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Tuesday, February 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Real drama at the Oscars is who'll win Best Dressed

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

A very pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones looked lovely as she accepted her award at last year's Oscars ceremony.
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Ever since grade school, I've been an Oscar watcher. I remember, as a kid, eating dinner in front of the TV as we watched the glittery ceremony; getting special school-night permission to stay up late and see it all. Back then, I didn't know what most of the movies were, or recognize most of the stars; I just watched it for the dresses — so beautiful, so belonging to another world.

Now I work on Oscar night, and I've seen all the movies, and I write dutifully about who I think will win and what it all might mean — but I'll let you in on a little secret: I still watch it for the dresses.

Because the awards — let's face it — are inevitably disappointing. I mean, I know my pick for best picture won't win, because it wasn't even nominated. ("American Splendor," for the record.) And the actors who are dressed the most interestingly, and who seemed poised to make the most off-the-wall speech, never seem to win. (Hello, Mr. Depp.) And the show's always too damned long.

As Jodie Foster accepted her award, it seemed like her strapless dress was wearing her, rather than the other way around.
But the dresses ... ah. Those are always worth staying up for. If you've read this far, perhaps you agree with me. Weren't you dying to know last year what the very pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones would wear? And didn't she look smashing? (Though I would have chosen softer hair, myself.) Didn't you have a strong opinion on Nicole Kidman's navy-blue sheath? (Hated it — she looked like a very pale spider. And, again, the tight hair looked like it hurt.) Did you love or hate the feathers on Diane Lane's ecru confection? (Loved it.) And does Halle Berry ever look bad?

A nominee's dress (and we're leaving the gentlemen out here; a tux is a tux, even when Russell Crowe adds a frock coat and a medallion) can reveal something about her, as much as any acceptance speech might. When Marlee Matlin won in 1987 (for "Children of a Lesser God") in what looked like a lavender bridesmaid's dress, with spikes of baby's breath stuck in her hair, she seemed like one of us; sweetly frumpy and a bit out of her league.

And when Jodie Foster walked up the staircase to collect her first Oscar (for "The Accused," in 1989), wearing what just might have been her first strapless dress — powder-blue, and kind of ugly, but it was the '80s — the world saw her give the top of her dress an unmistakable yank upwards. Like any woman who's suffered through an evening in a dress that didn't fit quite right, Jodie wasn't exactly wearing her dress — it was wearing her.

Don Ameche, left, stands next to Cher, whose skin-baring Oscar outfits were always entertaining.
Other screen goddesses have turned up as mere mortals on Oscar night. Katharine Hepburn, coaxed into making a rare Oscar appearance as a presenter in 1973, showed up in a turtleneck, pantsuit and clogs. Diane Keaton, who won best actress in 1977 for "Annie Hall," took her trademark layered look to extremes, showing up in a strange but charming melange of high-buttoned shirts, scarves, a full skirt, leggings and heels (worn with socks). I remember a commentator at the time — was it Cynthia Heimel? — writing that Keaton looked like she couldn't decide what to wear, so she wore her whole closet.

In opposition, of course, are the fantasy gowns. Say what you will about Cher's sheer mermaid gown (in which she won best actress for "Moonstruck" in 1987); she looked glorious in it. Likewise the form-fitting strapless white gown in which Madonna performed "Sooner or Later" in 1990, though she could perhaps have benefited from a few Jodie Foster-style tugs. (When she bent over to pick up her feather boa — well, I don't know what kept that dress up. Ambition, perhaps?)

After wearing a hideous self-designed dress to the Oscars one year, actress Kim Basinger, left, with Robin Williams, won raves for her elegant aqua gown in 1998.
Geena Davis showed up one year in a poufy white gown that exploded in the back with layer upon layer of ruffles; she looked like the victim of an unfortunate accident involving tissue paper. Kim Basinger famously wore a self-designed dress that looked as if it had been attacked by dogs and then put back together by someone who didn't like her. (It had, if memory serves, one full sleeve, one bare arm, a weirdly asymmetrical bodice, and a collar that looked like it was crawling under her armpit.) But Basinger survived the criticism, even winning her own Oscar in 1998 in a tasteful aqua-green gown.

In recent years, Oscar style has gotten a little more tasteful and generic, thanks to the rise of the personal stylist. (No, I don't think Björk — she of the infamous swan dress — employed one.)

Designer gowns, such as the ethereal lavender Prada worn by Uma Thurman a few years back, or the chartreuse, fur-trimmed John Galliano (for Christian Dior) that helped Nicole Kidman emerge from Tom Cruise's shadow, have become more prevalent.

This year, we should have plenty to look at, with the 10 actress nominees including several glamour girls (Charlize Theron, Naomi Watts, Renée Zellweger), one adolescent (Keisha Castle-Hughes), one very pregnant woman (Marcia Gay Harden, expecting twins) and one famous fashion eccentric (Keaton).

Movies deal in fantasy — and so do Oscar dresses. Have fun watching, and dreaming.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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