The 95th Academy Awards race: Best Production Design

| February 20, 2023

The Nominees are . . .
• All Quiet on the Western Front, Christian M. Goldbeck (production design); Ernestine Hipper (set decoration)
• Avatar: The Way of Water, Dylan Cole and Ben Procter (production design); Vanessa Cole (set decoration)
• Babylon, Florencia Martin (production design); Anthony Carlino (set decoration)
• Elvis, Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy (production design); Bev Dunn (set decoration)
The Fabelmans, Rick Carter (production design); Karen O’Hara (set decoration)

All respect to the craftspeople behind Avatar: The Way of Water, but I think they may have to sit this one out.  The first film won in this category and it may be seen as a glorified rerun.

Sometimes the best creation of functional space within a movie frame is recreation.  It is an overload that dominates this year’s race for Best Production Design as four of the nominees are period recreations.  That leaves Avatar: The Way of Water as the odd man out, and also leaves out fantasy epics like Black Panther Wakanda ForeverThe Batman and Everything Everywhere All At Once.

In their place are four traditional nominees, those whose designers and craftspeople have recreated times and places that once were in a variety of creative ways.  The standout is All Quiet on the Western Front in which Production designer Christian Goldbeck recreated the wet, muddy trenches of World War I on a soundstage in Prague under conations both depressing and oppressive (to effect, of course).

Oddly juxtaposed to the trenches of The Great War is hedonistic Hollywood in the roaring twenties just a decade later in Damien Chazelle’s Babylon.  Production designer Florencia Martin and set designer Anthony Carlino created a portrait of post-WWI Los Angeles that is in a constant state of construction, destruction and renewal by a film industry that is starting to feel its power.  Like Chazelle’s La La Land, this is a film designed with the landscape in mind, of the Mission, Spanish and Tudor look of the City of Angels bejeweled and bedazzled by the opulence of a century ago.

Spielberg’s The Fabelmans with production design by two-time Oscar winner Rick Carter (Lincoln and Avatar) and set design by previous winner Karen O’Hara (Alice in Wonderland) may be the most understated of this year’s nominees, recreating the wood and plastic domesticity of 1950s America and the claustrophobic feel of a young man discovering family secrets.

That leaves the frontrunner. Elvis, in which production designer and nine-time nominee Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy and set decorator Bev Dunn stretched from the 1950s to the 1970s recreating the hayride shows where Colonel Parker discovered Elvis to the music-laden world of Beale Street to the stunning recreation of Graceland in his later years.  In addition to simply recreating these elements, Martin, Murphy and Dunn gave us the contrast of the rise of Elvis’ career to the mainlining of his post-Comeback years as the oppulence of his surrounds stand in contrast to the weariness of the man himself.

The Winner: Elvis
The Runner-Up: All Quiet on the Western Front

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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