Von Brandenstein, Patrizia

views updated May 21 2018

von BRANDENSTEIN, Patrizia

Production Designer. Nationality: American. Born: In Arizona. Family: Married the production designer Stuart Wurtzel. Career: Late 1960s-early 1970s—worked on stage productions for the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco; assistant to production designer Stuart Wurtzel; 1975–77—served as art director on Hester Street; painted scenery for PBS; worked as costume designer on Saturday Night Fever; 1979—first major production-design work on Breaking Away. Awards: Academy Award for Amadeus, 1984.

Films as Costume Designer:


Between the Lines (J. Silver); Saturday Night Fever (Badham)


A Little Sex (Paltrow)

Films as Production Designer:


Girlfriends (Weill)


Breaking Away (Yates)


Tell Me a Riddle (L. Grant)


Heartland (Pearce)


Silkwood (Nichols); Touched (Flynn)


Amadeus (Forman); Beat Street (Lathan)


A Chorus Line (Attenborough)


The Money Pit (Benjamin); No Mercy (Pearce)


The Untouchables (De Palma)


Betrayed (Costa-Gavras); Working Girl (Nichols)


The Lemon Sisters (Chopra); Postcards from the Edge (Nichols); State of Grace (Joanou)


Billy Bathgate (Benton)


Leap of Faith (Pearce); Sneakers (Robinson)


Six Degrees of Separation (Schepisi)


Just Cause (Glimcher); The Quick and the Dead (Raimi)


The People vs. Larry Flint (Forman)


Mercury Rising (Becker); A Simple Plan (S. Raimi)


Witness Protection (Pearce—for TV); Man on the Moon (Forman)



Other Films:


The Candidate (Ritchie) (set designer)


Hester Street (J. Silver) (art d)


Ragtime (Forman) (art d)



New York, 14 January 1985.

Film Comment (New York), March/April 1986.

American Film (New York), August 1990.

Premiere (New York), Special Issue, 1993.

* * *

Patrizia von Brandenstein made history in 1985 by becoming the first woman ever to win an Oscar for production design, for Milos Forman's ornate, pictorial Amadeus. But even if she had never won an Oscar, or never worked on Amadeus, her versatility alone would rank her at the top of her profession. Her credits show an astonishing range of subjects, styles, and periods: what does the low-budget, break-dancing musical Beat Street have in common with the expensive plutonium-plant melodrama Silkwood, besides von Brandenstein? Believing that a production designer can become as typecast as actors and actresses, and despite receiving Academy recognition only for her big-budgeted period pieces (Ragtime, Amadeus, and The Untouchables), von Brandenstein makes a concerted effort to avoid repeating herself or latching onto familiar subjects. This openness to challenge and diversity complicates any analysis of von Brandenstein's designing "style," for she has worked in so many genres her achievements resist categorization. Although not every film she worked on was a success—critically or financially—the enthusiasm she brings to such disparate pictures as A Chorus Line and The Quick and the Dead is always visible: these films, however flawed, catch the eye.

Von Brandenstein won some instant notoriety in 1977 as costume designer on Saturday Night Fever: the white disco-dance outfit she created for John Travolta appeared on the cover of Newsweek, sparking a fad. But it was her association with Stuart Wurtzel, her production design mentor (and future husband) that established ties with director Milos Forman. As Wurtzel's assistant on Hair, von Brandenstein worked well with Forman, and later served as art director on Ragtime, supervising construction of a nickelodeon and a lush rooftop garden that captured the film's nostalgic tone: they are relics of a bygone era, still glowing and functional, as if dropped from a time capsule. Her ability to establish historical verisimilitude dominates Ragtime and later films such as Amadeus, The Untouchables, and Billy Bathgate, where the visual design is so vivid and evocative the story and characters seem less interesting. For example, von Brandenstein and Forman scouted castles and palaces in Czechoslovakia to select appropriate sets for Amadeus, and even gained access to Prague's Tyl Theatre, where Mozart conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787. With all this rich architecture as background scenery, the dynamics of Peter Shaffer's stage play are somewhat stifled; the viewer is too busy gawking at the sets to concentrate on the vicious envy of F. Murray Abraham's mediocre composer. Less problematic are The Untouchables and The Quick and the Dead, period films by flamboyant directors uninterested in the psychological dimensions of their characters: here, von Brandenstein's bold re-creation of 1920s Chicago, and her hilarious rendering of a rotting, ramshackle western town match the films' comic-book plots and directorial flourishes.

