Mark Bridges, nominated for an Oscar for costume design for the black-and-white silent film "The Artist," fell in love with the original silent movies as a teenager in the 1970s watching from the velvet seats of the Riviera Theatre.
"The cold winters contributed to my love of movies, because it's a great indoor activity," Bridges, who was born and grew up in Niagara Falls, said during a phone interview from his Hollywood home at the start of a busy week that might end with a golden statuette at tonight's 84th Academy Awards. "I love silent movies and we would go to the revival house, the Riviera in North Tonawanda, to watch the silent movies."
But exposure to the classic silent movies was just one way that Bridges' youth in Western New York got him started on the career path he would follow to the Oscars.
"He made all his own Halloween costumes, he made his brother Michael's, and occasionally one for me, from the time he was 9 or 10 years old," said Bridges' mother, Helen Rengstorf, who lives in Lewiston with Bridges' stepfather, Elton Rengstorf. "He always had colors and designs in his head, and sometimes I'd get ready to go someplace and he'd say, 'Mom, you're not going out like that!' He always knew what looked good on what kind of person."
At LaSalle High School in the late 1970s, Bridges appeared in his first play, "The Miracle Worker," playing Helen Keller's brother James. "I did a costume sketch for my character's costume," he said.
Bridges both acted in and worked on costumes for the Niagara Falls Little Theatre, which became the Niagara Regional Theatre Guild in 2004. He studied theater at Niagara County Community College for a few years, then attended the University at Stony Brook on Long Island, where he earned a bachelor's degree in theater arts.
After working as a shopper for theater productions at Barbara Matera Costumes in New York City, Bridges returned to school, earning a master's degree in fine arts in costume design at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
Since then, Bridges has worked on about two dozen high-profile films, dressing actors in such different projects as "There Will Be Blood," "Boogie Nights," "The Italian Job" and Eminem's "8 Mile."
But "The Artist," directed by Michel Hazanavicius and starring Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller, is unique.
The movie, which tells the story of the challenges faced by silent movie superstar Valentin as the "talkies" are invented, is not only silent, it was filmed in black and white.
The lack of color in the finished film presented both challenges and opportunities, said Bridges, who has won awards for his work on "The Artist" from the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
"We usually do camera tests and then find out what the parameters are, how they are going to develop the film, what kind of film stock they are going to use, how it's going to look," he said. "So once we got that language down, and things fell into place, we knew it was going to be about textures, and then I tried to tell the story -- whether it's high contrast when a person is at the top of their game, and then they just kind of melt into the background when they are down on their luck. That's part of the language with that film."
Bridges says that the lack of sound has made viewers more aware of the visual aspects of the film. "I think you are more intensely paying attention with a film that's silent, your other senses are more acute, so visually you are noticing these things, or they are helping you understand. You don't consciously see what is being done, it just rounds out the experience."
"The Artist" is set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the clothing of the era ranged from daring to conservative. Bridges dressed the actors in many styles, including countour-skimming bias-cut silk gowns, face-framing cloche hats, sturdy vested suits and elegant tuxedoes. As Valentin's fortune falls, his clothing shows subtle wear.
"I absolutely love that era, I always love transitional periods," said Bridges. "From 1927 to 1932, clothes changed a lot, and the world changed a lot with the Depression. It was a very freewheeling time and everything was possible before it all came to a screeching halt with the stock market crash. Opulence was everywhere."
Bridges' competition for the Oscar tonight is Lisy Chrisyl for "Anonymous," Sandy Powell for "Hugo," Michael O'Connor for "Jane Eyre" and Arianne Phillips for "W.E."
Handicappers seem to like Bridges' chances. The Hollywood Reporter's awards analyst, Scott Feinberg, wrote, "[T]he Academy almost always rewards films dominated by chic rather than unstylish outfits, which is why I think they'll side with 'The Artist's' 1920s glamour -- even if it is seen only in black and white -- over 'Hugo's' train station attire."
On Awardsdaily.com, Sasha Stone agreed, writing that a win for Bridges "feels like a gimme -- people keep coming at me with this whole 'The Academy likes bright colors' thing, but they seem to like period costumes best, and all of those pretty dresses!"
Although Bridges says "my life is mostly here now," he occasionally gets back to Western New York. His younger brother Michael lives across the street from Bridges in Los Angeles.
Sunday night, his mother says, "You can't call me on the phone, because I won't answer!" It was the same when Mark was living at home, she said. "When he was growing up, our night when the Academy Awards was on was sacred. We watched the whole thing."
Bridges' next movie, "Captain Phillips," starring Tom Hanks, will be filmed in Spain and Malta. Directed by Paul Greengrass, the film tells the story of the 2009 kidnapping of Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates and his rescue by Navy SEALs five days later.
Bridges said he was most interested in the idea of dressing the actors who will play Somalis. "I took it because I think creating a story about this pirate village in Somalia would be really interesting and fun," he said. "I love figuring out why they look the way they look and then re-creating that. I research why something looks the way it does and then I interpret it my way, in a way that we can do it, and in a way that works dramatically for the story."