Married the production designer Stuart Wurtzel.
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
; painted scenery for PBS; worked as costume designer on
Saturday Night Fever
; 1979—first major production-design work on
Academy Award for
Between the Lines (J. Silver); Saturday Night Fever (Badham)
A Little Sex (Paltrow)
Breaking Away (Yates)
Tell Me a Riddle (L. Grant)
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)
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.