The Way I Looked That Night


“The night I won my first Oscar—in 1962 [Best Actress for Two Women]—I was in Rome because I hadn’t the courage to face the Los Angeles ceremonies. Because of the time difference, I started listening to the radio after midnight, with my husband, Carlo Ponti, in the living room. I was wearing a flannel dressing gown of his, quite large and ordinary, because I was cold. At 6:30 a.m., when I was dying with sleep, the telephone rang. It was Cary Grant congratulating me: I had won the precious Oscar. I kept jumping up and down, laughing and crying. Only then I realized the shabby clothes in which an Oscar winner was going around, receiving friends and phone calls. I made up properly and wore a nice sweater and velvet gray trousers, renewing once in a while my lipstick consumed by so many kisses. When my second Oscar, for my career, was given to me in 1991, I was in L.A., and I decided to attend. Valentino created a splendid evening dress, black, interwoven with sequins. The night of the ceremony, at home, the zipper didn’t work, and I was near to a nerve crisis because nobody seemed able to repair it. Finally my housekeeper made the miracle, and I wore my beautiful dress. I still gratefully remember that girl, who was the unknowing instrument of one of the happiest and brightest nights of my life.”


“Its tricky when you go to the Oscars and you’re not an actress. You don’t want to wear something that’s screaming, ‘Oh, look at me, look at me!’ but you want wear something that’s elegant and respectful of the evening. And you want to try to get something comfortable because it’s a long show. I had been before and I knew. I thought the dress, a lilac-colored Valentino, was beautiful. Jane Ross, a stylist I work with a lot, brought it to me, and I liked its color and its simplicity. I’m usually about a five-minute, out-the-door person, but on a night like this, you spend a lot more time on the girl stuff. I even got my hair and makeup done. Because I was going, really, as a wife, I was trying to not let it become a big deal for me. The only thing is, I couldn’t eat that day. Psychologically, you don’t want to go have a croissant and have it look like it’s sitting on your hips or something. The dress is just hanging in my closet now. I’d love to wear it again, but it’s not the kind of dress you just dinner, you know?”


“The previous year the same designer, Timothy Dunleavy, a friend, made me a gorgeous dress, but it was a monster to take care of. It had a skirt that went out a couple of feet all around. This time I wanted something easier to manage. And since the earlier dress was pastel, we decided to go really bold, with a bright, bright red. Because I’d never had a manicure, my publicist, Simon Halls, arranged one as a gift. This lady showed up at my hotel room in the morning, did my nails to exactly match my dress and told me to let them dry. But I had to shower—my makeup artist was coming—and then the bathroom door shut and locked so I couldn’t get in. I was trying to pull out credit cards to jimmy it and not mess up my nails and I was panicking. Finally, someone came and opened it. I had a few dents on my perfect polish, but after that it was smooth sailing. I didn’t win [Juliette Binoche did, for The English Patient], but I kept the dress. I’m going to give both my Oscar dresses to my daughter Sadie. She’s 6. She thinks they’re fairy-tale dresses.”


“In a magazine I saw a white dress by Valentino with silver beaded writing that said, ‘Peace’ in different languages, and I asked him to make me a version. His staff in L.A. made a gauze pattern to my body before I left for Mexico to shoot Medicine Man. I came back the day of the Oscars, and the dress fit like a glove. Instead of writing, he had put on beautiful silver and gray beads that looked like roses. He made me fabulous gloves with the same pattern, and his staff got me shoes and arranged for Van Cleef & Arpels to loan me jewelry. I didn’t win [Whoopi Goldberg did, for Ghost], but the dress, gloves and jewelry were perfect! It was the first time in my life I felt like the princess every little girl dream of. The dress is the most beautiful I own. I wore it once or twice afterward, I can’t remember where. Now my two girls [Margaux, 20, and Stella, 14] fight over who’s going to get it. It fits Margaux beautifully. But the best part is that I still fit into it! That gives me more pleasure than the whole thing put together.”


