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OSCAR 2003: THE LAST WORD

by Diane Clehane

(Our Oscar 2004 report goes up Monday 5PM at http://www.lookonline.com/oscar2004.html


copyright © 2003 lookonline.com

Carol Brodie Gellis, Harry Winston’s ubiquitous pitchwoman, summed up the pre-Oscar mood in Beverly Hills this way: “Everyone here is walking around with a stomach ache,” she said. And she wasn’t talking about the nominees. Despite the threat of war, those intrepid publicists from the fashion and beauty companies who made the trip out to Los Angeles to setup shop in hotel suites all over town found themselves wondering if months of ceaseless campaigning and non-stop sucking up to celebrities were going to be all for naught if the Academy Awards were canceled.

On Tuesday night at around 7 p.m. Eastern Time journalists received a statement from Oscar’s producer Gil Cates that said the show would go on as planned. Buried deep in the release as if to soften the blow to the designer denizens who had been holding their collective breath came the devastating news there would be a “truncated” (the SAT word everyone now knows thanks to The Motion Picture Academy) red carpet. But that wasn’t the only change being made. There it was – the sentence that signaled the end of the Hollywood fashion machine as we have come to know it:

“Arriving guests will not stop for interviews or photographs.”

This bizarre turn of events in an increasingly bizarre Oscar season left fashionistas grappling with a previously unimaginable question: What happens if a star shows up at the Oscars wearing a designer dress and a king’s ransom in diamonds but there’s no one there to ask the now-clichéd question: “Who are you wearing?” The answer is: not much.

The pre-Oscar feeding frenzy among fashion companies that has existed in frightening proportions for several seasons reached its nadir last year. Among the unforgettable highlights: the virtually unknown Laura Harring (Quick – what movie did she last appear in? I don’t know, either) got an alarming amount of publicity for wearing Stuart Weitzman’s $1 million 64-karat diamond encrusted sandals on the red carpet. This year, Mr. Weitzman planned to outfit some lucky B-lister in priceless ruby slippers but decided against it when the war with Iraq broke out. But his endeavor wasn’t a total loss. USA Today dutifully reported the designer’s nod to the new politically correct, “appropriate” Oscars accompanied by a large photo of the newly banished footwear.

This year, except for the now rote stories of the Oscar goodie bag (this year’s booty was worth a reported $36,000 in case you hadn’t heard), pre-Oscar hype was virtually non-existent. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. A mixed bag of small time designers took their now familiar positions at L’Ermitage and catered to a steady stream of journalists, wanna-be “It” girls and other hangers-on in search of freebies. Custom manicures were on offer at Chateau Marmont across town. The Estee Lauder rooms at the Four Seasons were in full swing. But the television crews who have been there to capture all the action in past seasons were nowhere in sight. Those breathless chroniclers of red carpet style, Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, found themselves frequently preempted by war coverage and weren’t shooting the customary footage that publicists have come to count on for big television exposure. When these shows did make it to air, they, too turned their attention towards stories focused on the stepped up security measures around the ceremony and ceaselessly speculated on just which stars would and would not show. Even the morning shows (an increasingly infotainment-friendly medium before the war) abandoned style-related Oscar coverage. Instead of trading quips with Steven Cojocaru, (Enough already!) Katie Couric had to content herself with asking Matt Lauer if he had the chance to “enjoy the city” during his wartime stint in Dohar.

Still, stylist Phillip Bloch still managed to show up on “Good Morning America” a few days before the Oscars in a ridiculously ill-timed segment where he dressed the also extremely camera shy “Bachelorette” Trista Rehn for her ‘reporting’ duties for “Extra” on Oscar night. What will Halle think?

As the big event neared, it was clear that stars, skittish about appearing frivolous by sporting the latest looks from their favorite designer and wearing borrowed gems, were still unsure about what to do. “It’s crazy out here,” one exasperated publicist told me. “We’ve spent months on these beautiful dresses that the stars are still holding on to, but now they’re calling in back up choices. How many black dresses can you send out? This is a disaster.”

