A Conversation With Edith Head is a glorious behind the scenes feast of great movie legends and delicious stories that provide an insight into Hollywood’s legendary costume designer. In her six decades of costume design, she worked on 1,131 motion pictures, dressed the greatest stars of Hollywood, received 35 Academy Award nominations and won an unprecedented eight Oscars - a record that will never be broken.
Edith Head’s story is as fascinating as the history of the film industry itself. It’s a story filled with humour, frustration and above all glamour - this diva of design helped to define glamour in the most glamorous place in the world - Hollywood!
We caught up with the writer and star of A Conversation With Edith Head to find out more.
Tell us a little bit about A Conversation with Edith Head. What can we expect?
The minute you approach the brand new Leicester Square Studio Theatre with its very own red carpet, you will be swept away into the golden age of Hollywood. The Studio Theatre is being transformed into Miss Head's Salon through vintage photographs, costumes and one-of-a-kind original sketches.
What’s so enthralling about her story?
Edith's story is as fascinating as the history of the film industry itself, filled with humor, frustration and, above all, glamour. This diva of design helped to define glamour in the most glamorous place in the world - Hollywood! Remember, Edith Head did Hollywood Red Carpet commentary while Joan Rivers was still in college.
Edith Head may not be a household name these days, but in her prime she was one of the most colourful characters in Hollywood. She was dishing out caustic fashion advice years before Trinny and Susannah made careers out of it, and was confidante to the stars long before Celebrity Sleuth broadcast their measurements.
As Lucille Ball said, Edith knew the figure faults of every top star. And she never told - Edith always knew how to keep a secret."
Well, in this cozy conversation some secrets might be revealed and fashion tips freely given. As Miss Head says, "If Cinderella had had Edith Head, she would not have needed a Fairy godmother!"
What was it that first inspired you to write the piece?
I first got the idea seven years ago when I was watching a television biography. I contacted Edith's estate and they granted me permission to pursue this project. I madly read anything I could find and when I came upon Paddy Calistro's book, Edith Head's Hollywood, I decided to attempt to locate its author. I called telephone information for Santa Monica, where I thought Paddy lived, and voila, she was listed. I placed the phone call and it was kismet.
At our first meeting in Los Angeles we knew the connection was right and we agreed to collaborate. Paddy had not only written the book but had inherited 13 hours of taped interviews with Edith Head - it was truly a gift from heaven. We can honestly say that A Conversation with Edith is based upon the words and thoughts of Edith Head - the ''Edith-isms'.
"I make people into what they are not - ten years older or younger, fatter or thinner, more handsome or more ridiculous, glamorous or sexy or horrible. The camera never lies, after all, so my work is really an exercise in camouflage."
You've got a striking resemblance to Edith. Was the plan always to star in the show as well?
I literally did a double take when I watched that TV biography. My physical resemblance to Edith seemed uncanny! And what's even more bizarre, we are the same height and both born 50 years apart in October! The more I watched, the more I knew there was a great story to be told.
Having done extensive research, what was it about Edith that made her so successful?
Edith was an executive woman before there was such a thing! It was a boy's club when she started - 1923. Women in the Unites Stated had just recently got ten the vote, if you can imagine. It has been said that Edith had the instincts of a pastry chef and the authority of a factory foreman.
She herself said, "I knew I was not a creative design genius... I am a better diplomat than I am a designer...I was never going to be the world's greatest costume designer, but there was no reason I could not be the smartest and most celebrated."
She knew how to play the game better than anyone. Her concern really was to change actors into characters. Edith said, "I make people into what they are not - ten years older or younger, fatter or thinner, more handsome or more ridiculous, glamorous or sexy or horrible. The camera never lies, after all, so my work is really an exercise in camouflage."
Do you have a moment in the show that particularly touches you?
We set the play in 1981 during the making of her last film, Carl Reiner's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid starring Steve Martin. She died two weeks after the wrap of the film and the film is dedicated to her. Throughout the play we see glimpses of a woman who has outlived all her contemporaries and is wrestling with a lifetime of memories and regrets.
Is there a real difference between costume design and high fashion?
High fashion is of the moment and the best of costume design is timeless. You must remember that costumes were often completed a couple of years before the release of the film.
A perfect example are Elizabeth Taylor's gowns in the 1951 A Place in the Sun . The film was shot in 1949 and released in 1951.The silhouette was the most important aspect of any of the ensembles, therefore the costumes in the Academy Award winning film could be worn to any society event today. The woman wearing it would evoke an era classic couture and look as dramatic as Liz did when she danced with the dreamy Monty Clift!
