Once again, the Oscars have a diversity problem among the nominees. But on the red carpet, where individuals alone have the power to define themselves as glittering stars, rarefied gazelles, eccentric raconteurs or rumply intellectuals, it was possible to get at least a peek at the breadth of creativity in La-La-Land.
One of the first actors to arrive on the red carpet was Regina King, who was honored last year for her work in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” She arrived wearing a body-skimming, peach-colored gown from Atelier Versace. The dress’s generous train spread out behind her with in regal grandeur. The fit of the dress left little room for breathing. But she was unforgettable. That’s not simply a superficial statement about whether her makeup was well done or if her hairstyle was flattering. It is recognition that she looked the way that a TV audience might imagine an A-list star to look. She inhabited that role and reminded the moviegoing public that yes, this is what a leading actress looks like, even if the academy voters can’t quite get that through their heads.
Janelle Monáe swanned in like a beacon from another galaxy in a celestial silver gown with a dramatic hood created by Ralph Lauren. It was glamorous without revealing cleavage or, really, any skin. But it was hardly modest. It was a boastful, look-at-me gown: See how fabulous I am?
Monae was the evening’s opening performer, one who took over the theater like it was just another stop on a concert tour. She paid homage to the films and actors nominated — as well as those that were not. She uplifted the contributions of female directors and declared her own sense of pride at being black and queer.
Greta Gerwig stood tall on the red carpet in her olive green Dior gown with its strapless bodice and its classic silhouette. It wasn’t a fussy dress and it wasn’t frilly. It was a focused statement on womanhood, beauty and power. The look was part of the classic vocabulary of women’s evening attire, as stalwart a style as a tuxedo. Gerwig’s film “Little Women” was nominated for best picture, but she was not acknowledged with a nomination for best director. Hollywood, like every other industry, still uses the sentiments and preferences of men as its baseline. But her dress was a reminder that there is a feminine baseline, too. There is a classic feminine vocabulary that has value and merit.
Cynthia Erivo was the lone black actor nominated this year. She stepped into the ceremony’s spotlight wearing a sculpture white gown from Atelier Versace. It swirled and dipped down her torso and blossomed around her hips. It was dramatic and magnetic. It was as if that dress had to summon up enough glamour for all of the black actors, Asian actors and others who were overlooked. Erivo was standing in the limelight for herself, but surely there were those who took in her presence and saw themselves in her.
The folks on the red carpet gave us stardust at a time when there’s a lot of darkness in the culture. They didn’t go for subversive fashion statements but rather they dressed for the fantasies that movies conjure up. Oh, sure, there was Billie Eilish in her Chanel leisure suit with its array of patches, along with her dagger-like dark nails and her green hair. But she was wearing Chanel; it doesn’t get more establishment than that. And frankly, the look bore all of the signposts of the brand. It was a reflection of how she sees herself — not outside the celebrity universe, but within it. It’s possible to walk inside that strange and wondrous land and retain some pieces of yourself.
Renée Zellweger and Laura Dern both wore Armani Privé and both looked splendid. Zellweger’s white crystal-encrusted, asymmetrical dress was sleek and in keeping with the styles that she has worn for most of the awards season. Dern’s dress, in blush tones with black embroidery and tassels, was more daring. Tassels, after all. But it was beautiful to see two women who are veterans in their field exude such confidence in their own sense of aesthetics. They didn’t looked styled. They looked like they’d made personal decisions about how they wanted to look — fashion mandates be damned.
And of course, there was Geena Davis, who was honored with a humanitarian award, who so long ago rang the bell on gender inequities in Hollywood, strolling the red carpet with the easy grace of someone taking a walk through the park. The neckline of her sleeveless Romona Keveza gown plunged nearly to her navel. The full lace skirt had pockets. As she posed for photographers, she smiled pleasantly, her hands resting comfortably aside her hips.
From the vantage point of the red carpet, the Oscars looked magnificent.