Alex Tresniowski
September 28, 1998 12:00 PM

There were exposed shoulders. There were naked backs. There were necklines plunging like the Dow in 1929. There was Conan O’Brien, gazing at the celebs traipsing past him into the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles for the 50th Annual Emmy Awards and making a prediction. “In about three years,” cracked O’Brien, “I think we’re looking at an all-nude Emmys.”

That, no doubt, will be the year HBO finally gets the telecast. In 1998, however, the 50th anniversary of television’s self-congratulatory extravaganza, the emphasis was on G-rated dazzle. A hostless parade of the coolly fashionable (Friend Lisa Kudrow, in a black Chanel and a new bob), the taste-impaired (Michael Richards, in tuxedo jacket and shorts trimmed with pom-poms), style rookies (young Dawson’s Creeker Katie Holmes in a Badgley Mischka, or as she put it, “a Bag…Mish…what is it?”) and the most seasoned veteran (Bob Hope, who won his first Emmy back in 1959), this year’s awards made the case that the Emmys, long seen as the Oscars’ mousy cousin, can now hold their own when it comes to borrowed jewels. “There was an element of showmanship that is sometimes absent from the Emmys,” notes longtime Oscars producer Gil Cates, citing the presence of Tom Hanks and other movie stars involved in TV projects. “There was more glamor.”

Joan Rivers, the more-than-occasionally-carpy host of a preawards fashion show for the E! channel, agreed. “Everybody, and I mean everybody, looked good,” says Rivers. “It was much classier than the Oscars, absolutely.”

Well, maybe Rivers didn’t see everything. But viewers almost did. Sarah Michelle Gellar, star of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, wore a long skirt with a frightening slit. “Yeah, tonight I’m Ashley Judd,” said a sheepish Gellar, referring to the actress whose revealing dress drew gasps at this year’s Oscars. “I actually held the slit when I walked onstage.” Just as eye-catching was NYPD Blue‘s Kim Delaney, wrapped in a clingy Randolph Duke slashed with see-through panels. “My fiancé was so nervous about it,” said Delaney. “He kept saying, ‘What are you wearing?’ ” The Practice‘s Lara Flynn Boyle also faced questions. “Castmates of mine were like, ‘You’re not wearing any underwear, are you?’ ” said the actress, poured into a Pamela Dennis sheath.

The first Emmys, in 1949, were a low-rent affair held before an audience of hundreds. This year’s edition counted 56 presenters; an in-house audience of six thousand; 700 million viewers in 92 countries (including 50 million in the U.S., the best in 12 years), plus 111 explosive devices that shot glitter onto the stage. And while watching stars pick sparkly stuff out of their hair may not have been Must See TV, a rare appearance by Bob Hope—looking frail but gamely waving with fellow TV pioneers Sid Caesar, 76, and Milton Berle, 90—was. (“Bob is not ill, he’s just 95,” explains Hope’s spokesman, Ward Grant.) Berle, who began his TV career in 1948 on NBC’s Texaco Star Theater, was tickled by the trio’s reception. “That,” he says, “was the longest ovation I’ve ever heard.”

As always, odd anxieties surfaced. Former Married…With Children star Christina Applegate—whose new show, Jesse, premieres this fall—said she was too nervous to meet…Dick Van Dyke?! “I watch him every single day on Nick at Nite,” said Applegate. Kellie Martin’s phobia concerned the suavely intimidating…Michael J. Fox?! “I’m afraid if I meet him I’ll turn into a complete goon,” said Martin, who costars on ER.

Not everyone felt so warm and fuzzy. Jerry Seinfeld attended but declined to be a presenter—presciently, perhaps, as his landmark show failed to win a single award. More fortunate were Frasier‘s Kelsey Grammer—who racked up his third Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series win—and Mad About You‘s Helen Hunt, whose third straight Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series statuette will look good alongside the Oscar she won in March for As Good as It Gets. (Note to Hunt’s agent: Go ahead and buy that third Lexus.) Camryn Manheim, the plus-size star of The Practice, gave the evening’s giddiest acceptance speech, declaring that her Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series award was “for all the fat girls!” Manheim also made fashion news by matching her Emanuel gown with $17.99 shoes from Payless. “They have size-11 wides,” said Manheim. “Why shop anywhere else?”

What about the true test of any award show’s worth: the afterparties? Top-notch, said most celebs, if only for the chow. “Four hours is too long to go without food or water,” said Téa Leoni, who had been surprised to discover that drinks at the Emmys weren’t free (she had no money). “I was about ready to stand there with an empty coffee cup begging for spare change.” Luckily, Leoni and husband David Duchovny of The X-Files were able to nosh on poached pears and lemon spinach at the Governor’s Ball in the hall alongside the Shrine Auditorium.

Over at the Entertainment Tonight bash at Cicada, Jeri Ryan from Star Trek: Voyager sounded much the same theme. “It was a loooong four hours,” said Ryan, in a tight Richard Tyler dress with a perilously low back. “The rule is you don’t eat lunch before getting into a dress like this, so I’m pretty hungry.” Ryan was thrilled to see a table piled with tuna tartare and portobello mushroom ravioli—or at least it was until Kelsey Grammer got to it. “We need food!” Grammer declared, leading wife Camille to the banquet. At the HBO party at Spago, big winner Tom Hanks—From the Earth to the Moon, which he executive produced, won for Outstanding Miniseries—attacked a plate of tortellini before pretending to blow an oversize mushroom like a trumpet. Some celebs were too famished for such hijinks: Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown—who, countering rumors of estrangement, engaged in public cuddling—made a postshow dash for the border. “I want Taco Bell,” Houston announced. “It’s all about Taco Bell.”

Unless, like Seinfeld‘s Jason Alexander, you come prepared. A veteran of eight Emmy shows, Alexander tore a page out of George Costanza’s playbook and brought along a bag of food. “Crackers, dried fruit, raisins,” recited Alexander. Former Baywatch star Traci Bingham, in a skin-tight turquoise gown by Jose Arellanes, fashioned an even more interesting Emmy survival kit. Her beaded handbag contained only the bare essentials: powder, car keys, Kleenex and, “most important, eyelash glue,” says Bingham. “You never know when you’re going to lose a lash.” Entertaining and educational—what more could you ask of TV?

Alex Tresniowski

Ken Baker, Amy Brooks, Steven Cojocaru, Julie Jordan, Monica Rizzo, Craig Tomashoff, Ulrica Wihlborg and Irene Zutell in Los Angeles

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