Edith had the ability to shape each gown to a character or image. This is what made her as popular with film directors as with the glamour girls she dressed in both their private lives and screen roles.
"We act as though we believe that the more we have on the more important we are - if one pin is smart, two pins would be smarter and six would be divine."
Do you share Edith's passion for clothes and fashion?
Absolutely. Edith often quoted Mae West when she said, "Find a magic that does something for you honey and stick with it." I think that defines my sense of fashion. While in Edinburgh last summer, the Sunday Herald did a style piece that captured that philosophy.
Where do you stand on accessories – can girl ever have too many accessories?
They are called accessories, not excessories! Edith said, "We act as though we believe that the more we have on the more important we are - if one pin is smart, two pins would be smarter and six would be divine."
So what's been your most extravagant purchase?
I actually purchased some original Edith Head sketches and costumes at auction which will be on display. I am avid eBayer when it comes to Edith Head memorabilia. Personally, I love to travel and have been know to be extravagant when purchasing a bottle of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame. Champagne is my drink of choice, Edith's was Jack Daniels! Rather than a Grande Dame, Miss Head was a great dame!
Will you be wearing any of Edith's creations in the show?
I won't be wearing any of Edith's creations in the show as when she was at work she wore simple clothes never to upstage the stars she was dressing! You will, however, get to see some original Edith Head costumes as well as some iconic recreations. Did you know Miss Head designed the uniform for Pan Am and the flight attendant in Boeing Boeing is an homage to that design!
Do you have particular favourite costume of hers?
That would be like picking a favorite child! I have to admit I do love the costumes from To Catch a Thief - she had an extravagant budget and a gorgeous star, Grace Kelly - who could ask for anything more.
What's your favourite item of clothing?
I would like to think that the outfit I am wearing at any given time is my favorite.
Style has moved on from Edith's day, do you think she'd approved of the more casual approach to fashion we now have?
Edith always said, "You can be anything you want, as long as you dress for it! Good clothes are not a matter of good luck. I say sacrifice style any day for becomingness, for a look that suits your age and your chassis!"
Have you ever had a Hollywood diva moment?
I'd have to say the night my amazing London producers, Tony Field and John C. Causebrook came to see my performance in Edinburgh last summer. It was one of those magical nights in the theatre when all the ‘stars’ are aligned. Their reputation preceded them and when they introduced themselves after the show said they wanted to produce its West End premiere - it was definitely a ‘Hollywood’ moment!
Why do you think A Conversation with Edith Head is going to appeal to a gay audience?
Because Edith Head represents style, class and lots of sass! Oh, and did I mention Bette Davis?
"You can be anything you want, as long as you dress for it! Good clothes are not a matter of good luck. I say sacrifice style any day for becomingness, for a look that suits your age and your chassis!"
If you were going to be a lesbian for just one weekend, who would you want to go out on a date with?
My partner of 22 years!
What do you want audiences to take with them after having seen A Conversation with Edith Head?
The audience response has been amazing. From Tbilisi to Edinburgh to Chicago audiences have been touched by Edith's story. What they take with them after having seen the performance is truly dependent on what they bring to it.
Film buffs get immersed in hearing stories from someone who has lived through the evolution of contemporary film, older audiences remember always seeing the closing credits, ‘Gowns by Edith Head’, it evokes a bygone era and younger audiences think of the Pixar animated film The Incredibles and Edna Mode, designer to the superheroes.
The universal response is summed up by a note I received from a fan, "My friend saw the show on Saturday and adored it. He said the same as me, i.e. if someone mentions Edith Head to me now, my first reaction will be to say "Oh yes, I met her once and it was unforgetable!"
What are you most looking forward to about performing in London?
The wonderfully brilliant and stylish audiences!
And finally, what's next for you?
I am managing artistic director of the Invisible Theatre in Tucson, Arizona. We will kick-off our 38th anniversary season 17 September with the premiere of Dixie Longate in Dixies’s Tupperware Party prior to its national US tour. Audiences will see for themselves how Ms. Dixie became the #1 Tupperware seller in the world - she instructs her guests on the many alternative uses she has discovered for her plastic products!
Find out more at www.edithhead.biz.
A Conversation?With?Edith?Head, by Susan Claassen
Studio Space at the Leicester Square?Theatre (formerly The Venue)
5 Leicester Place
0844 847 2475 / www.ticketweb.com
29 July-31 August 2008
Want more? Then get Edith Head, by David Chierichetti online and save some money to put towards the book that inspired A Conversation With Edith Head, Edith Head's Hollywood, by Paddy Calistro.
Author: Stephen Beeny
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