The Fortune (1975, directed by Mike Nichols) starring Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Stockard Channing has been unfairly judged as a madcap mess. Actually it is a slickly made screwball comedy, nowhere deserving of its turkey reputation. Costume designer Anthea Sylbert was responsible for recreating the story’s 1920s setting, an era as eclectic as it was revolutionary; as such The Fortune is as pleasing to the eye as it is funny.
Sylbert worked The Fortune back to back with Chinatown (1974) and Shampoo (1975). Chinatown also starred Nicholson but was a different setting (thirties) and, for his character especially, a very different look. Shampoo was Warren Beatty’s picture; he was co-writer and managed to secure funding with The Fortune as part of the deal. Being set in the sixties, Shampoo was another jump in history for Sylbert. She costumed twenty films all in all and remains one of the most respected names in the business.
At just 84 minutes long, The Fortune is a brisk and self contained comedy, ballooning into absolute farce from a simple premise: two ham-fisted hustlers, Nicky (Beatty) and Oscar (Nicholson) plot to bump off heiress Fredericka ‘Freddie’ Quintessa Biggard (Channing) and inherit her money. Though this really only brings you in on chapter two as the archaic ‘Mann Act’ provides the backbone of the story. This moral statute decreed that a woman could not be taken across American state lines for ‘immoral purposes’.
With Nicky unavailable to wed Freddie until his divorce comes through, he ropes in sometime friend and hood Oscar to marry her instead. The idea being that the trio would then travel from New York to California so Freddie could indulge her ‘affair’ with Nicky while still technically married to Oscar.
About half of this plan ever comes to fruition, wily Oscar having sniffed cash from the outset; he throws a spanner in the works by taking a shine to Freddie himself. Soon tiring of this volatile ménage à trois, Freddie decides to give all her soon to be inherited wealth to charity. This brings the story back to its premise, with Freddie now marked for death in a ridiculous series of attempts by Nicky and Oscar to separate her from the fortune before it is too late.
Events, however, begin calmly enough. Freddie makes a break from her father’s mansion into Nicky’s car. They embrace, kiss, she swigs from his hip flask and then they pick up waiting Oscar. Their clothes map out what we should expect to see from this point on – smart and loose casual elegance with a lot of silk and herringbone:
Light mauve mid-length fur collared wool coat, double breasted, with wine silk lining.
Pale taupe dress with V-neckline and jabot, long sleeves, fabric buttons to sleeves and rear collar, asymmetric frills on bodice and skirt, gathered into dropped waist with self tie belt.
Grey cloche with upturned red brim, big bow and hat pin; white leather gloves, pearl necklace, pearl earrings, cream and light grey leather shoes with ankle straps and wooden high heels.
Double breasted cashmere polo coat with inverted box pleat, long rear vent and inset cuffs. Red patterned silk scarf, brown leather driving gloves.
Mid-grey 3 piece suit, double breasted 6 on 2, peaked lapels. White shirt with detachable collars and cuffs; dotted red silk necktie, patterned silk tucked in handkerchief.
Black leather shoes, grey fedora with indented crown and pinch.
Grey herringbone 3 piece suit, single breasted, ventless, high notched lapels, 3 button fastening. White stand collar shirt, dark brown necktie with block pattern, white tucked in handkerchief.
Blue plaid wool scarf, black leather shoes, brown tweed Gatsby hat.
We are told several things from the outset. That Nicky with all his preening and admiring in the car mirror is more captivated by himself than Freddie. That Freddie really does come from wealthy stock. That Oscar is immediately not happy at the situation, gurning as Freddie clambers all over Nicky in the front seat. And that Freddie definitely cannot hold her drink. This last point is vividly illustrated, as she passes out seconds after being married to Oscar by a Justice of the Peace, and vitally important to the plot.
