The Cronenberg siblings had a dilemma. It was 1987, and director David – riding high off the success of his sticky remake of The Fly – was busy with his sister, costume designer Denise, preparing their delightfully unsettling follow-up, Dead Ringers. Starring Jeremy Irons as twin gynecologists who engage in all manner of malpractice, the film required a careful blend of authenticity and surreality, the medical and the fantastical.
“We tried out the 100-per-cent accurate version of what doctors would wear, but that was boring,” David recalls. “It was one thing if you were doing a TV show, but this was different. The twins viewed their roles as doctors as almost a religious thing, with an element of spirituality and philosophy. As soon as I said that to Denise, she immediately understood what I was talking about and what we needed.”
This is how Dead Ringers got its unforgettable, deliberately impractical blood-red medical robes. Working on just her second feature film, Denise birthed the movie’s signature aesthetic right in the twins’ operating room, its creepiness bleeding into the rest of the film to create a sickening sense of squishy unease.
The costume design of Dead Ringers, “which has been ripped off a few times since,” David adds, was just one instance of Denise employing her sharp artistic sensibilities alongside her unique ability to interpret and intuit just what her younger brother was thinking. It was the kind of sibling-only shorthand that the two would develop over the course of a dozen films, including the beatnik chaos of Naked Lunch, the mucky sci-fi of eXistenZ, the sexually charged historical drama of A Dangerous Method, and concluding with David’s most recent film, the 2014 Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars.
“Any time you work with the same people – like cinematographer Peter Suschitzky or production designer Carol Spier – the shorthand is great, because you already understand each other’s temperaments and rhythms, and don’t have to learn it all while making the movie. But if it’s a family member, it’s even deeper,” David says. “And I actually like nepotism myself, because the more allies you have the better off you are.”
Denise Cronenberg, who died at Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington, Ont., on May 22 due to complications from old age, came to the field of costume design with the passion of a behind-the-scenes artist and the experience of a spotlight-sharpened performer. Before she ever stepped onto a movie set, she had enjoyed a storied career as a dancer, with her education at the National Ballet put to good use on the stage (the Canadettes troupe) and the screen (CBC’s Cross Canada Hit Parade, The Juliette Show and a 1961 Nat King Cole special).
Denise grew up in an intensely artistic Toronto family. Born Oct. 1, 1938, to Esther (née Sumberg), a pianist, and Milton Cronenberg, a novelist and bookseller, Denise spent her childhood surrounded by literature, music and the applause of her College Street neighbours, who would be frequently treated to her and David’s homemade plays.
“We did Little Red Riding Hood, where I would hide behind the piano for the entire time, leaping out at the last second to shoot the wolf with my Red Ryder BB gun, to the shock and amazement, I’m sure, of everybody,” David recalls.
Denise was introduced to the dance world early, with Esther playing for the Boris Volkoff Ballet Company, considered Canada's first ballet institution, before joining the National Ballet at its inception.
“In her earlier 20s, the CBC variety shows were big and there were lots of touring shows, so my mother was very busy,” says Denise’s eldest son, Eric (E.C.) Woodley, an art curator, critic and composer. “Because she started in the late 50s and worked through the 60s, she was in on the beginning of a certain sort of cultural nationalism and pride.”
After leaving the dance world to raise her family with her second husband, folk musician Ray Woodley of the Travellers – middle child Aaron Woodley is now a filmmaker, while her youngest, daughter Meredith Woodley, is an art director and graphic designer – Denise launched a children’s clothing line, which provided a natural segue into costume design.
“That was her training. There was no formal education in costume design – like my uncle, she was self-taught,” Eric says, “although a certain amount of it is in the genes, with her grandparents being tailors and seamstresses. It’s the typical trajectory of Jewish families who emigrate from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. They start as tailors and seamstresses and magically in one generation become something different: writers and musicians.”
Over the course of 37 films – including all her brother’s movies from The Fly onward, but also such shot-in-Toronto Hollywood fare as 2004′s Dawn of the Dead and 2008′s The Incredible Hulk – Denise developed a strong reputation for being a performer’s greatest on-set ally.
“When you’re in a costume fitting, you’re so vulnerable and exposed, and she understood that intimacy on another level because she trained as a performer,” says actress Sarah Gadon, who worked with the Cronenbergs on A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars. “She saw her role as something that was collaborative, and that’s the kind of spirit that marks her work.”
Viggo Mortensen, who starred in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method, likened Denise’s attentive, collaborative method to that of Lord of the Rings costume designer Ngila Dickson.
“Denise was extremely considerate of the actors, in that she wanted them to not only look right, but that they were also comfortable,” says the actor. “I’ve found that sometimes costume designers can be primarily concerned with what looks great, but not thinking about what works with the actor in terms of movement and playing the role. Like the best directors, costume designers help performers feel at ease, and she was expert at that. ... I’m going miss that satisfied smile she had when she knew that she got it exactly right.”
“She would be in constant communication with the actors, asking them what they were trying to say with their character and how she could help bring that to life,” adds Walter Gasparovic, a long-time assistant director on David’s films. “The cast respected her and her taste and her judgment.”
Denise understood that a costume department was less about projecting your own sensibilities onto a project, as a fashion designer might, and more about servicing a film’s story. She would throw herself into research, using the details of an outfit to enhance the particular time, place and narrative being constructed on-screen.
“She was meticulous and obsessive about details. Particularly with the period pieces,” says David, who recalls her hunting down bins of long-forgotten, unnamed fabric from the 50s to create the suit of Naked Lunch star Peter Weller. “As a costume designer for those films, you’re putting yourself into the headspace of a designer of the era, not a modern designer, so you’re trying to adhere to the aesthetic tropes of the time while also creating something unique. You’re creating something that didn’t exist at the time, but could have.”
“We’d go and hunt down old shoe stores to dig around until we found fabulous things – there was always something for her to research, to discover,” says Brenda Gilles, Denise’s long-time set supervisor. “It’s a very complex thing, costuming, as you’re dealing with so many elements.”
While Denise never felt like she was working in her younger brother’s shadow, she was well aware that recognition for her field in the domestic film industry was not exactly overflowing.
“I don’t think that she got the recognition she deserved, and I’m quite sure that she felt the same way,” David says of his sister, who leaves five grandchildren in addition to her three children. “We’re Canadian, so we tend not to be self-promoters, and she certainly wasn’t. But at the same time, you take a lot of pride in your work, so you would like to be recognized, but don’t want to beg for it. I think she was disappointed on that level.”
Yet every hint of Denise’s talent can forever be found on the screen, from M. Butterfly’s startling opera finery to A History of Violence’s everyday attire that hinted at the unspoken small-town desire for sex and pain to Crash’s use of red and purple colour tones to signify the bruises an auto accident can leave behind.
“There are so many subliminal things in costume design that are important, but she was always about complimenting, and never distracting,” Ms. Gilles says. “Her legacy is in every one of those films.”