Oscar 2006 Report

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The Red Carpet during the awards

table of contents page

by Diane Clehane
copyright © 2005 lookonline.com

Let's Make a Deal!

Why is it that the more cash the fashion, beauty and jewelry companies throw at the Oscars, the more lackluster the stars look? Maybe it’s because the color of money isn’t flattering to everyone.

In the week leading up to the ceremony, which has become a non-stop frenzy of increasingly meaningless events staged by companies hoping to capture some of Oscar’s refracted limelight, there were a record number of pitches and invitations on offer. Anyone with any tenuous connection to the awards could score pretty much anything they wanted. While reps from every conceivable company ranging from Chanel to Crest White Strips (I kid you not) descended upon the city of angels, the spaghetti at the wall theory of throwing massive amounts of free stuff and a fistful of dollars at the stars (more on that later) reached astonishing new heights – or depths (depending on your perspective).

Free facials (so last year) were replaced by appointments to try the latest cosmetic fillers (valued at $1200 according to the press release I received) courtesy of a dermatologist that’s appeared on “Extreme Makeover.” Just the thing to give you that youthful glow for the Vanity Fair party! An eyebrow guru invited press into her home promising fleeting glimpses of A-listers on their way to getting waxed and plucked -- a photo op that got the editors of Us salivating, no doubt.

Clint Eastwood receiving Best Motion Picture Award from Dustin Hoffman
At this year’s awards, otherwise known as the Beyonce Knowles Variety Hour, the claws came out early in swag suites from Beverly Hills to West Hollywood among fashionistas battling it out for bragging rights and editorial coverage on the covers of People, Us and InTouch (“The Glamour! The Jewels! The Gowns!”). As one New York publicist put it: “The backstabbing was worse than ever.”

While publicists and stylists are notoriously closed-mouthed about who will be modeling their clients’ wares on Oscar night, I found there was no shortage of ‘helpful’ sources willing to dish the dirt on their free-spending competitors in the days leading up to the Oscars. Among the bon mots whispered to me:
“The main reason (Actress X) is wearing (Designer X) is because she’s getting a free wardrobe for the entire year.”

“(The jeweler) was going to pay for her hair and makeup for the Oscars but doesn’t want that to get out so they’re making a donation to (the actress’) pet charity instead. Don’t quote me, but that’s what I’ve been told.”

“I don’t care what they tell you, they’re writing big checks. They’re lying if they deny it.”

Renee Zellweger presents an award in her Herrera red satin strapless gown.

The gloves came off after The Los Angeles Times story broke last Tuesday that named names in reporting financial deals that had been brokered between stars and fashion and jewelry houses. The piece was accompanied by a photograph of Charlize Theron on the red carpet with the words “This space for rent” superimposed on the train of her dress. (I’m guessing the paper isn’t in the running for a cover story on the actress anytime in the next millennium.)

If you’ll indulge me in a self-serving history lesson, (It is Oscar season after all!) I’d like to point out I reported the phenomenon of cash in exchange for Oscar flash was becoming a major factor last year during my 2004 wrap up. For those who might have missed or don’t remember last year’s column, here’s what I wrote:

"Unconfirmed, unreported deals between stars and designers are undoubtedly the wave of the future when it comes to Oscar fashion and Hollywood’s most sought after actresses … It’s long been rumored that certain jewelry companies have been paying stars to wear their diamonds on the red carpet – if not in cash, then by letting them keep their pricey baubles. Is it really a surprise designers would follow suit? After all, the preshow is really just a long commercial for designers and their wares so why not guarantee placement with a tidy business deal?"

Hillary Swank wearing Guy Laroche.

This year, the problem was things got messy when rival reps were emboldened by The Los Angeles Times outing of actresses taking money for their roles as mannequins. Since criticizing actresses was out of the question (“We’d never ruin our chances of working with her!” exclaimed one insider I talked to), companies ratcheted up the heat on their competition. Jewelers Chopard and Bulgari, who were both cited as putting actresses on the payroll in the Times story, were forced to spend valuable time that could have -- and undoubtedly would have -- been spent smoozing doing damage control to stem the rumors that had engulfed their Oscar campaigns. Susan Ashbrook, president of Film Fashion, who represents Chopard, told me she knew nothing about her client paying actresses to wear their jewels and referred me to the company’s director of public relations, Stephanie Labeille for comment. Labeille told me she was never contacted for the Times piece and said: “We don’t pay people. The story is the creation of an angry publicist in the jewelry world. She told one or two people and now everyone is calling me. We’re not under contract with anyone.” She also said her comments previously published in Women’s Wear Daily used in the Times which quoted her as stating: “Saying one brand pays stars when they all pay is ridiculous” were taken out of context. Okay.