By the time the big event rolled around, no one was quite sure who would be emerging from their limos, what they would be wearing and who – if anyone – would be there to chronicle the moment. I called the Academy’s press office a few days before to verify what “Entertainment Tonight’s” Jann Carl had told me – despite the reports that no stars would be interviewed she was going to be talking to several “key” stars during the ABC pre-show. “No, I don’t think so,” said the flack fielding irate calls from reporters about the lack of access. “No one is going to be talking on the red carpet. I think they are going to be doing more of a look back at past Oscars during that half hour.”

For the first time in ten years, I was not stationed behind an annoying hedge teetering on Manolo Blahniks at three in the afternoon in full evening regalia waiting for the nominees and presenters to arrive. The abbreviated red carpet meant the journalists that usually line the walkway (including yours truly) would not be given the usual credentials allowing them to chat with the stars on the way into the auditorium. To add insult to (career) injury, we ink-stained wretches were also being disinvited to the most important post-Oscar parties. The message was clear: Hollywood still planned on celebrating but as long as there were no pesky cameras or reporters around it didn’t really count. So, after deciding against flying all the way to Los Angeles to watch the ceremony in a $400 a night hotel room, I decided I would watch the show from home in Westchester.

Once the show began and the stars slowly trickled in and it quickly became apparent that actresses like Julianne Moore (in Yves Saint Laurent), Renee Zellweger (in Carolina Herrera), Jennifer Garner (in Versace), J. Lo (who seemed to be auditioning for a remake of Valley of the Dolls in a copy of a 1968 Valentino originally designed for Jackie Kennedy) had decided to go glam after all. And, like any self-respecting star they each instinctively searched out the cameras. The small squadron of wire photographers were happy to oblige and snapped away while the few lucky (?) news crews trained there cameras on the red carpet from a platform hundreds of feet away and high above all the action.

But wait, there’s Renee Zellweger and she’s talking to Jann Carl. “Hey!” I shrieked at the television. “That’s not fair!”

Ms. Carl was the picture of decorum and, of course, in keeping with the more somber mood of the evening, declined to inquire about Ms. Zellweger’s dress although the crimson-colored couture which was the perfect complement to the actress’ porcelain skin seemed to cry out for comment.

Where was Joan Rivers when you needed her?

“I thought it was very naughty,” said E!’s resident fashion diva of the double standard on red carpet access. “It was so self-serving. It was like war profiteering.” Ms. Rivers and daughter Melissa (who had just returned from the jungles of Australia having been the last woman left standing on the reality show “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!”) had been banished like the rest of us. Undeterred, they set up shop across the street at the Roosevelt Hotel with camera trained on the action across the street. Ms. Rivers and her longtime pal Leon Hall speculated on who designed the dresses they could barely see. Still, Ms. Rivers was pitch perfect --- and downright hilarious -- with her comments about this year’s events. Wearing an Arnold Scassi dress and 75-carat Harry Winston diamond necklace she seemed to capture the mood perfectly saying, “The war stinks – it’s terrible – but it's my job to make you laugh and I’m going to do that, damn it!” She repeatedly offered her encouragement to the US Troops watching overseas and cracked that once Saddam is captured he should be forced to work for Diana Ross and his sons sent to a permanent sleepover with Michael Jackson.

Without the usual pre-show fanfare, the show seemed to drag on despite host Steve Martin’s best efforts. Even he weighed in on the ill-fated decision to cut back the red carpet with his best joke of the night: “That will send ‘em a message!” I occupied myself by taking copious notes on the actress’ dresses, which I got my first good look at when each appeared on stage for the first time. It took a war to make it happen but, for the first time in recent memory, virtually every actress in Hollywood got it right with their hair. There was no vulgar cleavage on display (Even Sally Kirkland covered up!). While some stars looked better than ever (Kate Hudson in Versace and Diane Lane in Oscar de la Renta) others missed by a mile –Hillary Swank fire your stylist! Queen Latifah why did you change out of that great dress you wore to perform? But good taste was the rule – not the exception – and again for the first time in recent memory fashion obsessed fans would have to wait months for their InStyle magazine to find out what designers they should be wearing to their cousin’s wedding next fall.

