Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Swimming With Sharks

Review Date: 2-25-09
Release Date: 3-21-1995
Runtime: 101 min.
Period: Contemporary, 1995
Costume Designer: Kirsten Everberg

Rex: This is not a business; this is show business. Punching below the belt is not only all right, it’s rewarded.

In celebration of Oscars week, and all things Hollywood, I thought Swimming With Sharks would be an appropriate choice for this week’s review.  The film is not just about the film industry, it is about the abuse of authority and position that is present in all fields, and the backlash that occurs when the victims reach their breaking point.

The film is simple enough: young kid Guy, played by Frank Whaley, moves to town from upstate New York, lands a desk at a big studio, assisting the VP of Production, Buddy Ackerman, played by Kevin Spacey.  We follow Guy’s transition from newbie to hardass, through on-screen cards that read: Day One; Week One; Month One, and so on.  Guy’s job at the studio is to effectively suck up to, and service every need of, Buddy.  In the most sardonic sense, it’s called “paying your dues”, and everyone has to do it.

The movie is told in flashbacks, and it starts at the end: cops and paramedics swarm a house in the Hollywood Hills.  A sheet-covered body is rolled out from the house on a gurney, as a thrashed and disoriented Guy looks on.  Cut to: flashback from earlier that night…

Guy holds court at a Kate-Mantilini-esque Hollywood power-restaurant with three other assistants.  None of them know who Shelly Winters is.  He rattles off her credits effortlessly – no iPhone or IMDb necessary.  The other assistants are clueless as to her identity, until he names The Poseidon Adventure.  Guy snorts in disgust, his pager blowing up.  He goes to the pay phone to return the call, and hears the news that sets him off for the rest of the film.

The film is then intercut between his earlier trials and tribulations as an assistant, and the bloody revenge he then exacts on his tyrannical boss.  This is such a good movie, I don’t want to give too much of it away.  But I suppose I have to, in order to explain the costumes, so here come the major spoilers…

One of Buddy’s sloppy seconds, Dawn (Michelle Forbes), a young, slightly scheming, manipulative producer, takes a liking to Guy.  They embark on a relationship, and after a while it seems they really do care for each other.  They develop a script together, and prepare to pitch it to Buddy.  Guy suggests a director, and presents the idea to Buddy, who seems enthralled.  Buddy wants to take it to Cyrus (the head of the studio, played by Roy Dotrice).  Buddy comes back from the meeting with Cyrus in tow, lingering in front of his office so that Guy can see and hear their conversation, and Buddy takes credit for the script and its ideas.

Meanwhile, Buddy is still whipping Guy around like a slave, insulting him, abusing him and ruining his life.  Dawn tires of seeing Guy go through this, and they have a big fight about it.  Later that day, Guy holds court at the restaurant, and his pager starts blowing up (the scene at the beginning of the movie).

Meanwhile, Buddy calls Dawn at her home to entice her into a rendezvous at his house.  She’s not interested, so Buddy starts harassing her about her relationship with Guy, giving her an ultimatum about getting their film made.  Dawn hangs up on Buddy.  Guy goes to use the pay phone, but instead of returning Buddy’s pages, he calls Dawn.  Through a series of wire-crossings, Guy hears Dawn tell Buddy that she will come to his house at midnight.  Guy loses it.

Guy shows up at Buddy’s house, holds him at gunpoint, ties him to a chair and tortures him.  This feels oddly satisfying to watch, as anyone who has had an abusive authority figure in his or her life can relate to the feeling of vengeance.  Slowly, Buddy begins to crack and take the upper hand through the torture.  Dawn arrives at midnight, is shocked and horrified by what she sees.  Guy is horrified that she showed up.  Buddy is gleeful for the standoff, and begs Guy to shoot him, to finish what he started.  A single gunshot is heard.  Cut to:

The same scene from the very beginning of the film, a sheet-covered body is being wheeled out on a gurney, past a dazed and disheveled Guy.  Then comes the audio of the cop talking to Guy.  We learn that it is Dawn who has been shot dead; Guy and Buddy conspired to make her the fall guy.  Cut to:

Guy getting comfortable in his new office.  No longer Buddy’s assistant, Guy is a free man, but still a slave to the system, and to the guilt carried by his own actions.  A battered-but-healing Buddy shows up at Guy’s door, and motions him into his office.  Business as usual.  The end.

It’s brilliant.

Kevin Spacey is so good in this role; it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it.  He was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, and for a Golden Needle Award from the Seattle International Film Festival for his work on this film.  His career soon took off, and he landed major roles in The Usual Suspects, and Se7en.  Frank Whaley is equally good, as the frustrated, earnest, clueless whipping post who thinks that somehow, it is all worth it.  It’s sad, and it’s real.  These are great performances that make the movie worth watching over and over again.

The film is part noir, part black comedy, and part (let’s face it) documentary about what happens in the film industry.  But honestly, Buddy Ackermans exist everywhere, not just in entertainment – in real estate, in the prison system, in the medical community, in law offices, in corporations – anywhere there is authority, there is the opportunity for abuse of power and position.  And anywhere there is abuse (especially the kind we see in SWS) there will be the desire for retribution on the part of the victim.

