Ann Roth Is Hollywood’s Secret Weapon

The designer has been the trusted collaborator of — and provocateur for — a pantheon of top directors, including Mike Nichols, Nora Ephron, Steven Spielberg, Anthony Minghella, John Schlesinger, Brian De Palma, George Roy Hill, Hal Ashby, Joe Mantello, Jack O’Brien, M. Night Shyamalan, Stephen Daldry, James Brooks and, early in her career, Dino De Laurentiis.

“She rides shotgun with you,” said Mr. O’Brien, the Broadway director.

Ms. Roth points out a bedroom where her close friend Meryl Streep stays when she visits. She has conjured Ms. Streep’s look in 13 movies, including “Silkwood,” “Heartburn,” “Postcards From the Edge,” “Doubt,” “Julie & Julia,” “The Post” and “Mamma Mia!” as well as the mini-series “Angels in America.” She calls her “Melstrip,” echoing the way she heard the name pronounced in Italy.

She is planning a road trip in Italy with Melstrip if she can find the right shoes to ease her knee pain.

Ms. Roth is of Quaker stock. She grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where she wore a long strand of pearls to her job as a teenager at the five-and-ten. After graduating in the class of ’53 at Carnegie Mellon, she apprenticed with the celebrated costume designer Irene Sharaff, working on “Brigadoon” (dyeing the men’s tartans), Judy Garland’s “A Star Is Born,” and “The King and I.”

Ms. Sharaff warned her protégée not to pursue her dream of becoming a production designer, saying, according to Ms. Roth, “it’s not the place for women.”

Mr. O’Brien said he knew that Ms. Roth was a force to be reckoned with back in 1970, when they worked on a production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” and she suggested adorning Miss Prism, Oscar Wilde’s strict spinster governess, with little scissors around her waist. “So she can go snip, snip, snip, at people’s balls,” Mr. O’Brien said with a laugh.