Some of her best work, however, is not pure re-creation. Films with contemporary settings can challenge von Brandenstein even more than period pieces. She believes that for every picture, a production designer's main goal is to orchestrate visual material to establish the director's idea of the story's characters and central ideas, whatever the setting. Two films directed by Mike Nichols show her labors: In Silkwood, she conveys Karen Silkwood's paranoia and feelings of entrapment by designing her home in the same featureless, pale-green hue as the plutonium plant where she works; only Drew, Karen's freewheeling lover, brings life to the place with his American flags and bright-red hot rod. In Postcards from the Edge, von Brandenstein plays illusion/reality games meant to represent the Hollywood heroine's disorientation: a tree-lined background proves to be a set painting when a stagehand walks right through it; a building shifts behind Dennis Quaid as Meryl Streep drives away, but it is the building that is on wheels; and, most famously, Streep hangs off a ledge over moving traffic, an illusion broken when Streep lifts her hands and does not fall—both the ledge and the traffic are fake. The viewer reads these images subconsciously, hardly aware that von Brandenstein is building emotion with colors and giant props. The sets are an outgrowth of the characters' personalities and conflicts, as in The Money Pit, where a crumbling mansion is a comic metaphor for a crumbling marriage.

Von Brandenstein also enjoys tricking an audience with realistic sets that, in terms of the plot and the characters, become absurd and unsettling. The first half of Costa-Gavras's race-hate picture Betrayed depicts an underground network of para-military bigots as deceptively simple country boys fond of beer, horses, and barbecues, an extended conceit tailored to the subjective view of outsiders like ourselves. (As soon as the country boys are exposed as out-and-out racists, though, the picture loses tension and belabors the obvious Klan rallies and right-wing militia training exercises.) The eclectic Six Degrees of Separation extends the visual trickery to knock down social barriers: vastly different New York environments (penthouse, hovel, bookstore, police station) are inhabited by the same characters at various points, making everyone look slightly out of place. A dirt-poor young actress, for instance, barges into a high-priced apartment complex to meet a rich art dealer, who has to come downstairs to a grubby little boiler room—it is a double clash of cultures. The production design in Six Degrees achieves total authenticity, unlike the broad, expressionist Silkwood; but it is the authenticity of the locations that parodies the characters in their bizarre explorations. The art dealer would not be laughable if the boiler room did not look real.

A film designed by von Brandenstein is guaranteed to be visually interesting, and von Brandenstein herself continues to expand her territory. The Quick and the Dead is her first Western after 20 years of movie work, and her memorable, dilapidated designs for that film prove both her virtuosity and her readiness to take a risk.

—Ken Provencher

von Brandenstein, Patrizia (Patrizia Von Brandenstein)

views updated May 21 2018

von Brandenstein, Patrizia (Patrizia Von Brandenstein)


Born in AZ; father, an army warrant officer; married second husband, Stuart Wurtzel (a production designer); children: (second marriage) Kimberly. Education: Attended University of Alaska, Anchorage, and Catholic University of America; studied at Comedie Francaise, Paris, Lester Polakov's Studio, and HB Studio and Actors Studio, New York City.


Agent—Mirisch Agency, 1875 Century Park East, Suite 2050, Los Angeles, CA 90067.


Production designer, art director, and costume designer. La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, New York City, worked as seamstress, prop maker, and scene painter in the 1960s; American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco, CA, various positions, 1966-74; Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati, OH, costume designer, 1970-71.


Local 800, New York Local 829.

Awards, Honors:

Academy Award nomination (with others), best art direction—set decoration, 1982, for Ragtime; Academy Award (with Karel Cerny), best art direction—set decoration, 1985, and Film Award nomination, best production design for a film, 1986, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, both for Amadeus; Academy Award nomination (with William A. Elliott and Hal Gausman), best art direction—set decoration, 1988, for The Untouchables; Below-The-Line Award, Gotham Awards, 1993.


Film Production Designer:

Hester Street, 1975.

