NEVER MIND THAT MANY OF the usual suspects—Brad and Gwyneth, Demi and Bruce, Uma and Oprah Winfrey—were missing. Or that Sharon Stone—who, until now, hadn’t met a red carpet she didn’t like—wasn’t on hand to raise (or at least rattle) the sartorial bar. The 69th Academy Awards, despite its dearth of glitzy nominees, still pulled off a high-style—and virtually guffaw-free—display of good taste.
With elegance the evening’s buzzword,The English Patient‘s Kristin Scott Thomas set the tone in a black-silk chiffon Christian Lacroix ballgown; Courtney Love looked ethereal in a simple, white chiffon column by Versace; Jodie Foster glowed in ice-blue Armani; and Nicole Kidman shimmered in a chartreuse cheongsam by Dior. Even the guys hit a glamslam: While Mel Gibson (Armani) and Tom Cruise (designer Richard James) stuck to classic tuxes, Jim Carrey, Tim Robbins and Best Actor winner Geoffrey Rush went retro in tails.
“The fashion was more sophisticated this year,” says Valentino, who dressed Lauren Holly (in beige floral chiffon) and Jenny McCarthy (in a see-though gown of dove-gray and pink chiffon). Standing out in a sea of neutral-tone gowns in L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium were the women who added oomph to their ensembles with flowing trains (Goldie Hawn and Madonna) and a blinding assortment of baubles (mostly on loan, natch, from Harry Winston, Van Cleef & Arpels and Martin Katz). “I love this ring, I love this ring!” gushed an Hervé Léger-clad Mira Sorvino as she held her $200,000 Harry Winston ruby-and-diamond rock up to the light. “I keep mentioning it to anybody who might buy it.” Vivica A. Fox, aglitter in a gold lace gown by Goddess and a $500,000 14-carat ring from Van Cleef & Arpels, was just relieved that she—and not date Dennis Rodman, whose outfit, he said, was inspired by the Mad Hatter—was the one who wound up wearing the stilettos. “He almost wore a boa,” she said of Rodman (whose getup from L.A.’s Lords boutique was resoundingly panned, as was Kevin Spacey’s knee-length Armani gunslinger coat and Winona Ryder’s black tulle Wednesday Addams Chanel). “I was glad he didn’t do it. I said, ‘If you wear a dress, I’ll have to wear a tux.’ ”
The night, of course, wasn’t only about fashion. With nearly 1 billion viewers tuning in worldwide, emcee Billy Crystal, back after a three-year leave, earned good reviews, though TV ratings were relatively low, no doubt due to the unfamiliar faces nominated. Yet thanks, in part, to the unknown but unjaded participants (“Some of them had to show photo ID to get in here,” cracked Crystal), each award had a special frisson. “I am trembling,” confessed The Crucible‘s Best Supporting Actress nominee Joan Allen, elegant in a red Timothy Dunleavy slip-dress. Even Love, a presenter, admitted to initially being aflutter: “Then I realized I’ve rocked theaters way bigger than this!” And while Muhammad Ali scored the most moving moment after taking the stage, it was Best Supporting Actor Cuba Gooding Jr. whose end-zone antics got the crowd cheering. Jada Pinkett and beau Will Smith “jumped up and screamed,” said the actress, whose belly-baring Versace offered va-voom with a view. “I called my mother to ask if she’d seen me, and she’s like, ‘You were on TV acting like a fool.’ But I didn’t care.”
After the ceremony over 1,000 limos shuttled revelers to the half-dozen or so after-show bashes. At the Governors Ball, Best Supporting Actress nominee Barbara Hershey announced, “This part of it is a lot of fun. I’ll be up all night!” Not everyone was so unabashed. Over at the Mondrian hotel, where Miramax hosted Glenn Close and Kenneth Branagh, Rolling Stone Keith Richards asked coyly, “Oh, is it the Academy Awards? Is that what the fuss is about? I thought it was just a party.”
ANNE-MARIE OTEY, KEN BAKER, STEVEN COJOCARU, TOM CUNNEFF; ANNA DAVID, LINDA FRIEDMAN and ELIZABETH LEONARD in Los Angeles and MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City