When the rumors that Bulgari was shelling out big bucks to Ziyi Zhang to wear their jewels on the red carpet threatened to eclipse their Oscar effort, the company’s rep denied the reports when I called her for comment. She then told me I’d be receiving the company’s “official” statement on the matter. It raised more questions that it answered: “Bulgari has a long and established relationship with the movie industry. We have been approached throughout the years by many celebrities who have worn our jewellrey and watches for numerous events, movies, awards and private occasions and it is not the policy of the company to discuss these relationships any further.”

Well, that clears up that.

Designer houses wisely remained largely silent on the subject undoubtedly happy to have the lion’s share of the unwelcome attention directed at bling brokers. Still, fashionistas decamped in Los Angeles for the week that I talked to consistently pointed to Hilary Swank’s rumored deal with Calvin Klein to wear something from the collection to the Oscars as indicative of why it had become increasingly difficult for houses without deep pockets to land an A-list nominee or presenter for Oscar night. “There aren’t that many women that actually go to the Oscars and get covered on the red carpet,” says one LA-based rep. “When top contenders are taken out of the running because of the deals they’ve made, it makes it harder for people that can’t afford to pay to stay in the game.”

Swank, who appears in the company’s lingerie ads, told everyone within earshot at the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards that she was planning to wear Calvin Klein to the Oscars. A bafflingly banal feature on the actress’ relationship with the house that read like a press release ran in USA Today last Friday with headline touting the earth-shattering news. Rep Kim Vernon was quoted saying the company had some “special dressing opportunities” with the actress. Buried at the very end of the story was a mention that the company “had not disclosed any financial arrangement with Swank or what she was paid to model the company’s lingerie.”

Hours before the Oscars I was told by a rep for another house that “there had been tension in the fittings” with Calvin Klein’s minions and the actress would likely be wearing something from another house. When she arrived at the Kodak Theater wearing a navy blue Guy Laroche, fashion flacks from New York to Los Angeles couldn’t help but gloat. “You don’t always get what you pay for,” said one with undisguised glee.

Virginia Madsen in Versace Couture dark blue satin fishtail gown

One has to wonder if this last minute switch was a calculated and well-advised move by Swank’s handlers looking to distance their client from her rumored rep as a high priced shill. (“Thank you Troy Nankin!”) Afterwards, Vernon said a “heads up” from the actress would have been the polite and collaborative thing to do.” (Swank's contract with Klein is up later this year). Laroche flack Georges Bully says Swank (who had to return the dress because it was a sample) will receive her own copy (which will retail for $6000) as a gift when production is ready at the end of this month.

If there were other actresses who were “hired” to wear a certain label to this year’s Oscars, I’d say most companies didn’t get their money’s worth. “There’s a lot of girls out there for sale,” said one disgruntled designer rep. “And you can tell which is which.” Maybe she could, but I couldn’t.

It was truly a ho-hum year for fashion. The overall effect of the fashion parade was curiously flat. No one, with the exception of the flawless Cate Blanchett (in a deliciously buttery Valentino and beautiful makeup), dazzled. I also loved how sophisticated and pretty Kirsten Dunst looked in her black lace Chanel couture dress. Mostly, though, the smattering of low key glamour came from newcomers Catalina Sandino Moreno (in Cavalli), Emmy Rossum (in the only strapless number that made any impact by Ralph Lauren) and Ziyi Zhang (in Monique Lhuillier – and Bulgari).