The evening’s biggest fashion winner seemed to be Fred Leighton. The tony jeweler knows that Oscars viewers won’t be beating a path to his New York store after seeing his creations on A-listers and that’s not what he wants anyway. Instead, Mr. Leighton has managed to use the Oscars to help build up one of the most loyal client bases in Hollywood without fanfare. The company did not go to Los Angeles this year and hadn’t planed to even before the war. “We have certain people that we work with out of New York that know us and trust us,” said Mara Leighton. “We have never been a part of all the craziness that has gone on and I think the stars respect that.” Obviously. As a press release from his office burbled through my office fax machine midway through the ceremony, it was clear Mr. Leighton had scored in a big way with his ever-present chandelier earrings that were worn by Nicole Kidman, Catherine Zeta Jones, Kate Hudson and Jennifer Lopez. Meryl Streep wore a stunning Art Deco necklace from his collection and seeming jewelry-free Renee Zellweger sported a 16-carat ruby and diamond ring.

The morning after there were no glowing Oscar winners smiling from the front pages of the New York dailies. The Post pushed its toned-down coverage into the center of the paper with a modest spread. The New York Times sniped “Despite All, Sackcloth Does Not Have Its Day” in a short piece that described what some stars wore, but did not report – or seem to know -- the names of the designers who were responsible for most of the dresses mentioned. On Tuesday, instead of the usual coronation of this year’s Queen of the Oscars taking place on its front cover, Women’s Wear Daily ran a tiny picture of Nicole Kidman clutching her Oscar directing readers to page five for “full” but yes, truncated coverage.

The year that boasted the most fashion savvy nominees in recent memory was, in fact, a big bust for the industry that helped create these icons. “What didn’t get across is that immediate hit of ‘It’s Valentino!,’ “It’s Chloe!,” says Joan Rivers. “Those companies lost all that money that was spent flying people out here, putting them up in suites, all the gifts to celebrities and nobody got to talk about it. That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Melissa agreed with her mother: “For those companies it was an exercise in futility.” And there’s little hope that any publicity will be recouped on the back end – while Us and People sure to do their best at trumpeting the evening’s best dressed, limited access has given magazines less to work with. There’s also this sense that everyone just wants to cut their losses and move on. Joan Rivers isn’t even having a fashion review this year. “Now everyone is calling us to talk about it so I’m thinking maybe that wasn’t the right decision,” said Ms. Rivers. “But we will be doing our Annual Golden Hanger Awards.” Sorry to be the bearer of more bad news.

So, is this the end of an era with Hollywood and the fashion industry? The answer is a definite maybe. In a bit of serendipitous timing, Ted Kruckel, who for years had acted as the unofficial ringleader of Oscar’s three-ring circus (last year he presided over the Governor’s Suite in L’Ermitage where Escada and Van Cleef & Arpels had set up camp), was quoted in the March 21st edition of The New York Post saying he was shuttering his business. He told the paper he hadn’t made any money “in years.” It seems giving free blowouts and makeup applications to fashion writers and B-list celebrities during Oscar week isn’t what it once was cracked up to be.

And, Mr. Hollywood himself, Phillip Bloch has proclaimed he’s “over” dressing celebrities. The man who has wrung every ounce of personal publicity from his work with Halle Berry says he’s ready to move on. He told The New York Observer: “It’s just so gross. Everybody has turned it into their own personal freak show. I so don’t want to do this anymore.”

At least until “Good Morning America” comes calling again next year.

- Diane Clehane our Entertainment Editor is a contributing editor at TV Guide and her work frequently appears in many other publications including Variety. She is the editor of the new book "I Love You, Mom!" (Hyperion, April 2003) a collection of essays on celebrities and their relationships with their mothers based on exclusive interviews with Diane. You can email Diane at DClehane@aol.com

If you liked the above article you won't want to miss Marilyn Kirschner's coverage (with slide show) of the opening party for the Costume Insitute's Goddess Exhibition