“When I called my family to tell them I was nominated [Linda Hunt won for The Year of Living Dangerously], the first thing my father said was, ‘Babe, you got to get yourself a good dress.’ Of course, I knew nothing about the Oscars, and nobody called to say, ‘Oh, I’d love for you to wear my gown…’ so I bought this dress. The designer, Georges Rech, is French, but I got it in a shop in Manhattan. The dress was white, and I was very brown, and I thought, ‘well, that would look nice.’ I liked that it went off one shoulder but was not terribly revealing; you could see a bit of skin, but it had a billowy effect. To me comfort is everything. I like to feel like if I fell down, the dress wouldn’t tear, I’d just get up and brush off. At the time, I was two steps from being a hippie, so to get ready, I just got really, really well scrubbed. When I got out of the limousine with my husband, Roderick Spencer [a writer-producer], it was like being in the Super Bowl and the circus at the same time. I had a ball.”


“I wore a Richard Tyler dress, navy blue, with a slit on one side and a sheer navy blue coat with embroidery on the bottom. Richard Tyler had made my wedding dress, so I knew I liked the simplicity of his tailoring. That’s really the challenge—if you’re a casual person, how do you dress up that much and still feel like you look like yourself? I wore a pendant necklace from Fred Leighton and a diamond brooch in my hair. I wasn’t crazy about my hair, but I thought, ‘Well, it might it be easier to have it up and not worry about it.’ I think if I had worn it down, I would’ve felt more like myself. My parents, my husband [Internet attorney Dick Burke] and I sat in the front row, which was really exciting. They always do Best Supporting Actress first [Kim Basinger won for LA. Confidential], which is nice in some ways because you’re not waiting all night. Afterward I tried to go to one party, but there was a limo traffic jam, so I went home and celebrated with my family instead.”


“I went to a store and chose this Norma Kamali dress because it had the Grecian-fantasy fold thing going for it. It was two pieces—a sheath and a piece that went over it. It was very comfortable, like wearing pajamas, albeit with high heels. Getting ready for such an event, you just try to stay relaxed. You know it’s going to last all night, so you have to pace yourself. I got dressed at a friend’s house. A makeup artist came and did his thing and did my hair as well, but I didn’t like it. I remember, backstage, wetting my hair and changing it. What I was most excited about was that an elephant was going to hand me the envelope, because A Passage to India was a Costume Design nominee. My whole demeanor changed as soon as the elephant came out onstage. I felt like a little kid. You don’t know what’s going to happen with the elephant, so you have to be relaxed and ready for anything. It was a lot of fun.”


“I wanted to look the way Rebecca [Tyson’s Sounder character, a Depression-era sharecropper] would look if she had been affluent. It was important for me to wear a dress and hairstyle indigenous to the period. Designer Bill Whitten created this fabulous white gown of silk and wool crepe. It had long, fitted sleeves with tiny mother-of-pearl buttons, and I had a white fox fur around my shoulders! The hair caused a panic because nobody knew how to create that wave. My hairdresser, Omar, called her mother, who was 70 and a retired hairdresser, and she did it. I sat very still. She was using a straightening comb and hot iron for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-many years, and I didn’t want to take any chances! When they were about to announce the winner, the camera was on me, and I was saying, ‘Liza Minnelli!’ [who did win, for Cabaret]. But it was one of the most exciting nights of my life. And when you look at Rebecca and then at me in that dress, you see what this woman could have been.”


“I was living in New York and doing Woman of the Year on Broadway. Norma Kamali did all my clothes for the show and she’s a great friend anyway. I wore her designs almost exclusively then, because I just loved her cut. I told her I was doing the Oscars, and she showed me this very simple black dress. I thought it was great. It was covered up completely, except for the shoulders. It was very close to the body, but with no cleavage or anything. Even the sleeves came way down past the wrist so just your fingers and thumbs stuck out. Then I had this wonderful, very dramatic choker of amethyst and jet beads, with drops that came down over the clavicle. It looked really pretty because I had very short hair. I felt I had found a new style that was completely away from the big mane of hair I wore during my sex-symbol years. So I was really happy about that and I was comfortable too for a change. To me it was a really perfect thing. I never wore that dress again. But it’s hanging in the closet where I keep things I just love.”


