For all the talk about appropriate attire and toned-down glamour at the 75th Academy Awards Sunday night, the actors who looked best were those who proudly embodied Hollywood grandeur and steered clear of the ho-hum evening trousers and beaded blazers that are favorites on the office party circuit.
With so much reality on television, the Oscars came through with perfectly pitched fantasy. The red carpet may have been truncated into something akin to a red throw rug, but the guests were still movie stars with an image to maintain and viewers were still on the lookout for gravity-defying cleavage, scandalous slits and misuse of Lycra.
As it turns out, there was scant fashion misbehavior. But that can just as easily be attributed to the influence of professional tastemakers as to the war in Iraq. There had been much talk about actors searching for backup ensembles, something somber and dreary to wear in case they should decide at the last moment that ostrich feathers and duchess satin were disrespectful to those whose lives are at risk overseas. But as much as the Oscars are a celebration of the art of film, they are also a pep rally for the world of movies. And glamour is an invaluable currency.
The stars who recognized that looked splendid: elegant, sophisticated, lovely. The ones who tried to play down the glitz might as well have stayed home. After all, there was little entertainment in watching Barbra Streisand troop onstage in a black blazer and long skirt as though heading off to play first violin in a village orchestra.
On average, the actors looked far better than they have in previous years but they also looked more ordinary. The yearning to be appropriate tempered their desire to be extraordinary. Instead, they simply wore lovely dresses. Diane Lane, for example, looked particularly pretty in a feathered Oscar de la Renta gown with ribbon detail down the back.
The actresses tended not to bare cleavage, but then, extreme decolletage is more common at the Grammys or the Emmys. Oscargoers have always championed a more coy display of flesh: illusion net bodices with strategically placed embroidery; unlined gowns that become translucent when back-lit; bralessness in a chilly auditorium.
Still, there was noticeable restraint. There wasn't as much borrowed bling-bling onstage as usual, just a wee bit of tasteful sparkle in the form of costly drop earrings, estate bracelets and significant rings. Indeed, there were a host of swan necks and porcelain bosoms that could have used a carat or two for a more polished look. Surely a nice quartz lariat or a citrine choker wouldn't have been too frivolous? Indeed, the actress Nia Vardalos, who was nominated for best original screenplay, looked only half-dressed in her black Badgley Mischka gown. Her neck cried out for adornment.
Nicole Kidman looked elegant in a black Jean Paul Gaultier couture gown with its asymmetrical straps, which had a tendency to fall off her shoulder. Isn't the point of a custom-made gown to avoid such fashion annoyances? Julianne Moore chose an emerald green ruffled column from Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. The color was particularly flattering on the redheaded actress, but she seemed frightfully unnerved in the dramatic dress. She moved with such a shy slouch that the dress overwhelmed her. And ultimately neither she nor the dress was well served.
The women of "Chicago" proved that stardust does not discriminate based on size. Catherine Zeta-Jones showed that the ninth month of pregnancy can be extraordinarily glamorous with the right attitude and a custom-made dress from Versace. Renee Zellweger defied those who would have sucked the glitz out of the Oscars when she arrived wearing a glittering red Carolina Herrera dress. Unfortunately, few people got a full-length view of Queen Latifah's gown, since there was no red-carpet walk and the Best Supporting Actress award went to her "Chicago" co-star Zeta-Jones. But it was a spectacular dress with its train and fitted bodice. Most viewers only saw Latifah seated in the audience, and as the dress highlighted her generous bust, one had the distinct impression that the Oscars had suddenly gone 3-D and her breasts had entered one's living room.
Halle Berry looked terrific in a gown by Elie Saab, who was also responsible for the dress she wore last year to pick up her Best Actress Oscar. This time, to present the Oscar for Best Actor, Berry chose a one-shoulder taupe gown that was a confection of meringue-like lace. No wonder that the winner, Adrien Brody, could not restrain himself from a giving her a back-bending smooch that called to mind the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day.
Most of the men avoided fashion flourishes and wore traditional tuxedos -- except for one lone soul who wore a splendid pink velour suit with a merlot shirt and tie. Lord love an elegant peacock. There were few men who even dared stray from the standard bow tie. There was, of course, Sean Connery, who did his best to detract from his natural sex appeal by turning up in cutaway coat and a shirt with a ruffled jabot that looked like something Captain Hook -- or Tinker Bell -- might have worn. Instead of dancing on the edges of Scottish formal, he simply should have worn a proper kilt.
Cameron Diaz also seemed to try as hard as she could to transform her natural beauty into something startlingly unattractive. One can imagine that the actress rolled out of bed -- without makeup or oily pomade added to her hair -- looking like a fresh-faced ingenue. But by the time she had slipped on her Prada dress, which had a sweet, old-fashioned charm, she had mussed her hair so much that she looked like a National Geographic mallard plucked from an oil spill.
Mostly, though, the new sobriety improved the Oscars. It helped keep the focus on the awards rather than on the designers behind the frocks. Even though Versace -- a house that excels in hyper-sexuality -- could claim credit for a significant percentage of the more eye-catching gowns, from Kate Hudson's gold lace and chiffon princess dress to Jennifer Garner's pale blue one, they were more refined than outrageous. It was nice to see more discreet diamonds, too. The appetite for diamonds had been spiraling toward gluttony ever since Gloria Stuart of "Titanic" wore the film's doorknob-size blue sparkler to the awards.
This year's Oscars reflected a glamorous but more dignified Hollywood, one in which even Jennifer Lopez, arriving on the arm of Ben Affleck, wears a pale green caftan. It was vintage Valentino, straight from the designer's archives. The fashion house says the one-shoulder caftan with a scalloped edge was originally borrowed and worn by Jackie Kennedy for a visit to Cambodia. J. Lo and Kennedy. Red-carpet style found a balance between good taste and good fun.