When we last checked in with costume designer Janie Bryant, known for her celebrated work on "Mad Men," she was dressing Eva Longoria in present day J-Lo-inspired costumes on the now-canceled "Telenovela." Now Bryant is traveling back in time again, but past her familiar '60s to the glamorous and tumultuous 1930s in "The Last Tycoon." The Amazon pilot —essentially, a TV movie based on the unfinished F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel — is set during the Golden Age of Hollywood, which thrived as the U.S. suffered through the Great Depression and the world faced the rise of Hitler's Germany.
And Fitzgerald adaptations being Fitzgerald adaptations — especially one set in La La Land — "The Last Tycoon" offers plenty of opportunities for dazzling costumes. For inspiration to dress the glamorous women at a MGM-esque movie studio, Bryant looked to legendary photographer George Hurrell. "I can only describe his work as being the most luscious, gorgeous — creating the most beautiful images Hollywood has ever seen," says Bryant.
The photographer captured now-iconic images of the most famous actors of the '30s and '40s, from Myrna Loy to Clark Gable, in a "scrumptious, luxurious, luscious" aesthetic, as Bryant describes it. The costume designer also looked to a litany of famous actresses from the Golden Age: Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Gene Tierney, Jean Harlow, Vivien Leigh, Joan Crawford, Merle Oberon and Norma Shearer. "She is my style icon," says Bryant about Shearer, rattling off the list of storied names.
Bryant both sourced vintage pieces and designed jaw-dropping gowns for the leading ladies in the show. For the opening flashback sequence featuring movie star Minna Davis (played by Jessica De Gouw, who looks like a '30s screen siren), Bryant created a bias-cut silk gown with shoulder draping and jewel detail on a low-plunge back. "You just want to eat it. It’s so beautiful," she says. "And I love all of the fabrics for the period and all the bias-cut dresses. It falls so beautifully on the body."
For a climactic ballroom scene, Bryant designed a fluttery vintage buckle embellished gown worn by Kathleen Moore (Dominique McElligott), an unpretentious Irish waitress who could otherwise pass as a marquee starlet. "It had to really have that really great balance of beauty — the color red, which was more provocative — but still have modest elements to it as well," she explained.
For college student Celia Brady (Lily Collins), Bryant designed a puff-shoulder princess dress that she wears to a lavish, Gatsby-esque party in her family's mansion. The design reflects the young girl's state of mind: Celia is the boss's daughter who, understandably, is in love with the absurdly dreamy Monroe Stahr (the perfect Matt Bomer), who also happens to work for dad (Kelsey Grammar). "I just loved the idea of her being in lilac and she's just like a blossoming flower," Bryant says. "I love that imagery of the storyline." In contrast, a black and white shoulder-baring dress that she wears in a later scene "was much more about seduction."
For the studio heads — i.e., the men — like Grammar's Pat Brady and Bomer's dapper young exec Monroe, Bryant looked to the costume houses in real-life Hollywood for vintage suits. "I am totally obsessed with this period of menswear," she says. "It is such a stunning period for men, really it is. It’s completely opposite from 'Mad Men.' It is all about the broad shoulders, the nipped waist, the wide lapel, the wide trouser leg. It's all about being wide and creating those masculine shoulders."
While "The Last Tycoon" explores the glittery "untouchable" movie starlets and the power players who inhabit Hollywood, the story and costumes also highlight the residents of the less flashy (but still impeccably outfitted) back offices — the secretary pool and the writers room — and the impoverished Hooverville shantytowns bordering the studios. About 900 extras were dressed in head-to-toe period looks. But Bryant was up for the challenge to express the class discrepancy of the era through costume.
"During that time, Los Angeles was in development and all those people were basically swept away — bulldozed over — and it was really important to show just the quality of life that they were living, which was they had nothing and they lived in rags," says Bryant about the era's socioeconomic contrasts. "I think it's an important thing in the pilot to create those two worlds visually. I mean, who doesn't love beautiful and pretty? But behind all the glamour, it's the layers of reality of what’s going on."
So will "The Last Tycoon" become a full series? In a unique strategy, Amazon is streaming two extended pilots for all viewers, not just Prime subscribers, starting Friday. The public can watch and review the shows as they would any other product — star-rating system, comments, etc. — and then Amazon Studios will assess the feedback and decide whether or not to green-light a full season.
Costume designing a pilot is always a major endeavor because the wardrobe and set design, hair and makeup are all instrumental to introducing and establishing the characters in a very short window of time. (Then, it's a waiting game for a network to pick up the series.) So does Amazon's unique test scenario add any extra anxiety to Bryant's job? "No, it’s not added pressure," she laughs. "It's more just thinking good thoughts and hoping that the pilot gets picked up to go to a series."