Sylbert, Richard

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SYLBERT, Richard

Art Director. Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1928; twin brother of the designer Paul Sylbert. Education: Attended Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia. Career: 1951–53—TV art director (including the series Inner Sanctum); film designer from mid-1950s; 1975–78—head of production, Paramount. Awards: Academy Award, for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1966; Academy Award, Best Art Direction and Set Direction, for Dick Tracy, 1991; British Academy Award, Best Production Design, for Dick Tracy, 1991; Lifetime Achievement Award, Society of Motion Picture and Television Art Directors, 2000.

Films as Art Director/Production Designer:


Crowded Paradise (Pressburger); Baby Doll (Kazan)


A Face in the Crowd (Kazan); Edge of the City (Ritt)


Wind Across the Everglades (Ray)


The Fugitive Kind (Lumet); Murder, Inc. (Balaban and Rosenberg)


Mad Dog Coll (Balaban); Splendor in the Grass (Kazan); The Young Doctors (Karlson)


Walk on the Wild Side (Dmytryk); The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer); The Connection (Clarke); Long Day's Journey into Night (Lumet)


All the Way Home (Segal)


Lilith (Rossen)


How to Murder Your Wife (Quine); The Pawnbroker (Lumet); What's New, Pussycat? (Donner)


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Nichols); Grand Prix (Frankenheimer)


The Graduate (Nichols)


Rosemary's Baby (Polanski)


The April Fools (Rosenberg); The Illustrated Man (Smight)


Catch-22 (Nichols)


Carnal Knowledge (Nichols)


Fat City (Huston); The Heartbreak Kid (May)


The Day of the Dolphin (Nichols)


Chinatown (Polanski)


The Fortune (Nichols); Shampoo (Ashby); Last Hours Before Morning (Hardy)


Players (Harvey)


Reds (Beatty)


Partners (Burrows); Frances (Clifford)


Breathless (McBride)


The Cotton Club (Coppola)


Under the Cherry Moon (Prince)


Shoot to Kill (Deadly Pursuit) (Spottiswoode); Tequila Sunrise (Towne)


The Bonfire of the Vanities (De Palma); Dick Tracy (Beatty)


Mobsters (Karbelnikoff)


Ruby Cairo (Deception) (Clifford)


Carlito's Way (De Palma)


Mulholland Falls (Tamahori) (+ ro as Coroner)


Blood and Wine (Rafelson); My Best Friend's Wedding (Hogan); Red Corner (Avnet)


In the Boom Boom Room


Unconditional Love; Uprising


By SYLBERT: articles—

Film Heritage (Dayton, Ohio), Fall 1975.

Film Comment (New York), January/February 1982.

Stills (London), May 1985.

American Film (Washington, D.C.), December 1985.

American Film (Washington, D.C.), December 1989.

On SYLBERT: article:

Premiere, vol. 7, December 1993.

* * *

Though the importance of Richard Sylbert's contribution to art direction in the American cinema is undeniable, it is legitimate to ask if the abandonment of the great studios, continuing in Hollywood during the 1960s and 1970s, limited the complete expression of his talent. Nevertheless, Sylbert is one of the principal links, if not the principal, in the history of the classic art department, maintaining a tradition of design which has undergone a considerable renewal since the 1980s.

In his twenties, Sylbert worked with William Cameron Menzies, perhaps the major American film designer, claiming: "Menzies taught me about getting hold of the whole thing, about making the connections and keeping control of it and making rules." If Sylbert, through Menzies, is heir to the idea of "structural rules," to Elia Kazan, Sylbert owes the notion of the independence of the creative process. Sylbert says: "Kazan taught me a wonderful thing. Here was this man who was one of the greatest directors we ever had. I would sometimes go up to him and say, 'Gadge, what do you think we ought to do here?' And he would look at me and say, 'What would you do if I were dead?' I treat all directors as if they're dead."

A fidelity to these two influences allowed Sylbert to bring to the design of his films an individual vision, stressing the scripts' most central ideas. He has said, for instance, that the design for Chinatown follows the basic orientation of the film: it can be summed up, in his opinion, as "Find the girl." Sylbert uses color, space, and architecture to effect a "visual rewriting" of the script. In general, a color emerges as the deepest unifying factor of his design: in Chinatown a rediscovery of film noir leads to a utilization of "open" colors which tend toward luminous and hot whites; in Reds neutral browns dominate, contrasting only with the sequence of lively colors worn by Louise Bryant; in The Cotton Club, in which Sylbert is again involved in "reinventing a genre," a profusion of brilliants and reflections dominate the look of the film, reinforcing the illusion of spectacle and the mythology of gangsters.

Some of Sylbert's sets are both realistic and full of atmosphere, like the second floor of the house in Baby Doll, his first film with Kazan, and Martha's house in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, one of the five films he made for Mike Nichols. Both examples show the same line of unity: the sets carry a large psychological freight, with few decorative details (a studied disarrangement) and a confining space. The empty walls of Carnal Knowledge ("it's really about memory," the designer says) and the claustrophobic apartment of Rosemary's Baby also show this psychological vision of space.

The art of Richard Sylbert is a long search for the correspondences between the psychology of the characters and the appearances of his sets. A Sylbert design possesses a liberty and an abstraction that approaches those of music. As he himself has said: "There's no question, if you look at Reds, it's a romantic symphony. You look at a picture like Chinatown, and it's a concerto for instant brass. The idea in Cotton Club is that there's no classical type structure. Jazz is not written down. Cotton Club is a syncopated movie."

—M. S. Fonesca