With no coat, just a tartan scarf, upturned jacket collar and workaday Gatsby, Oscar is a slouch compared to Nicky. We see his grey, rather slim leg herringbone suit in different combinations throughout the film. His necktie too is twisting slightly indicating that it was purchased before cross-grain was introduced. Nicky on the other hand is an aesthete. He wears that sumptuous polo coat once and then several suits throughout.
Undoubtedly Freddie is a flapper girl. Her skirt encroaches scandalously above the knee dating this story at about 1926-28 when hemlines were at their highest. They would fall again dramatically just a year later in line with the Wall Street crash. Not every girl in the twenties was a flapper, but with Freddie’s hemline, trendy short hairstyle, loose morals and readiness to adjust her make-up on in public (illustrated during the upcoming plane journey), she certainly fits the bill.
It is as Nicky and Oscar wheel Freddie’s sozzled body along the train station platform on a baggage trolley that Oscar first gets wind of her having money. Nicky is quick off the mark however, vehemently denying this, threatening to see Oscar back in prison should he go digging any deeper. Yet even as they drop asleep aboard the train it is clear scheming Oscar is not about to let it go.
The following morning Oscar sits having breakfast in the dining car. A worse for wear Freddie stumbles inside propped up by Nicky. Oscar is in good spirits (“I slept like a top, first time travelling by train”) as he quizzes Freddie about her family name. He wears the same herringbone suit, this time minus Gatsby, instead just a shock of messy hair. Both Nicky and Freddie are dressed more appropriately for travel. Nicky in particular is totally ‘on trend’ for the time:
Light brown herringbone tweed 3 piece suit, single breasted, ventless, 2 button fastening, with wide notched lapels and leather buttons; pleated ‘plus fours’ worn with green argyle woollen stockings, white finely striped shirt with tab collar, brown argyle tank top.
Red check bow tie (for train journey), circular pattern blue and yellow necktie (train and plane), patterned brown silk tucked in handkerchief, brown pinch fedora (for plane), brown leather shoes, gold pocket watch chain (with plus fours).
Brown collarless suit, hip-length jacket with cream contrast piping; brown just below the knee skirt, white silk jabot blouse with fine crossover pattern.
Wraparound pearl necklace, brown cloche with upturned brim (then straw folded brim cloche for plane), white gloves, brown patent leather clutch, cream and light grey leather shoes with ankle straps and wooden high heels, fox fur (for plane).
Though feeling nauseous, Freddie is as comfortably attired as social dictates of the time would allow. Her outfit is influenced by Coco Chanel’s then radical concept of loose, practical daywear for women. Nicky looks suave in his plus fours, popular during the 1920s-30s for golf but often worn away from the green whilst travelling. Note one of the buttons on his jacket sleeve is undone. This is fine tailoring; the buttons are working, not decorative.
Subtext is ripe throughout the train sequence. Oscar tells a bemused Nicky that when he was a child his mother used to send him out for ‘mouse beds’ (sanitary towels) and that he tried to stop when he realised what they were but she would not let him. It is obvious Oscar and his mother had an unusual relationship, not intimated as incestuous by any means, just overly intimate. In Oscar’s eyes his mother never lost the ‘phallus’ and so he continues to seek it (as the unattainable representation of desire) in potential sexual partners. This displacement is hinted at early on with his “That’s cute” remark to Freddie’s “Call me Freddie” invitation, a suggestion that will be played out far more implicitly later in the story.
Swapping train for aeroplane and with Freddie no longer ‘indisposed’ (i.e. what prompted Oscar’s mouse beds recollection in the first place); the film builds to perhaps its funniest scene. As they board the small passenger plane, Freddie wears a de rigueur twenties fox fur to keep out the chill, also substituting her brown felt cloche for a natural straw one.
None of the trio has travelled by air before. Freddie takes it in her stride, Nicky sits tight lipped and nervous, while Oscar bellows how exciting it all is in Freddie’s ear. Then, in a moment of classic farce, Oscar climbs out on the wing mid-flight prompting Freddie to scream hysterically when she spots him through the window. Nicky’s response to “ignore him” is possibly the best pay off line in the movie.
