Some call her the doyenne of costume design, but Ann Roth herself prefers the term “broad.” Turning 80 next month, Roth may be the oldest working costumer in the business, but she’s flaunting blue toenails — not hair — and dancing to Tom Waits in the morning for inspiration. And if an Emmy for her work on the Depression-era miniseries “Mildred Pierce” joins the Tony she received earlier this year for Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s zany musical comedy “The Book of Mormon,” Roth, who won an Oscar in 1997 for “The English Patient,” will join a costume designer’s club that has only one other member, Tony Walton.
Roth’s credits include iconic films like “Midnight Cowboy,” “Klute,” “The Day of the Locust,” “Hair,” “Working Girl,” and, just in the past couple years, “Mamma Mia!,” “Julie & Julia” and “Rabbit Hole,” yet the famously fastidious designer says she still feels like an outsider in Hollywood. Industry standards may have caught up with her, but Roth’s commitment to authenticity in the service of character — right down to period undergarments on the extras — was initially met with raised eyebrows. “One was not encouraged to be artistic” in Hollywood, recalls the east coast native. “You were encouraged to join the bowling team.”
Of course, her loving attention to detail is precisely what has nurtured such fruitful relationships with the actors, directors and producers she works with. “I often work with good friends; that’s pretty much what guides my life,” Roth says, revealing that she’s signed on with Mike Nichols, a regular collaborator since “The Odd Couple” in 1965, for a new production of “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway.
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” the highly anticipated Jonathan Safran Foer adaptation slated for a Christmas release, is the designer’s third collaboration with Stephen Daldry, and the David Frankel-helmed comedy “Great Hope Springs,” filming now, is just the latest in a long line of projects with Meryl Streep, whom Roth has helped transform into everyone from Karen Silkwood to Sister Aloysius Beauvier.
“She’s very, very brave,” says Roth of the chameleon-like actress. “She can picture it…and she can do it. It’s divine to get in the fitting room and see the character take over the mirror. That’s a divine feeling for me.”