Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone and the chinchilla coat having a snuggle in Casino
Every time I aimlessly turn on the television, hoping to be entertained, I end up watching Casino, Martin Scorsese’s classic 1995 film starring Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone. I don’t know why it’s always available, because it really does seem to be playing all the time—I’m willing to believe we’re all in agreement it’s just that great of a film—but I do know that once it’s playing, I can’t stop watching, no matter if I have somewhere to be or someone to meet. It’s just the hypnotic way De Niro, as Ace, narrates the scenes from his life with a touch of tragedy and the slight sound of a shrug in his voice—none of it would be any different, he seems to imply, not the rise and fall of this Las Vegas empire, nor his love for Ginger, who, as played by Stone, is an irresistible and infuriatingly damaged woman. The plot details are fuzzy every time, but they eventually come into focus—there are the bosses back east, Ace’s good luck and hard work, the lawlessness of the west, the skimming, the kickbacks—and when Nicky, played by Joe Pesci, arrives, I get nervous about what’s to come and about what can’t be sustained. Gambling sets me on edge—whatever glory is found in it is streaked with an addictive sense of danger. It costs more than you think. It’s never forever.
But it’s Stone who is the most addictive to watch. She slinks on screen with her athletic sensuousness. She’s greedy, insecure, and aware of the power behind her sexuality, which knocks men senseless. When Ace makes her his wife, he offers her everything he can imagine will make her happy—dresses, jewels, gold, and furs. She nestles a chinchilla coat against her body on a bed littered with Bulgari jewelry while Ace kisses her in his post-nuptial glow. “You must really trust your wife,” the guy at the bank tells Ace, after Ace sets up a secret account with millions, ensuring Ginger is the only one with the key. But everyone except Ace seems to understand Ginger can’t be trusted—she doesn’t love him, she says, but it’s also true that security is only so interesting to the reckless. She’s been a hustler for too long. She’s become accustomed to finding happiness the cheap way.
And though Scorsese is a master storyteller—Ace is, after all, a good guy gone wrong who wants to tell you how it all happened—it’s also a story about the end of an era, and it’s here that the look of the film matters as much as the way it feels: a leggy Ginger traipsing around in skin-tight dresses and decadent furs, slipping generous tips with her manicured nails; Ace slowly loosing control in his shiny suits and slender ties; hungry Nicky in his monochromatic browns. All of them caught in the dusty light of a city of excess that was built on an empty desert.
Out of curiosity, I found the woman responsible for this look—Rita Ryack, the lead costume designer for the film, who worked with her assistant John C. Dunn to outfit every single character. She currently splits her time between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, and her credits on IMDB include movies like A Beautiful Mind and Rock of Ages. I wanted to discuss fashion, but discovered that Ryack’s philosophy about clothing was far more narratively driven. “Costume design really has nothing to do with fashion,” she explains. “It’s creating a character; it’s storytelling. We read the script, we research the period very carefully, we find as much graphic material as possible, and we use the internet a lot. It used to be libraries and old magazines—places where vintage clothing existed—like museums—any place where you can find a good example. And then you know enough about the character to present them through the clothes—that’s what my job is about.”
I ask her about Ginger’s furs. They seem so decadent, a symbol of Ginger’s zenith. “Obviously it shows that the character Ace had plenty of money,” Ryack says, “and that he was happy to spend on his new bride. He just wanted to give her everything she wanted. He wanted to spoil her and treat her like a queen. The thing about that coat is that it’s so sensuous and soft—you really can’t keep your hands off it. It came from a furrier in Las Vegas named Anna Nateece—I don’t think the place is in business anymore. She also made Liberace’s chinchilla blanket. It was a long time ago. I only remember her as being petite and having a foreign accent and short black hair. But I do remember just how soft that coat was; it almost hurt your hand, it was so soft.”
Like most things on television, Casino floats in and out of my life—I almost never see it from the beginning, and I almost never finish it. “Watch the movie again,” Ryack tells me. “And pay attention to the characters. Look at their clothes—every little detail means something, even on the extras. Sharon looks one way when she was a girl in that flappy mod sequin dress throwing chips in the air. When she’s a junky at the end, she’s lost all of that weight, and she dies in her pajamas—you follow her rise in that gold sequin dress, and then you witness her decline.”
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