“I wore a very simple, elegant Pamela Barish pewter cut-velvet dress with a drop back. I was working on Zeus and Roxanne in the Bahamas, and I looked at a few dresses before I left, but my publicist made the final choice while I was away. I knew which one it was when she described it. I wanted classical elegance, and that’s what I loved about it. I also liked that it was comfortable. The day of the Oscars, I was filming underwater. I pulled off my wet suit, threw on some clothes, went to the airport, got on a plane, met my husband [actor Bruce Abbott] at the Peninsula hotel, had my makeup and hair done and threw on my dress—all in a matter of hours. The Oscars were great fun—it was my first time—but completely overwhelming. [Mira Sorvino of Mighty Aphrodite won the Oscar]. There are so many people, and everyone’s yelling and screaming. It was the ultimate prom night. I later gave the dress to Natasha Richardson for the amfAR auction. It was sad to let it go, but it was for a great cause.”


“Brian Rennie, Escada’s design director, was keen to dress me, so I met with Escada consultant Audrey Vittoria in London to discuss the fabric and design. I said, ‘I must have sleeves, my arms are horrid.’ And she said, ‘You don’t need sleeves. Believe me, your arms are beautiful.’ She had such taste that I listened to her. Then she said, ‘Why don’t you try a plunging neckline?’ I said, ‘A plunging neckline with no sleeves?!’ But she said, ‘You’re going to look lovely.’ And boy, I thought I did! The dress had silky feel and was light and luxurious to wear. I felt fabulous when I walked down the red carpet. It’s a real buzz. The Oscar went to Judi Dench for Shakespeare in Love. You can’t help but look at everybody else and think, ‘Don’t they look fabulous!’ But I knew I looked as nice. The dress felt perfect: no little pinch here or glitch there. Loads of people were saying how gorgeous it was. Such gowns are just a joy to wear. You feel like a million dollars.”


“I had an old friend, costume designer Don Feld, make this champagne chiffon gown. It looked terrific. But two weeks before the Awards, I went to Mexico on vacation and lost weight. Don said, ‘I’m taking it in. If you have any problems at the Oscars, a seamstress friend of mine is on the second floor. Call her up.’ The night came, and I put the dress on backstage. Instead of being a V neck, the V went on the outside of my breasts! We called the woman, and she sewed it somehow—she was barely able to get it over my breasts. I lost to Helen Hayes in Airport that night, but I presented an award, and I was like a wooden Indian, because if I moved I would have lifted right out of the dress. It certainly caused a fuss. But now, everybody’s dress is practically falling off. I guess I was just ahead of my time.”


“I was in Manila filming Cry of Battle before the ceremony. When I met with a designer there, Jose Moreno [no relation], I spotted some beautiful fabrics with interwoven metallic threads and thought, ‘What can we do with this?’ I really designed the dress myself. We used a black silk faille with embroidered large orange-and-gold chrysanthemums on the skirt. For the bodice, I made him do a bateau neckline. The Audrey Hepburn bateau neck was a big deal at the time, and I wanted it because it flatters a slender neck and shoulders. I wore my hair in a chignon with bangs and added gold filigree combs from Manila. This wasn’t the Audrey style—this was the Rita style! My dress was gorgeous but difficult to wear. The lining was so stiff that every time I sat down, the skirt popped up to my chin. I had to keep my hands in my lap to hold it down. And it was so rough—my hose were in shreds and my legs were terribly scratched up! When I took off this gorgeous gown, I looked like a bag lady!”