The general rule of thumb seemed to be when it came to fashion, the bigger the star, the bigger disappointment. An alarmingly anemic looking Renee Zellweger (who needs to go back to blonde, fast!) missed the mark in an all too expected Carolina Herrera, Halle Berry’s Versace seemed too much like her Golden Globes dress and her long, lifeless hair looked as if she’d skipped her appointment with her hairdresser. Charlize Theron’s Dior looked more prom-like than sophisticated. Laura Linney’s hideous J.Mendel dress was reminiscent of Jennifer Connelly’s disastrous Balenciaga from a few years ago. Natalie Portman’s youthful beauty was all but extinguished by her lifeless Lavin. The evening’s worst dressed label goes to poor Melanie Griffith who wore a dress that appeared to have been stolen from Sally Kirkland’s closet. It made her look sad and downright desperate for attention. I’m all for looking sexy if you’re over 40 but Melanie, the next time Antonio wants to pick out your dress tell him that’s what stylists (and Giorgio Armani) are for.

The coverage of yearly fashion parade was equally sleep inducing. E!’s mind-numbing six-hour preshow featured respected fashion experts Jen Schefft (the recent Bachelorette to the uninitiated) and former soap star Finola Hughes. “The Gastineau Girls” (who, surprisingly enough, just happen to have a reality show on E!) needed on-air coaching on how to hold their microphones so they could give stars their insightful tips on how to walk on the red carpet. (Listen up, Gwyneth!) Curiously, recent hire Robert Verdi told viewers he and Hughes would be weighing in on the fashion hits and misses throughout the preshow from the studio but were never seen or heard from again. Surely they would have been more entertaining than the positively dreadful Kathy Griffin whose torturous routine about receiving calls from A-listers on her cell phone was the worst waste of air-time ever squandered during the Oscars.

As host of E!’s two-hour preshow “presented without commercial interruption” (that is if you don’t count those annoying pop-ups they used touting their own shows), Star Jones (who replaced wedding talk with shameless shilling for Chopard, Payless and assorted others) didn’t ask most stars about their dresses. When she did ask Maggie Gyllenhaal who designed her jewelry, the actresses tittered she didn’t know admitting, “It’s too much to remember.” Ouch.

Kate Winslet, Academy Award Best Actress nominee.

For some reason, the hosts of ABC’s Oscar preshow didn’t ask most actresses about their dresses, either. (Designers should send their thank-yous to Billy Bush who seemed to be the only one on the ball at the network). Let’s face it, the fashion industry owes Joan Rivers a huge debt of gratitude. (Yes, you read that right). Love her or loathe her, Rivers invented – and perfected -- the preshow formula that gave the industry the entrée to a worldwide audience on Oscar night. Now working for the TV Guide Channel with daughter Melissa, she told me why she thought people were avoiding the question: “ I stopped asking and they hear I’m not doing it and then they don’t do it. I’ve gone back to doing it, so now they’re going to do it.” The comedienne says she will stop asking about clothes and jewels if the reports about people being paid to wear clothes and jewels get any bolder. “I think it’s all true. If people really are being paid, I don’t want to give them a free ad,” she said. “And, if you’re getting $250,000 to wear it, I want $25,000 to mention it.”

Pamela Dennis, who returned to Beverly Hills to work with actresses on their Oscar attire after a two and a half year absence, considers the practice of paying actresses and then denying it “unethical.” She estimates her efforts to entice celebrities to wear her clothes –without paying them -- cost her upwards of $50,000 this year. On the Thursday before the awards, the designer was in Neiman Marcus getting Spanx for her clients to wear under their dresses and trying to figure out how she was going to make it to West Chester, Pennsylvania for a 20-minute appearance on QVC on Friday and make it back in time for last minute Oscar fittings at her suite in L’Ermitage. (She did it). On that day, she “had her fingers crossed” Angelica Houston would wear a black dress with sable cuffs the designer made for her. The actress’ stylist put the odds at “70/30.” On Oscar night, Houston showed up at Vanity Fair in a silver dress that resembled a shroud. Dennis did manage to get her designs on Melissa Rivers, Chris Rock’s wife Malaak, Nancy O’Dell, Jann Carl, Jennifer Tilly, Daisy Fuentes and Fran Drescher. “I got two mentions on the red carpet,” she told me Tuesday morning. If you do the math, Dennis’ efforts cost her $25,000 per utterance. Was it worth it? “It’s better than not,” she said.