Girlfriends, Warner Bros., 1978.

Heartland, Levitt-Pickman, 1979.

Breaking Away, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1979.

Tell Me a Riddle, Filmways, 1980.

(With Tony Reading) Ragtime, Paramount, 1981.

(As Patrizia Von Brandenstein) Silkwood, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1983.

Touched, Lorimar Productions/Wildwood Partners, 1983.

Beat Street, Orion, 1984.

Amadeus (also known as Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus"), Orion, 1984.

A Chorus Line, Columbia, 1985.

The Money Pit, Universal, 1986.

No Mercy, TriStar, 1986.

The Untouchables, Paramount, 1987.

Betrayed, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists, 1988.

(As Patrizia Von Brandenstein) Working Girl, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1988.

The Lemon Sisters, Miramax, 1990.

(As Patrizia Von Brandenstein; with Doug Kraner) State of Grace, Orion, 1990.

Postcards from the Edge, Columbia, 1990.

Billy Bathgate, Buena Vista, 1991.

(As Patrizia Von Brandenstein) Sneakers, Universal, 1992.

Leap of Faith, Paramount, 1992.

Six Degrees of Separation, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1993.

The Quick and the Dead, TriStar, 1995.

(As Patrizia Von Brandenstein) Just Cause, Warner Bros., 1995.

The People vs. Larry Flynt (also known as Larry Flynt), Columbia, 1996.

Mercury Rising, Universal, 1998.

A Simple Plan (also known as Ein einfacher plan and Un plan simple), Paramount, 1998.

Man on the Moon (also known as Der Mondmann), Universal, 1999.

Shaft (also known as Shaft—Noch fragen?), Paramount, 2000.

The Emperor's Club, MCA/Universal, 2002.

(As Patrizia Von Brandenstein) It Runs in the Family (also known as Family Business), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2003.

The Ice Harvest, Focus Features, 2005.

All the King's Men (also known as Das spiel der macht), Sony, 2006.

Goya's Ghosts (also known as Los fantasmas de Goya), Samuel Goldwyn Company, 2006.

The Tourist, Twentieth Century-Fox, 2007.

Film Costume Designer:

(As Patrizia Von Brandenstein; with Jennifer Nichols) Saturday Night Fever, Paramount, 1977.

Between the Lines, Midwest, 1977.

A Little Sex, Universal, 1982.

Film Art Director:

Girlfriends, 1978.

(As Patrizia Von Brandenstein) Breaking Away, 1979.

Ragtime, 1981.

Film Work; Other:

Set designer, The Candidate, Warner Bros., 1972.

Researcher, King of the Gypsies, 1978.

Visual consultant, The Untouchables, Paramount, 1987.

Film Appearances:

Herself, The Making of "Amadeus" (documentary), Warner Home Video, 2002.

Herself, Remembering "Ragtime" (documentary short), Paramount Pictures, 2004.

Television Production Designer; Movies:

The Gardener's Son, 1977.

The Summer of My German Soldier, NBC, 1978.

My Old Man, CBS, 1979.

Witness Protection, HBO, 1999.

South Pacific (also known as Rodgers & Hammerstein's "South Pacific"), ABC, 2001.

(As Patrizia Von Bradenstein) Plainsong, 2004.

Television Art Director; Movies:

The Last Tenant, ABC, 1978.

Hardhat and Legs, CBS, 1980.

Barn Burning (also known as The American Short Story Collection: "Barn Burning"), 1980.

Television Work; Specials:

Visual consultant, A Tale of Cinderella, PBS, 1998.

Television Appearances; Specials:

The 57th Annual Academy Awards, ABC, 1985.

Stage Costume Designer:

Don't Shoot Mable It's Your Husband, Bouwerie Lane Theatre, New York City, 1968.

Rosmersholm, Stage Two, Roundabout Theatre, New York City, 1974.

Double Feature, Theatre at St. Peters Church, New York City, 1981.

Hizzoner!, Longacre Theatre, New York City, 1989.

Major Tours (As Costume Designer):

Dylan, U.S. cities, 1970.



International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, St. James Press, 1996.

Women Filmmakers and Their Films, St. James Press, 1998.


American Film, August, 1990, pp. 32-37, 46-47.