“My first child was due two days after the Awards. Because I had a tummy, I called Anne Klein, who had done my clothes for a TV series. She made me what they used to call a kangaroo skirt—where your tummy is, there was just a big hole, and above it, the skirt tied with a drawstring. A long jacket covered the top of the skirt. I felt wonderful. It was glamorous, and you don’t usually feel glamorous when you’re about to give birth. My husband [director Jeffrey Hayden] was worried because I was due so soon. He said, ‘Honey, if your name is called, promise me you’ll sit in your seat for 10 seconds before you hop up.’ A fan sent me a clip, and my husband has his hand on my thigh, holding me down. When I gave birth two days later, the hospital room was filled with flowers for the baby and flowers for the Oscar. People said, ‘Are you going to name him Oscar?’ and I said, ‘God, no. His name is D-a-r-r-e-l-l’ ”


“My dress was pale blue organza, with a tight bodice and a full skirt. From the right edge of the sweetheart neckline, a garland of hand-painted, multicolored flowers extended from the right across the bodice, down the left side of the skirt and around to the right again ending at the hemline. Right before the Awards, Charlie Brackett, who produced To Each His Own and coauthored the screenplay, gave a dinner party featuring a glorious Virginia ham with Madeira sauce. When he served it, he liberally sprinkled my dress. It was the most extraordinary accident imaginable! Fortunately most of the sauce fell on the garland, and after we removed the excess, the spots were disguised by the flowers. But I did go to the presentation reeking of Madeira. My award was one of the last given. When I started down the aisle, I had to swim like a salmon going upstream against a flood of MGM executives, led by none other than Louis B. Mayer, who had lost interest and decided to leave. Mr. Mayer could have waited. But tycoons are not always that sensitive.”


“I wanted what I wore to have a history because I had a history. So I rented a turn-of-the-century lace dress. To go with it, I wore a ribbon hanging from my hair. I went with Goldie Hawn, and on the ride there, we were giggling and singing. I was trying out different acceptance speeches on her in case I won, and she would boo or applaud. It was a magical night. I remember, when I went up to get the award, looking out at the audience and thinking that I had no more enemies. I had been blacklisted in 1952 after I said that a fellow actor’s fatal heart attack was caused by hounding by the Un-American Activities Committee. Once I began to work in film and TV again, being nominated for awards meant I was fighting my way back from where I’d been thrown out. Winning that night for Shampoo, I had this sense that whatever I had been fighting didn’t exist anymore.”


“The first time I had attended, in 1952, when I was nominated [for Best Actress] for A Place in the Sun, I knew nothing about the Oscars. But when I was nominated again [for The Diary of Anne Frank] in 1960, I was a nervous wreck. I had two dresses, and when my agent, Herb Brenner, arrived to pick me up, I made him take Polaroids of me in both, to see which one I looked the thinnest in. Herb was stunned that I wasn’t ready and the car was waiting. But I had to look at these Polaroids. The dress I wore was black and off the shoulder. And I tried not to wear too-high heels. I didn’t know that you could borrow diamond necklaces, so the only jewelry I wore was my own. Six years later, when I won again for A Patch of Blue, I borrowed a diamond necklace. I was fooling with the clasp out of nervousness and it fell on the floor, so when they announced my name, I was busy looking for it. It was terrible. People around me were saying, ‘Go, go.’ So I went up and got the Oscar without the necklace.”


“I was very antifashion, which was typical of the times. The producers wanted me to be a presenter, but I kept saying, ‘I do not want to dress up.’ I wasn’t interested in being a mannequin or being talked into wearing this or that. Then when I was in Vermont making a movie, I met a woman who made beautiful hand-woven ponchos, and I thought, ‘I’ll go if I can wear one of those.’ So the first time I went to the Academy Awards, I wore a gorgeous long poncho, made of cashmere and mink hair. What did I wear under it? Not much! I had some beautiful suede boots made to go with it, and that was it. My hair was straight and long, and I didn’t wear much makeup. I felt good that I wasn’t dolled up into something that I wasn’t. I went with an actor friend, Helmut Dantine, because my husband [director John Derek] wouldn’t go. He had done the Academy Awards only once—as Shirley Temple’s date when he was a teenager—but it wasn’t his thing. He said, ‘Never again.’ ”

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