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.Imitating Hollywood's Snippy Designer.
By: STEPHEN KINZER
New York Times
January 24, 2002

TUCSON, Ariz. — The nature of
filmmaking and all of American
life has changed so completely
since midcentury that there will
probably never be a figure
comparable to Edith Head. No one
will ever again design clothes for
the stars of more than 1,000 films,
be nominated for 35 Academy
Awards, win 8 and at the same time
shape the look of millions of
American women.

But although Head died in 1981 at
82, she has made a return of sorts
with the opening of a new play
called "Sketches: Edith Head's
Hollywood." It has a few lines for
actors with small roles as fans and
a personal assistant, but in essence
it is a one-woman show drawn almost exclusively from
Head's own words.

Susan Claassen, who plays the title role, bears a striking
resemblance to the legendary designer. Onstage she wears
the dark glasses and straight- cut bangs that were Head's
trademarks. She studied old videos to learn Head's
gestures and speech patterns.

The play is set in the last year of Head's life, when she was
designing clothes for Steve Martin and other performers in
what would be her final picture, "Dead Men Don't Wear
Plaid." As she reminisces, full-length images of the stars
she talks about are projected behind her, among them Clara
Bow, Hedy Lamarr, Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard,
Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich. The dialogue is spiced
with tidbits about Mae West's bosom, Gloria Swanson's
feet, Elizabeth Taylor's waist and Barbara Stanwyck's
behind.

Head comes across as imperious, opinionated, a genuine
admirer of the stars and directors with whom she worked,
and a relentless self-promoter. ("I hate modesty, don't
you?") To a question about the most important men in her
life, she arches her eyebrows and replies, "All eight of
them were named Oscar."

Looking back over a career that she realizes is ending,
Head becomes wistful. She laments the passing of the star
system and the vulgarity of "actresses coming to fittings
with blue jeans and no underwear." As she recalls the
making of "All About Eve" (for which she won one of her
Oscars) in 1950, she loses herself in reflection after
describing the film as the story of a onetime queen of
Hollywood who is now "living in a dream world of the
past, lost in her imagination."

In the 1940's and 50's, when Head was at the peak of her
fame, many American women took their fashion cues from
movies and especially movie magazines, and Head's
whims flashed across the country and reshaped trends
almost overnight. She reached a huge audience with her
appearances on "House Party," Art Linkletter's television
show, during which she bluntly commented on the style of
women chosen from the studio audience. ("To tell you the
truth, your hips are too big.")

Besides earning lavish praise from many of the greatest
names in film history, Head happily accepted much that she
did not earn. She was hired at Paramount on the strength of
drawings that were actually made by others, accepted
congratulations for Grace Kelly's wedding gown and
Audrey Hepburn's black bateau- neck cocktail dress in
"Sabrina," although she did not design either one, and was
sued after winning her final Oscar for "The Sting" in 1973
because she did not credit the real designers of clothes
worn by Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

The idea of turning her life into a play came to Ms.
Claassen as she watched a television documentary about
Head and was struck by their resemblance.

"I did a double-take because of this uncanny likeness," she
said. "I spent the better part of two years putting this piece
together, and the more I learned about her, the more
fascinated I became. She really represents the greater part
of the 20th century in American film, the films we grew up
with. I wanted to convey that and also put it in historical
perspective."

In the course of her research, Ms. Claassen sought out the
co-author of Head's autobiography ("Edith Head's
Hollywood"), Paddy Calistro, who had 13 hours of tapes
in which Head talks about her celebrity-studded life. The
script is drawn from those tapes and from Head's many
interviews, newspaper columns and television
appearances. It is credited to Ms. Claassen, Ms. Calistro
and the play's director, Carol Calkins.

Ms. Calistro said: "Edith Head was a huge figure in terms
of her influence over the way American women looked for
many years, and she was also a very tough cookie. She had
to be, because there weren't many female executives in
Hollywood. For a woman to be design director for
Paramount was something amazing at that time. I had the
chance to spend a fair amount of time with her, and when
she died, I assumed we had lost her forever. But with this
play, I'm seeing her come to life in a way that's so perfectly
accurate its almost scary."

The show will run through Feb. 3 at the Invisible Theatre,
which was founded in 1971 by a group of Tucson
playwrights looking for a place to stage their works. The
company later added a successful Shakespeare series, and
now it offers a blend of new work and plays by writers
like A. R. Gurney, Peter Shaffer and Tom Stoppard.

In this play the aging Edith Head is depicted as frustrated
and even confused as she tries to record her memories on
tape. When a fan asks her what she regrets, she grasps for
answers.

"Never having dressed Marilyn Monroe, never designing
uniforms for the Chicago Cubs, being alone." Then, her
voice trailing off, she concludes impatiently, "It is much
easier being remembered than trying to remember."

New York Times ; January 24, 2002