After they land Oscar tells Nicky (alone) that he walked the wing just to get his attention. Oscar evidently seeks Nicky’s approval as the overtly masculine male.
Nicky relents somewhat, maybe realising he needs to keep Oscar on-side for the foreseeable future. He pointedly calls him ‘kiddo’ during the next scene renting a California bungalow, same as on the train, though this time with a positive inference. At this stage in proceedings Nicky sees himself as the fatherly authority figure, Oscar the insubordinate child and Freddie as “momsie” (Nicky’s pet name for her). Notice too that, even taking into account their cover story of husband and wife with Nicky as Freddie’s bankrolling brother; Freddie clings quite happily onto Oscar’s arm.
New costume changes occur for a montage of ‘settling in’ in which we get to see exactly how this three way partnership is panning out. Freddie attempting to cook, Nicky working as a car salesman and Oscar sunning himself on the front lawn seems to be the suggestion:
White silk overhead beach shirt, sailor neckline, maroon loosely knotted necktie; matching knee length skirt with knife pleats.
Cream wool suit, double breasted 6 on 2, peaked lapels, fitted jacket with loose leg pants. White tab collar shirt, brown and grey Calhoun grid necktie, brown and white leather brogues.
Maroon trunks with attached belt, yellow singlet vest.
Warren Beatty dons an immaculate suit for this sequence. His cream DB is cut in an almost thirties silhouette with fitted jacket and relaxed trousers. If ever there has been doubt before, Nicky is now established as a gentleman crook of the highest order. Not smart, as we shall see, but aspirational.
Oscar on the other hand is happy to grind when he realises just how much Nicky needs him in the plan. Freddie wears full boyish ‘La Garçonne’ ensemble for her first foray into domesticity. If it is not exactly kitchen attire, then she is not exactly much of a cook either.
Fed up of doing all the work, Nicky confronts Oscar about his tendency to “lie around” on the sofa (calling him ‘kiddo’ again). Oscar refutes this accusation claiming he is “not entirely up yet”. Flawlessly attired for work, Nicky departs the bungalow in huff, leaving barely dressed Oscar and still in bed Freddie alone, and with nothing to do:
Brown rayon brocade dressing gown with roll collar.
Light grey herringbone suit, single breasted, 2 button fastening jacket with wide peaked lapels; matching double breasted waistcoat, pleated trousers. White tab collar shirt with fine horizontal stripes.
Brown and grey Calhoun grid necktie, patterned silk crushed fold handkerchief, brown and cream brogues; straw homburg with red patterned band, high indented crown, pinch, and curved brim.
Silk camisole with lace trim.
Nicky’s grey suit features a noteworthy touch, the placing of two buttons high and close together on the front of the jacket. This was a pre-Great War trend that continued into the 1920s, one of the few that did.
With their social make-up in even further disarray than when they started – Oscar shouting after Nicky for lunch and car money being a sure indication of this – it is not surprising that Freddie now views Oscar as completely de-sexualised.
Associating sex with gender, Oscar has become another woman to heterosexual Freddie. A playmate she is happy to contort in front of wearing just a flimsy camisole. Though when Freddie bends over touching her toes exercising, practically shoving her derrière in Oscar’s face, she clearly stirs something; soon after Oscar ventures outside to buy her a pet chick. No small gesture as this is apparently the only thing he can be bothered to get dressed for.
Pale grey herringbone single breasted jacket with 3 button fastening, loose pleated cream trousers, white shirt, brown and yellow tucked in knitted argyle tank top.
Brown leather belt, yellow and red check bow tie, white tucked in handkerchief.
As with Nicky, Oscar’s clothes highlight another menswear trend of the era – tucking knitwear into trousers. Anthea Sylbert’s period research was all the more impressive when considering these minor, often neglected details. Notice too that he has ‘borrowed’ Nicky’s check bow tie.
