Contrary to popular belief, not all of Edith Head’s Oscars are on her desk in the Columbo episode “Requiem for a Falling Star.” You see, the episode was made in 1973. Her final Oscar was for The Sting, released in 1974. I’m pretty sure all those certificates wallpapering her office on the episode (no, I don’t know if that’s her real office are not) are nominations, and she got two more of those after The Sting. The woman was a powerhouse. Eight wins out of thirty-five nominations. And if she did not, strictly speaking, deserve full credit on two of those—and possibly, depending on your beliefs, therefore the win at all—well, that’s still six Oscars.
Her biological father was a failed haberdasher. She herself was a high school French teacher who found out she could make more if she also taught art . . . so she lied and said she could. She could barely draw. In fact, when she initially applied in the costume department at Paramount, she could still barely draw and knew almost nothing about costuming. She later admitted to “borrowing” other students’ sketches for her interview in the costume sketch department. They hired her, which turns out to have been a wise decision.
The Academy Award for Costume Design was first given at the 1948 Oscars. To Joan of Arc, the only film nominated other than The Emperor Waltz, for which Head was nominated. Still, she won the next year, for The Heiress. The year after that, the category was divided in two, for Color and Black and White. Head won both, for All About Eve and Sampson and Delilah. She didn’t win every year after that, but she was nominated. Literally every year. Until 1966. For many of those years, she was nominated more than once.
1967 brought two changes for Head. First, she actually wasn’t nominated for a film from 1967. Second, she was fired from Paramount. Now, it’s true that she was not a young woman at the time. Past retirement age. And those glasses she wore were apparently tinted in a way that she could see how costumes would look in B&W on camera, which is . . . a dated practice. But Hitchcock promptly offered her a job at Universal Studios, which she took. Which is who produced Columbo. Apparently Anne Baxter, who played the killer on that episode, was one of her best friends.
Did she refuse to share credit on Sabrina with Givenchy and on Roman Holiday with Sonja de Lennart? Yes. She won Oscars for both those movies as sole designer, and she was not. And honestly, there’s a claim that she was “too busy” to sketch most designs that makes me wonder how much of the actual work was done by, you know, people who had done more art classes. Still, it seems unmistakable that she did at least most of the work involved in the more than half-century she was a costume designer. Her final film, appropriately enough, was Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. And while I’ve seen a denial that Edna Mode is based on her, I kind of don’t believe that denial?