Really great movies are those that draw you into the story; they make you believe what you are watching on screen. Making this magic happen is no easy task, and many different aspects of creating the scene have to be taken into account. Of course everyone recognizes the actors as playing a part, as well as the director and even the camera men, but one often overlooked role is that of costume designer.
For a movie to be believable, everything must look in its place. It wouldn’t do to have modern day blue jeans in a movie set in the 1700s. While that’s an obvious example, it’s really the details of a character’s costume that lend it an air of authenticity. Creating that air is the responsibility of the oft forgotten costume designer.
One of the greatest and most respected costume designers to work in Hollywood was Mary Wills. Born in 1914, Wills worked as a costume designer on all sorts of Hollywood films for more than four decades. She was a gifted individual, and was the first woman to study at the Yale Art and Drama School, receiving her Master’s Degree there.
She was also a talented sketch artist, and some of her sketches for costume ideas to be used in the movies could easily be called works of art in their own right. In many of these sketches, she would even include subtle background scenery, which would give the costume context.
Able to breathe life into characters via their convincing clothing, Wills designed costumes for both contemporary and historical period films. In The Diary of Anne Frank, she perfectly evoked the bleak plight of a little Jewish girl running from the Nazis during World War II, and for this she was nominated for an Oscar.
This style of dress was far more contemporary than others she worked on. Her historically accurate costume designs for the 1955 film The Virgin Queen were truly works of art, the sketches for which make the characters really come to life on the page. Wills gained another Oscar nomination for her work on this film.
Throughout her career, Mary Wills was nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume Design a total of seven times. She won the Academy Award once, in 1963 for her work in The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grim”. The film is set in the early nineteenth century, depicting the tale of the Brothers Grimm as they retell three of their most famous fairy tales. This gave Wills the opportunity to showcase her considerable skill at creating costumes for dance, as the film featured ballet performances in addition to the historically accurate costumes for the rest of the cast.
She continued to work on Hollywood films until 1976, when she contributed for the last time to the film The Passover Plot. Once again she was honored with an Academy Award nomination for her work. Mary Wills then retired to Sedona, Arizona. The world lost a great artist when she passed away at age 82, in 1997.