The Big Show Is On Tinseltown's Most Important Medium: Red Carpet

Pale colors and shades of red and pink predominated on this year's Red Carpet, as did the designer penchant for the one-shoulder gown. Despite the depressing down economy, the stars came out tonight and shone.
By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009

HOLLYWOOD, Feb. 22 -- Red carpet: This is what they do now. This is their new medium as artists. This is what makes them stars. Once upon a time they acted, or sang, or told jokes. But no one's going to see movies anymore, and no one's buying records or watching TV, at least not in a way so that anyone's getting paid for it. Fame is unhinged from ability to entertain, to sell product. Cameron Diaz, as A-List as they get: But, when was the last time you saw her in a movie? Err . . . When was the last time you saw her in a magazine, or on TMZ? Like, 10 minutes ago, and probably three times in the past week.

So the ritual of arriving somewhere -- of lighting up a place with their sheer presence, all that tragically underused charisma -- that's the performance these days.

Watch how it's done, on the red carpet that really matters, the Academy Awards. Taraji P. Henson, Howard grad, former Washingtonian and first-time nominee, for Best Supporting Actress, is making her way down the line of reporters. Elegant posture, endless eyelashes, arms held out ever so slightly from her strapless white gown in that bulge-minimizing way. She leans in to charm a TV reporter: "Ooh, look at that dress, you are gorgeous."

When asked, she's got her lines perfect: "Roberto Cavalli gown, clutch by Mary Norton, Fred Leighton jewelry." And a good anecdote on hand about how to do the whole red carpet thing: "I had the best advice from Halle Barry -- hold your shoulders back and head high because you belong here!" So what's next for her? She pauses. "Finding a job. The whole industry's at a standstill."

How important is red carpet in this new economy? It's no longer just pre-show. It is the show. Covered live by E!, the TV Guide Channel, ABC, CNN and others, it runs almost as long as the Oscar ceremony itself, and may trump it in the number of eyeballs. This year, to bring attention back to its own ratings-slumping awards broadcast, the academy asked some presenters to take a secret side entrance -- avoiding the red-carpet cameras to preserve the who's-wearing-what suspense for the envelope-please moments.

The response? Panic exploding through the entire red carpet economy -- all the starlet pushers, fashion designers, handbag purveyors and assorted publicists whose business models are built on the flashbulb moments out front. And maybe no surprise: Some quiet cancellations by presenters, who apparently preferred a glorious front-door entrance to a spot at the podium, a writer for the show told the Associated Press last week. (While most stars are lent or given the couture and jewelry free in exchange for the red-carpet publicity, others reportedly are actually paid to wear the stuff.)

It starts slow -- who wants to arrive before prime time? -- so the fans who've won seats in the bleachers are left to scream over Mario Lopez, Joey Fatone -- the sort-of stars who, because no one makes money anymore singing or dancing, are now sort-of journalists (did no one tell them that journalism doesn't make money anymore either?) doing red-carpet reporting. Lisa Rinna, once a soap star, walks regally down the carpet, waving to the fans, then jumps the hip-high green hedge separating journos from stars, her purple gown parting to flash a beige panty. Nancy O'Dell makes a show of it, using a wooden box and two spotters to help her over, to the cheers of the bleacher people.

A gorgeous pale-eyed brunette in a silver dress paces the carpet with a tiny handsome man, and the PAs have to coach the bleacher people to cheer -- don't worry, you're not supposed to know them, they're just stand-ins helping the cameras adjust their settings. Every show needs a rehearsal.

Virginia Madsen is one of the first stars out. She is radiantly blond in an architectural red dress by Kevan Hall that reminds us of 1950s automobiles, and we're close enough to see the tiny cryptic tattoo on her upper left arm as she explains that as a former Best Supporting Actress nominee she still has to enter a lottery for Oscar tickets every year. (What has she been in lately? Botox commercials.) Then we're close enough to see that Miley Cyrus's ears are quadruple-pierced. What can we ask her? Your first Oscars? "My second."

Dustin Lance Black, the first of many "Milk" collaborators we see wearing a little white bow on his tuxedo jacket -- a pro-gay marriage symbol, we're told -- tells us he used to spend his summers working as a lifeguard in Northern Virginia. We stare at his long blond bangs and uncreased skin and have to ask: How old are you? "I'm 19," he deadpans. "I'm 34 but you can say . . . whatever."

Would we like to talk to Dominic Cooper from "Mamma Mia!," a publicist asks? Sure! And he is new enough on the scene that the cute stubbly and spiky young Brit looks us in the eye and chats amiably about how he hopes stage fright doesn't paralyze him during his musical number at the show. (By point of comparison -- later we will not be able to make eye contact with Kate Winslet or Amy Adams so they can refuse to come talk to us -- they just kept walking.)

Melissa Leo, nominee for Best Actress in "Frozen River," wears bronze Badgley Mischka and something we haven't seen anywhere else in L.A. -- a spider web of delicate lines around her eyes, across her forehead. We can't stop staring. Bloggers are buzzing that she could pull an upset win, we say. "A lot of people are saying things. I don't think I have a shot at this golden boy, but I'm proud to be here." Does she have a speech ready? "The first book required for us at SUNY-Purchase was Stanislavski's 'An Actor Prepares' " -- so, yes, she does.

John Legend, wearing Prada, tells us this is his first Oscars -- he'll be performing Peter Gabriel's song from "Wall E." Yes, he admits awkwardly, the one Peter Gabriel has declined to perform because of a one-minute performance rule -- but then his gorgeous date in a salmon dress and gold-dusted eyelids says, "Look at the little kids!" and we all do . . .

The "Slumdog Millionaire" kids! Everyone knows the story about them -- the Mumbai children who everyone thinks maybe should have made more money for starring in the movie, and whom the producers at the last minute decided to fly out for the Oscars. They're beaming and chattering away about how director Danny Boyle is "brilliant," everything is "marvelous." What do they like about L.A.? "The space!" shouts the oldest boy. "It's unbelievable. It's brilliant, it's huge, it's so spaced out!"

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