Anthony Powell Dies: Oscar- & Tony-Winning Costume Designer Was 85

Anthony Powell
Anthony Powell (1979); Bette Davis, 'Death on the Nile (1978) Everett Collection

Anthony Powell, a three-time Oscar winner whose costume designs helped bring Indiana Jones to rugged life and Broadway’s Norma Desmond to extravagant excess, died Sunday. He was 85.

The Costume Designers Guild 892 confirmed the news on Monday night, on their official Facebook page. “Legendary English costume designer Anthony Powell passed away last weekend. He will be celebrated in a small, private gathering due to COVID restrictions and is survived by two nieces,” they said. “Anthony Powell’s passion for his work and for his friends was boundless. The Costume Designers Guild sends our condolences to everyone who enjoyed the pleasure of his company and his unforgettable designs.”

Powell, who won a Tony Award for the costumes of 1963’s School for Scandal, received Oscars in 1978 for Death on the Nile and in 1979 for Tess. He had received his first Academy Award for designing the costumes for Maggie Smith’s eccentric Augusta in George Cukor’s Travels with My Aunt (1972).

He also earned Academy Award nominations for Pirates (1986), Hook (1991) and 102 Dalmatians (2000) and received the Costume Designers Guild’s Career Achievement Award in 2000.

With a career that stretched from the 1960s well into the 21st century, Powell designed costumes for such stars as Angela Lansbury, Glenn Close, Lauren Bacall, Paul Newman, Bette Davis, Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Roger Moore, Harrison Ford, Peter Ustinov, Johnny Depp, Mia Farrow, Betty Buckley and Elaine Page, among many others.

A sampling of the directors with whom Powell collaborated includes Cukor, Roman Polanski, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, David Lean and Elaine May. His costumes appeared in such diverse period films as Tess, Death on the Nile and Papillon and outlandish comedies Ishtar and the 1996 live-action 101 Dalmatians.

For the latter, he created the decadently sumptuous attire of Close’s Cruella de Vil; the two would reteam in 2017 when Close starred as Norma Desmond in the Broadway revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard.

Powell was born June 2, 1935, in suburban Manchester, England. After graduating from London’s Central School of Art and Design, Powell apprenticed as an assistant to such designers as the great Cecil Beaton. In 1963 he would earn his first major award — a Tony for John Gielgud’s Broadway production of The School for Scandal — and by 1969 began a long film career with director Irving Lerner’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun.

His Hollywood career kicked into high gear in 1972 with the Oscar win for Travels with My Aunt, and the next year brought the Devil’s Island penal rags of Papillon, starring McQueen and Hoffman.

By the end of the decade he’d designed costumes for Altman’s Western Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, Anthony Shaffer’s Death on the Nile and Polanski’s Tess, winning Oscars for the latter two.

The 1980s brought another glittery Agatha Christie mystery in Evil Under the Sun, the soon-to-be-iconic Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He designed the sun-soaked desert garb of 1987’s notorious Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman flop Ishtar and by 1991 had moved on to the whimsy of Spielberg’s Hook, earning another Oscar nomination.

Subsequent film credits included 101 Dalmatians (1996), The Avengers (1998), The Ninth Gate (1999), 102 Dalmatians (2000, Oscar nomination) and Miss Potter, the 2006 Beatrix Potter biopic starring Renée Zellweger.

For the stage, Powell is best remembered for his gorgeous Sunset Boulevard costumes that combined the 1950s stylings of the musical’s setting and the Silent Film-era eccentricities of its delusional turban-sporting heroine Norma Desmond. Powell designed the costumes for the original 1994 Broadway production, its 2017 revival as well as West End stagings. His Normas included Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Elaine Page and Glenn Close.

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