The Look: Courteney Cox

We asked Oscar-nominated costume designer Marilyn Vance-Straker to create the look of five feminine archetypes of the B-movie that is contemporary Hollywood. She works her magic on Courteney Cox, who plays each of the characters.

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While engrossed in a tortuous thriller, or a teary romantic mush-moment on the hig screen, do we really take notice of the heroine's high heels or the fit of the killer's jacket? Well, maybe not consciously, but what these characters are wearing certainly affects the way we feel about them. And we come to feel what we feel so quickly. In the movies, character and personality have to be conveyed decisively, forcefully, yet subtly--a difficult trick.

That goes for behind the cameras as well as in front of them. Because outside the soundstage there's another movie unspooling, and it never stops: Life in Hollywood. Sometimes it's a comedy, sometimes a drama, often it's an action adventure or, yes, a "Wild Kingdom"-like animal documentary. What-ever the scene, you can identify the characters by their costumes, whether they're based on Armani attitude, the danger of naughty black leather, or just about anything in between.

Calling upon the talents of costume designer Marilyn Vance-Straker and actress-for-all-attitudes Courteney Cox, we stood back as Marilyn put together some familiar Hollywood scenarios, and then carefully constructed the appropriate costumes for Courteney to play characters within them.

Later, I meet Marilyn--who has dolled up such feature films as The Untouchables, Pretty Woman, Die Hard 2, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Hudson Hawk--to talk about the photo shoot.

The lovely Ms. Vance is breathless, having just climbed off a jet from Las Vegas where she met with the King of the neon desert, Wayne Newton. They had worked together on Ford Fairlane and he liked what she did. It seems he now needs some help with his image. In fact, it seems like a lot of people need help with their images. Just as we start gabbing, Marilyn's amazing vibrating beeper goes off in her pocket. "My beeper doesn't beep," she says, showing me the mysterious box, "so it doesn't bother anybody on the set." I ask if it trembles, and she laughs, "It feels good sometimes."

I ask Marilyn how she goes about creating an image for a character in a film. "When you're doing a con-temporary film, you have to think about the characterization," she says. "Who are these people? You also have to remember the movie opens a year later, so you don't want to get too trendy with a color or design. The character is the visual canvas. If it's a really rough guy, does he have money or not? Who does he work for? Some wealthy guy or a thug from the gutter? You should register it immediately, and enhance it with the clothes." It takes a meticulous eye to create total characters with a few pieces of clothing and a handful of accessories.

Has Marilyn ever come across inflated personalities who try to get in her way or obscure her vision? "With all the different egos involved--the producer, the director, very high-paid actors--you have to test the water and see what's going on in that arena. It's like going to a home for emotionally disturbed children, and you observe what buttons there are to push, and what not to do. You have to let them believe it was their idea. Some of the egos involved can't help but take the credit."

Marilyn gives typical examples of Hollywood ego problems (no names please!). "There's so much psychology involved in what I do, it's not just throwing things on. Sometimes I get women who say, 'I look awful in yellow, green, orange, purple, I can only wear white.' Sometimes people give you the wrong sizes, for what reason I don't know, since I'm here to help them." I suggested that perhaps they don't even want to admit to themselves the size of their waistlines.

"Then there are people like Bruce Willis," she continues, speaking of the star she costumed in Die Hard 2, Hudson Hawk, and the upcoming The Last Boy Scout. "He is really willing to go the limit. If his character is called to be a mess, he'll go for it. He'll say, 'I'm going to be slovenly,' and totally do it." (When I feel compelled to tell Marilyn that I think Bruce has a truly great butt, she smiles and declines to comment. Such a pro.)

I ask Marilyn how she assembled the outfits for this shoot. I know that, besides pulling just the right stuff from all over town, she and stylist Lauren Ehrenfeld brought along lots of their own material for inspiration--jewelry, accessories, and other eclectic touches. But was Marilyn aiming for true-to-life portraiture, or tongue-in-cheek caricatures?

"Somewhere in between. A little punched-up," she laughs. "We had fun while we were doing it. We cracked a lot of jokes." Would she actually wear any of the outfits she created? "The development person's look, yes--funky retro, new and old. It was slacks and a blazer, tan and navy, just a T-shirt and a rag around her head, old jewelry." Did she base any of the outfits on real people? "For the high-powered agent or executive, head-of-studio, I thought of my friend, Dawn Steel. The suit was Calvin Klein."

How about the ravishing red dress for the actress looking to make a splash at the People's Choice Awards? "Having dressed Julia Roberts in the Pretty Woman red gown, personally, I'm red gowned up to my--choked to death with the red gown, so I added long black gloves and a more sinuous kind of attitude. Courteney didn't look like an ingenue, let's put it that way." The wife of the high-powered producer? "The wife is just popped-out, over-the-top with her Chanel suit. That one was fun to do, definitely a caricature."

Personally, I loved the naughty black-leather-jacket club look. "We did two variations on the club girl," says Marilyn. "I did a jacket for Kelly LeBrock in Weird Science that was studded with cat's eyes, '777,' '13,' really amazing, over this Liza Bruce little dress, with sheer décolletage, and the other jacket was from Ford Fairlane. I like them both." Would she wear this ensemble? "I actually do wear the studded jacket with a serious gown underneath."

I want to get Courteney Cox's opinion of these outfits too, since she modeled them so expertly. We chat on the phone, talking first about her career. She is, of course, the girl who we first noticed "Dancing in the Dark" with Bruce Springsteen in his music video, and the one Michael J. Fox fell for in "Family Ties." Since then she's done several independent features, most recently Rules of the Game, which has been picked up by Miramax. "There's always ups and downs in this business," she sighs. "One week you do a really great film you're all excited about, and the next week you read for 'Return to Green Acres'."

I ask if she would wear any of these ensembles that Marilyn created for her. "None of them were my type of outfit," she says, "but if I were playing a character, I could wear any of them and feel comfortable." Courteney has, of course, met all the various characters she's playing here in the course of her own real-life adventures in Hollywood. "There are more than just these five," she says with a laugh. "For example, there are no costumes here that represent anything my friends and I would wear." Really? What does Courteney wear in what passes for real life in Tinseltown? Does she have a signature look? "Everyone I know--and this includes me--we just wear T-shirts and jeans."



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