In past years, I’ve reserved most of my comments to address (okay, criticize) the goings on behind the scenes but I’d be remiss if I didn’t weigh in on the absolutely dreadful changes made to the awards for this year’s broadcast. Oscar is suffering from a terminal case of low self-esteem and an ill-advised attempt to up its hipness quotient. Much was made of the producers’ “bold” choice in picking Chris Rock. From the moment he exclaimed “Sit yo’ ass down!” to the audience that had risen to its feet to offer an expectant, exuberant welcome, I knew we were on shaky ground. (A tribute to Johnny Carson later in the broadcast only underscored how far the standard had fallen). A brilliantly funny stand up comedian does not an Oscar host make – especially when his best jokes poke fun at one of Hollywood’s anointed golden boys. I agree Rock’s astute observation about the inexplicable ubiquity of Jude Law, but did he actually expect to win over his audience by making fun of an actor the industry is determined to see become a star? (A reaction shot from Gwynnie or his closer costar Natalie Portman would have been interesting, wouldn’t it?)

Instead, the director treated us to five – count’em five – shots of Jay Z during the show. Excuse me for asking, but with stars like Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Charlize Theron and Leonardo DiCaprio– to choose from, whose brilliant idea was it to shove the rap impresario whose only discernible connection to the evening was, as Rock put it, that Beyonce was his “woman” down viewers throats? Oh, of course, to remind us that even “cool” guys go to the Oscars. Please.

Cate Blanchett wearing Valentino on the Red Carpet.

Speaking of Beyonce (whose agent must have pictures of Oscar producers with goats), I fail to see why she was appointed the star of the show. Yes, she is a beautiful girl and yes, she is a talented singer but come on! Can’t you just picture Warren Beatty asking wife Annette Bening, Who is this girl? We tune into the Oscars to see our favorite movie stars and no amount of stunt casting (let’s face it, that’s what it was) should attempt to change that.

But here’s my biggest beef with the telecast: who thought the idiotic idea to deny deserving and talented nominees their moment at the podium and illuminate Hollywood’s caste system would actually improve things? Cate Blanchett, the only actress who looked like a real movie star on the entire telecast, seemed genuinely embarrassed to be giving the award for Best Achievement in Makeup from the cheap seats. Then, when the cutaway revealed the mysterious appearance of the statuettes to the completely disoriented winners, the whole thing took on the feeling of a “Late Night” skit. I kept expecting David Letterman to come along and offer someone a ham. My heart broke for the unfortunate less-thans forced stand in the aisle and sputter out their acceptance speeches with their back to at least half the audience. Jeremy Irons fared no better later in the broadcast when he had to participate in this hokey gimmick, but at least managed to get a laugh when he cracked, “I hope they missed” after hearing an ominous poping sound from somewhere the auditorium. I found it more than a little pathetic that two of the Academy’s most respected talents were reduced to looking like Monty Hall thanks to the producer’s quest to shake things up a bit.

The herding of nominees Miss America-style to the stage for the announcement of the winner was equally ridiculous. Making costume design winner Sandy Powell – and all the other winners who were disrespected in this way suffer that indignity -- was unforgivable.

Luckily, this being Hollywood, there were a few magical moments that saved the broadcast from being remembered solely for its missteps and delivered the emotional payoff true fans tune in for. Thank you, Jamie Foxx for one of the best ever acceptance speeches. You should win something every year if you’re going to be such a dynamic presence. (Next time, though, get a better suit). How could you not be moved by iconic tough guy Clint Eastwood acknowledging his 96 year-old mother during his best director acceptance speech?

I’m sure my plea for next year will fall on deaf ears but here it is anyway: This is the Oscars, people! Show some respect. Get a decent dress (and if you’ve chosen to get paid to wear it, fess up. Most people think you are anyway). Don’t complain you can’t breathe in it. (Scarlett Johansson this mean you) Put on some lipstick that actually reads on camera. And most importantly, fight like hell if anyone stops you from taking the stage to claim your own little gold guy.


- Diane Clehane is Lookonline.com’s Entertainment Editor. She is The New York Times best selling writer whose work regularly appears in Variety, The New York Post and many other national publications. Her new book, “Objection!” about celebrity court cases co-authored with Nancy Grace will be published in June by Hyperion.

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