Wearing a delicate frilly topped nightdress, Freddie sits teary eyed in bed petting the chick. It is not the same night, as grumpy Nicky rolls over in a different thinly finely striped shirt and tie. Oscar, the “gift giver”, laughs it up in the next room dressed in a plain white under tee.
Then, in what we can assume is days, possibly weeks later the trio go for a picnic drive in the California hills. Their outfits fit the very definition of ‘dressing soft’, i.e. soft fabrics and loose fit:
Beige thin knit ribbed pullover with wide round neck, white open neck blouse, white knee length skirt with knife pleats.
White straw cloche, upturned brim, with contrast trim and band; brown leather ‘bandolier’ style belt with gold buckles.
Light brown tweed herringbone jacket, single breasted, notched lapels (as worn on the train to California); white shirt with ‘Byron’ collar worn outside of the jacket; straw homburg with high indented crown, pinch and curved brim.
White Byron collar shirt, grey and white wide striped knitted tank top with deep v-neck.
First appearance here of a Byron or ‘Denton’ collar for Oscar and Nicky (Nicky wearing the more vivid example). Relaxed collars were prevalent during the 1920s, although still confined to casual dress.
Stockard Channing’s costume is oddly layered for such a blatantly warm day. Unfashionable at the time, attention is drawn to the actress’ curves, though the low bandolier belt does flatten out any semblance of a waist. Plus Freddie’s oft-present cloche legitimises the scene at a glance.
Interestingly Oscar now emulates Nicky with his ‘monkey do’ copycat moustache. An early sign of wanting to replace someone is to emulate them. Much to Nicky’s annoyance, Oscar is clearly going out of his way to ensure Freddie notices him. Moreover he is unexpectedly subordinate when Freddie loses patience at their bickering and jumps out of the car. Perhaps sensing his cash cow waltzing back to her father, Oscar even sits quietly on his own for the ride home.
Although the groundwork has been laid it is still a shock to see Freddie’s next ensemble. Dancing around the bungalow, chick in hand, she unintentionally (for her it is about being an ‘individual’) pushes a magic button for Oscar.
Nicky’s tweed waistcoat, plus fours, woollen stockings, brown leather belt with silver buckle and unbuttoned white shirt.
Grey lightweight wool suit, double breasted, wide peaked lapels; white shirt with detachable collar, brown and red tartan silk necktie (similar to, and might be, Nicky’s), brown leather belt with gold buckle.
This is when Oscar finds Freddie most attractive. He can’t keep his hands off her in fact. Sharply suited for once he appears out of nowhere asking this “little kewpie doll” to come sit on his knee. Oscar still associates the phallus with the penis and so desires masculinity. He is not homosexual, but finds the androgyne attractive because she (in this case) represents a confusion of gender and sexual difference.
Channing is perfectly cast here. Her unconventional prettiness, sometimes mannish appearance and feisty demeanour (soon to be exploited as ‘Rizzo’ in Grease, 1978) is reminiscent of Diane Keaton. Though when Nicky comments how cute Freddie looks in his outfit, he is directly referencing narcissism. Nicky is in love with himself.
Returning home in his cream DB and pink striped shirt with contrast white collar, Nicky almost catches Freddie and Oscar ‘in the act’. He shortly finds a box of Trojan condoms however and confronts Oscar with the evidence. Freddie is unimpressed at their macho display, asserting “You’re sometimes more interested in each other than you are me”.
Nonetheless the two men soon come to blows in the kitchen. Freddie is beside herself (definitely the actress’ bravura scene), pelting them both with dinner plates and bird seed before suddenly screaming “I hope you’ll never gonna get anything from me. I’m gonna give it all away first. I’m gonna give it all to charity!”
Within seconds both Nicky and Oscar are on their feet trying and ultimately failing to talk her round. It is at this moment, clothes ragged and covered in pet food, that they decide to murder Freddie so Oscar can inherit her legacy. Their shambolic appearance is echoed later in the story when the whole plan ends up literally floating in the sea.