The costumes help to tell this story quite well.  Guy, when we first meet him, looks like an awkward Congressional page: striped dress shirt, navy blazer, pleated khaki slacks, a simple tie.  It’s a collegiate look that speaks to his lack of experience.  The rest of the assistants in the office (all young men) are wearing suits in drapey fabric consistent with the mid-1990s aesthetic that WAS Hollywood, at the time.

It isn’t until Year One that Guy finally loses the striped shirts.  He transitions from wearing blazers and pants, to suits, fruity 1990s print ties, then eventually to solid-color shirts, to slicked-back hair, to finally black suit with black power-tie.  It’s a subtle transition, but powerful.  We see his arc defined very clearly.

Buddy Ackerman’s costumes reflect a man in control.  His suits are made from better fabric than anyone else’s, they drape better, they look slicker, and they reflect the 1990s Armani-vibe that power brokers sought.  His ties are tasteful, unlike the floral patterned monstrosities that Guy wears, and his shoes are polished.

However, when Buddy is caught unawares at his home, when Guy goes nuts on him, he wears a simple v-neck sweater (looks like fine Merino wool or cashmere), with a crew-neck tshirt underneath, and simple pants.  I watched this film on DVD, so it was hard to make out what the pants were, exactly.  As he is tortured and abused, he gets bloodier and sweatier, though most of the grime is on his face.  This simple costume strips Buddy of the visual authority we associate with him.  The tables are turned: Guy, in his solid-colored dress shirt and drapey slacks, becomes the aggressor, and Buddy is defenseless.

Dawn, the aspiring producer, starts out in business wear.  She seems prickly and uptight at first – she wears stark black and white, a skirt suit ensemble that, while sexy, has a kind of no-nonsense approach.  Her sharp bob haircut and bangs add to the hardass look, but somehow she manages to make it work for her.  She’s one part Bladerunner, one part librarian, one part barracuda.

And then she changes.

Dawn, once she becomes involved with Guy, softens immensely.  We see her out of the work environment – at the laundromat, at Guy’s apartment – and she doesn’t even resemble the woman we first met in Buddy Ackerman’s office.  She wears a chambray shirt, a soft headband pulling her hair away from her face, at the laundromat.  And let’s ask the question – why is she doing her laundry at the laundromat?  Because she doesn’t live in a place with a washer-dryer.  To live in a place with no washer and dryer means she’s probably living in an apartment, and a cheap or old one at that, with no laundry room.  The setting of the scene tells us so much about the reality of her situation.  It’s really brilliant.

Later, when she and Guy are doing their script revisions at Guy’s apartment, she is wearing what would now be called “mom jeans”.  Honestly, people wore these jeans.  Hip people wore these jeans; they weren’t for moms.  And she wears a long-sleeved shirt, tucked into these high-waisters, with a belt!  Looking at it with contemporary eyes, it seems kind of absurd.  She’s supposed to be a with-it gal.  But the reality of the 1990s was… that WAS with-it!  It’s interesting to see what fifteen years does, in terms of our fashion sensibilities.  Nowadays, we look at what Dawn wears in the film, and we think, “Hmmmm…” But back then, in context, it was totally normal, forward thinking, realistic.  It’s an important distinction to make, because our contemporary sensibilities can alter our perceptions of something that is actually (by now) period.

It is worth mentioning the contrast of “old guard” vs. “new school” in the film.  Cyrus, the studio head, wears a double-breasted, fitted suit with a red pocket square.  It looks odd even now, a throwback to a different time.  Or perhaps, because Cyrus is played by an older actor, we can make the “he pulled to the side of the road on the fashion highway in the late 1940s” assertion.  The suit itself is a nice nod to the “noir” aspect of the film, and in contrast to Buddy’s lithe drapey suits, it clearly places Cyrus in another, older, generation.  And we realize that sooner or later, Buddy is going to attack Cyrus and cannibalize him on his way upward.

Swimming With Sharks delivers some of the best dialog I have ever heard in a film about the movie business.  Clearly the director/writer (George Huang) has heard some of these lines with his own ears.  He was the assistant to a well-known Hollywood producer for some time, and many presume that the Buddy Ackerman character is based on Huang’s experience as his assistant.  It is worth noting that for many years after the film came out, Huang couldn’t get much work in Hollywood, even after directing a film as good as this one is.  Payback, perhaps?  It’s really a shame, because Swimming With Sharks is truly engaging and seriously hilarious, especially to those of us who know its milieu all too well.  Huang tells an engaging and compelling story.  It’s just too bad that he stepped on the wrong toes, evidently.

I imagine that the budget of this film was miniscule.  Looking at IMDb (not the most reputable source for this kind of information) the overall budget is estimated at $700,000.  Even back in 1994, that wasn’t a lot of money.  I’d be surprised if the costume department had even $10,000 to work with.  The costume designer, Kirsten Everberg, only had one other credited crew member on her team, her costume supervisor.  This is not unusual on a low-budget, non-union feature, but that arrangement means long hours, no breaks, and taking home the laundry every night because you can’t afford a laundry contract with an outsourcer.  It’s hard work.  Hats off to Everberg for pulling it off, and for telling this entertaining story with clever costumes.  Just remember, they weren’t always called “mom jeans”.

–KMB

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