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  On the Big Night, the Good, the Fab and the Ugly

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 1998

    madonna with oscars
Madonna, who presented James Horner with the Best Original Song Oscar, didn't cleave to Oscar's rules of good taste.
(Gary Hershorn/Reuters)
Ever since designers and stylists like Giorgio Armani and Phillip Bloch became involved with the Oscars, the awards' taste level has risen drastically, robbing the ceremony of almost all entertaining fashion gaffes. Instead of Demi Moore's bicycle shorts or Debbie Allen's evening gown with breastplate, audiences are now treated to the latest confections from such designers as Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Calvin Klein and, of course, Armani.

The celebrities are walking billboards for them. And in return, the designers open up their studios to the stars, many of whom greedily tear through racks of expensive frocks – picking, altering, demanding and dismissing.

So there was much to admire and precious little to cause gasps of delighted horror. The audience Monday night was a sea of chic sheath evening dresses, glamorous ball gowns, dapper tuxedos and elegant hairstyles.

Thankfully, there was Madonna. Looking as if she had just flown in from a meeting of her coven, she was dressed in a voluminous black evening skirt and gray tunic with formidable decolletage. The skirt was from the Jean Paul Gaultier couture collection, but a spokeswoman emphatically denied that the tunic – with an unflattering neckline that made Madonna look like a linebacker on estrogen – had come from Gaultier's atelier.

She looked awful. How could this have happened? This is a woman who has appeared in Versace advertising campaigns, who has worn designs by John Galliano in her music videos. She saw the talent and potential in Dolce & Gabbana long before they were sought-after designers. She wore Gucci with aplomb. She made Gaultier's torpedo bra look sexy. And then she turns up at the Oscars looking like a Goth-rock prom queen.

Perhaps there is only so much good taste in the universe. When one person gains a sense of style, someone else must lose theirs. Madonna's loss was Kim Basinger's gain. Who could believe that the glamorous and elegant winner of the Best Supporting Actress award was the same woman who once wore a disastrous one-armed evening dress to the Oscars? Monday night, Basinger, in a custom-made pistachio green ball gown by Escada, looked spectacular. Her blond hair was styled off her face in a gentle wave. She was full of grace and humility. And with an adoring husband, Alec Baldwin, on her arm, she needed no accessories. Basinger simply glowed.

Meanwhile, Drew Barrymore sparkled – like a human disco ball. The young actress looked as if she had mistaken her Oscar invitation for a pass to a rave. After snapping off a couple of daisies and sticking them in her hair, she evidently rolled around naked in a vat of silver glitter.

Poor Kate Winslet looked like she could barely breathe in the Givenchy evening dress into which she'd been stuffed. The actress has had to endure snide and unfair comments about her weight – a bit higher than the wafer-thin Hollywood standard. But this dress was not flattering: She looked as if she were going to be suffocated by her own bosom, which had been thrust up to about nose level. One would think that if a dress is made to measure, it would be made to one's current measurements rather than those from, oh, three years ago.

It was reassuring somehow to watch many of the women at the Oscars make their way across the stage in astonishingly high heels. They wobbled. They teetered. They lumbered. Just like women who aren't famous, who don't have stylists and who don't get free clothes.

Susan Sarandon, in a skintight Dolce & Gabbana stretch tulle gown, took such slow and mincing steps that she seemed in danger of tumbling off her heels. Sigourney Weaver, appearing in a boxy lilac bad-idea-that-should- never-have-been-executed, looked about to cry. Every woman who has ever worn a pair of heels knows that look. Sigourney's Weaver's dogs were barking. Grrrr-ruff.

Ashley Judd was among the few women who took long, confident strides across the stage. Her dress was slit high, particularly in front. We tried not to look, but it was impossible not to. We don't think she was wearing underwear. Get the videotape. You be the judge.

The men, as usual, generally stuck with the basic tuxedo. Shawl collar, double-breasted, two buttons or one. They all pretty much looked the same. Robin Williams was among the few who dared to break the mold and wear a longer frock coat. It looked elegant and sexy. Positively swellegant.

We don't know why Ben Kingsley decided to wear a white suit. Maybe he wanted to look like the Good Humor man. Or perhaps for the same reason Cher decided to wear a crown like the one on the Statue of Liberty. It had been years since Cher made a fashion statement at the Oscars. We missed her.

Glorious Cher, who needed only a torch to complete her costume, reminded us that good taste may save a person from embarrassment, but a good dose of tackiness makes much better entertainment.

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Academy Awards nomination list courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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