Though in the meantime it has to be business as usual, better business as usual, if Freddie is going to stay and not suspect. With this in mind Nicky and Oscar push out all the stops for her black tie birthday bash:
Beaded lamé silver dress with long sleeves, v-neckline to front and back, gathered on shoulders, bodice draped and gathered to a knot on hip; wraparound pearl necklace.
Black dinner suit, double breasted, satin faced peaked lapels; white wing collar shirt, white silk tucked in handkerchief, black silk bow tie, red carnation.
Black dinner suit, single breasted, satin faced peaked lapels; white wing collar shirt, white silk tucked in handkerchief, white silk neckcloth bow tie.
Although tricky to decipher on screen, Channing appears to be wearing a shimmery dropped waist evening dress. Short slicked back hair bestows a sophisticated air, yet sitting in front of her birthday cake ready to blow out the candles we are reminded just what an innocent Freddie is.
Maracas clacking through the tango number link subconsciously with the next scene where Nicky and Oscar don preposterous disguises to buy a rattlesnake in the desert:
Cream double breasted wool suit (as before), white shirt with no collar worn ‘granddad’ style, white ‘turban’ (quite possibly a bathmat).
Grey herringbone single breasted jacket with matching waistcoat (as before), loose cream trousers, white tab collar shirt. Yellow and red check bow tie, narrow brim Stetson with black silk band.
The diverse dress reform of the twenties was evidently too much for Oscar to handle. As witnessed previously his style can be higgledy-piggledy (when purchasing the chick he really does not need the bow tie and the knitwear). Here too it seems a touch overworked with a high crown ‘Stetson’ style hat. Of course the black curly wig kills any serious intention stone dead, but he was losing the battle regardless.
Nicky fares even worse however. Ditching his detachable collar and ‘blacking up’ in hopes of passing as a Indian snake charmer, he might have stood some chance were he not terrified of the rattlesnake.
The most laughable part of this sequence comes when the duo return home and decide to test the ferocity of their snake by leaving it overnight in the chicken coop. When they get up the next day the rattlesnake is as dead as the dodo.
For a final scene of wacky domestic bliss, Nicky and Oscar sit at the kitchen table while cheerfully ignorant Freddie dishes up two plates of Okra (African plant that turns to goo when cooked) plus an un-set dish of what Nicky tactlessly proposes is ‘tea’:
Pale pink crossover draped silk overhead dressing gown with flared sleeves.
Brown rayon brocade dressing gown with roll collar.
Red and yellow cotton acetate dressing gown.
With Nicky feeling pangs of guilt, Oscar now takes over as man in charge. He pep talks Nicky to “envisage the goal”. By Oscar’s estimation, Freddie’s lamentable attempts at cooking have done nothing but reinforce their intention to murder her.
Coming soon after breakfast, Plan A is put in motion. Nicky knocks on landlady Mrs. Gould’s door (Florence Stanley being charmingly droll) to explain his sister and Oscar have “not been hitting it off” and that she hopefully wouldn’t, but quite possibly might, commit suicide. Again we see just how much Nicky equates clothes with respectability:
Light grey single breasted fleck tweed jacket and waistcoat, wide peaked lapels, half belt with rear inverted box pleats; loose cream trousers, beige shirt with pointed collar.
Lilac tucked in handkerchief, red silk necktie with yellow spots, black and white leather brogues.
Oscar stays at home that night plying Freddie with alcohol. Nicky arrives back and within seconds she is predictably out for the count. Acting fast they noisily dump her body outside in a lily pond, concluding that she will somehow drown in this bird bath of water. Nicky then swaps his suit for candy striped pyjamas and types – that’s types – Freddie’s suicide note.
Their plan is foiled however when Mrs. Gould (wearing a delightfully floaty full length overhead night robe) spots Freddie snoozing in the pond and calls Nicky out to fetch her.
