly Hills: Theadora Van Runkle. I knew my family had dropped the Van from our name during World War I, and so I wondered if Theadora was that mysterious relative. A little further research (i.e., her IMDb page) found that her other work had been just as energetic and imaginative as TBH. She also outfitted the casts of Myra Breckinridge, The Jerk, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, as well as The Godfather: Part II; I Love You, Alice B. Toklas; Peggy Sue Got Married; Rhinestone and New York, New York. She was nominated for an Oscar for her breakout work in Bonnie and Clyde, and was respected for the influence its iconic costumes had on the mainstream late-1960s fashion world. Finding all this out about her made me really hope that she was the one.

So I found her address and decided to write her. I told her I was a big fan of her work. I drew a picture of one of Shelley Long’s costumes in TBH (which, having since seen Theadora’s beautiful sketches, I now feel pretty ashamed of). I asked her if we were related.

The letter I got back, in beautiful, hand-brushed calligraphy, answered no. Her husband had died very young, Theadora said, and she kept his name to use professionally. “I think it sounds art deco,” she wrote, “don’t you?” She also claimed the name had brought her luck. She started out working as a sketch artist for Oscar-winning designer Dorothy Jeakins after meeting her at a party. The veteran costume designer went on to recommend Theadora for what Jeakins described as “a little western over at Warner brothers”—a movie that turned out to be the acclaimed Bonnie and Clyde. Theadora, who had never designed before, winged it, and went on to receive that Oscar nod. The letter went on: “My first screen credit inspired others with unique names to use theirs without changing to something less ethnic or more conventionally glamorous.” She ended the letter by saying Warren Beatty had encouraged her to change her name to Thea Vee, but she refused.

Theadora wrote that letter in 2009, when she was 81. I feel privileged—despite the fact we’re not blood-related—to have gotten to know, however slightly, an artist with such warmth and singular vision. In memory of Theadora’s passing, I’m going to post a drawing a day this next week: five Van Runkle-costumed leading ladies from some of my favorites of her movies. They’re not attempts to compete with Theadora’s original sketches, which are genius, seriously—you should look at a couple here and here. The drawings I post this week are through my own awkward film-viewing lens, and are gestures of love and admiration.

Look for Shelley Long as Phyllis Nefler tomorrow!

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