By Laura Hawbaker
With ten dollars in my pocket, I recently stared up at the AMC River East marquee. I was torn; two films were on my to-see list: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Milk.” “I’m a bad sister,” I told my movie buddy. “My big sister worked on both, and I haven’t seen either.”
My sister is J.R. Hawbaker, a costume assistant in Los Angeles. In 2007, she worked with Jaqueline West, the costume designer of “Button,” and she was a key costumer beneath “Milk”’s Danny Glicker. Both are nominated for Oscars in Costume Design.
“They deserve to be nominated for their different visions,” she says. “Danny did gritty, lived-in costumes. You couldn’t tell what was a costume and what was 1974 footage. As a designer, that’s the biggest compliment you can get.
“Meanwhile, Jackie did an epic for the ages. There are so few perfect storms that take the risk to be grand. She gave over a year and a half of her life to that film, and she made it stunning.”
J.R. may call these two Oscar-nominated designers “Danny” and “Jackie,” but it has been a long road to get to this point.
In 1999, J.R. embarked on a six-year-long academic identity crisis. First it was a Floriculture major, then Journalism, then English, then (at Mom’s suggestion) Communications. No course of study seemed to fit, and every quarter or so, we were not surprised to learn that the eldest Hawbaker girl had switched her major yet again.
At long last she settled on a major, her fifth and final, a peculiar choice with an uncertain career path: Costume Design. “I didn’t know there was a job out there that would pay you to put clothes on people!”
Mom and Dad had mini-heart attacks. What followed was four years at the DePaul Theater School’s rigorous conservatory program. Taught by some of Chicago’s best theater professionals, the School was like boot camp for young theater adepts. I often came home to a hurricane, our shared Lincoln Park apartment in a state of pandemonium: fabric draped over couches, renderings strewn about the floor and my sister in the midst of it all.
“At DePaul, I learned to make anything in five minutes, and in this industry, it’s a skill you need. They will always ask you for the impossible, and they will always want it yesterday.
“I also learned to deal with the crazy personalities that pop up in this industry. In theater, film and television, it’s like moths to a flame for crazies.”
Upon graduating (at long last!) from DePaul in 2005, J.R. moved to Los Angeles for an internship with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. She built up an impressive resume on “24,” “That 70s Show,” “Seraphim Falls,” “Reign Over Me” and “Mad Men.” Eventually, she landed at a costume rental house, United American Costume (UAC).
Eventually, a client arrived at UAC, a smiley blonde woman in the midst of researching her latest project. That woman was Jaqueline West; the project was “Benjamin Button.”
“Jackie was so down to earth and approachable. She was scouting, getting her head together for prep work, and she needed help with her initial research. I was bored stiff that week, so I was happy to help out.”
For twenty minutes, West sat down and like a storyteller told the plot of “Button.” With a timeline spanning nearly a century, costuming the film was a massive undertaking. J.R. helped as a research assistant, unearthing information on 1930s prostitutes from the New Orleans French Quarter, 1950s Americana designer Claire McCardell, forgotten 1960s Audrey Hepburn publicity stills and more.
“It was amazing and rare, having that one-on-one time with Jackie early on, when those tiny baby kernels of ideas were just starting to formulate,” she says. “Afterward, ‘Button’ became HUGE, and they shot for a year and a half. But I will always cherish that movie. I was there for a really small, tiny part of the costume design’s gestation.”
After ‘Button,’ J.R. worked on “this weird little vampire pilot.” The pilot was HBO’s “True Blood,” costume-designed by Danny Glicker.
“Then the writer’s strike happened in October of 2007, and it shut down everything in town except for a couple of features that had already been green-lit.” Like every other television show in Los Angeles, “True Blood” was put on hiatus, and my sister, along with thousands of other below-the-line industry workers, faced a bleak stretch of unemployment—until Danny Glicker came to her rescue.
“Danny said, ‘Oh, I have this Gus Van Sant movie with Sean Penn about Harvey Milk lined up. Come and prep with me.’ So I was one of a very lucky few who actually worked during the writer’s strike.”
As the film’s key costumer, J.R. pulled background numbers and clothed extras while Glicker busied himself dressing the principal actors.
“Danny is very talented and so hilarious! He’s like an alchemist. There was an opera scene that called for some old batty opera ladies, and I would ask Danny for his direction on the look. He’d say, ‘I want them to be encrusted like a ship, like a floating barge.’ So I would bring him barnacle-like rhinestone glam dresses and he’d love it!”
Now that the writers’ strike is at an end, J.R. is back on “True Blood,” this time as the show’s assistant costume designer, and her resume now includes two Oscar-nominated films.
“I feel lucky because I have a quiet family connection to both of those movies,” she says. “It’s weird because when I was working on them I never thought, ‘I’m working on a possible Oscar movie!’ I was just trying to get the clothes on the people.”