At this point it is worth noting what Freddie and Oscar are wearing. Freddie’s clothes offer a hint at where she will soon end up, while Oscar’s gradually fragment as events nudge him closer and closer towards the hangman’s noose:
Cream silk beach pyjamas with thin brown trim to neckline, consisting overhead unfitted shirt, loose pants with turn ups and silk satin court shoes.
White Byron collar shirt, grey and white wide striped knitted tank top with deep v-neck, cream pleated trousers, brown leather belt, brown and white leather brogues.
Initiating a hurried Plan B, Oscar and Nicky carry Freddie’s still sleeping body from the bungalow, shut her in a trunk, steal a bus, put the trunk in the bus and then drive out to the sea shore. Their initial brainwave of dropping her off a bridge fails when a comically large traffic jam builds up out of nowhere. Predictable perhaps knowing his character, but Nicky has gotten dressed again by this point; he even puts on his necktie.
At the seashore with only a spooning couple taking little interest, Oscar hurriedly launches the trunk out to sea. Nicky runs up behind him bellowing “Oscar! Now how is that going to look like suicide!”, but it is too late. They can only watch helplessly as the trunk bobs away.
Despite leaving the scene, Nicky quickly realises they will undoubtedly be caught and turns the bus around in vain hope of rescuing the trunk. When they arrive in the morning however the trunk has washed up on the beach and Freddie is gone. They assume, drifting lifeless in the deep blue somewhere.
Yet just a few minutes earlier we see Freddie climbing out of the trunk and stumbling along the sand in her soaking beach pyjamas.
Clueless what transpired the night before (as indicated in the train at the start of the story, Freddie loses consciousness after drinking alcohol and forgets everything), she accepts a lift in a passing stranger’s car.
When the police call on on both men at the bungalow they are wearing their nightwear. Oscar the sorriest loser in his scruffy dressing gown, inadvertently confessing to Freddie’s ‘murder’ when the police had only enquired about the missing bus. Unsurprisingly they are both carted away to the station for questioning.
From here on we see every character in his/her final change:
Pale taupe dress with V-neckline and jabot, cream and light grey ankle strap shoes (all from very first scene), green leather clutch, red cloche with upturned brim.
Light grey waistcoat (striped silk back), cream trousers, beige shirt with pointed collar and two tone brogues (all from previous night), no necktie.
White Byron collar shirt, cream trousers, two tone brogues and brown leather belt left to dangle (all from previous night).
As Nicky and Oscar are brought back from the station to walk detectives through their crime, we get a fleeting glimpse at the back of Nicky’s waistcoat. The striped silk is a loud addition for Nicky, yet is discreetly hidden most of the time merely hinting at his flamboyant imagination.
Freddie’s outfit poses a conundrum. Returning to the bungalow with her new beau she is decked out in the same ensemble worn for her wedding. One can only assume this is a mistake on the part of Anthea Sylbert and director Mike Nichols. Possibly the cutting room floor fills in the blanks. Freddie does change her cloche hat however, a grey and red for plain red with an even bigger big bow.
The circus of Freddie, the police and Oscar and Nicky somehow missing each other as they duck in and around the bungalow is eventually resolved; Oscar cannot believe his luck when she runs past the window. Tears stream down Freddie’s face as a detective explains the murderous plot against her. Yet she refuses to believe it; she refuses to see both men for the crooks they really are.
Unexpectedly this dark farce ends on a sweet note with Oscar and Nicky posted either side of Freddie as they stroll back inside the bungalow together.
Running make-up apart, Freddie has concluded her story looking much the same as she began (perhaps rationale for the same outfit?). Nicky and Oscar on the other hand are chaotic mirror images of their former selves. They may have ‘gotten away with it’ so to speak, but little Freddie has won the day. She survived.
It should come as no surprise to those who enjoy the work of the Coen Brothers that The Fortune is one of their favourite films. The only surprise really is that they have not yet tried to remake it, for if they wait any longer George Clooney will be too old to play Nicky.
© 2010 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.