Simply elegant

Times Staff Writer

Just think of the Academy Awards as Hollywood’s no-excuses evening. After all, actresses are given gowns, jewels and other accessories. They have armies of shleppers and primpers to help them prepare for the red carpet, plus the same access as the rest of us to online pharmacies that send diet drugs via FedEx. Short of temporary insanity, there is no justification for not looking fabulous.

In the last few years, the chorus of criticism that used to herald red carpet mistakes has been replaced by the complaint that everyone looks so nice. So safe. “Where are the train wrecks of yesteryear?” the schadenfreude devotees whine. Cher, Demi Moore and Bjork, come home. All is forgiven.

Just because most turned up styled from appropriate to terrific didn’t mean this year’s fashion parade was dull. Hilary Swank has a history of looking unlike anyone else at the Oscars. On Sunday, the best actress winner did it again, in a long-sleeved, body-hugging sapphire jersey backless gown by Guy Laroche. With her hair swept into a low bun, soft makeup and a major Chopard diamond confined to her ring finger, she avoided most of the cliches of awards show dressing.

Best supporting actress nominee Virginia Madsen, her blond hair loose and wavy, also chose blue -- a strapless navy satin column by Versace.


The red brigade was represented by Emmy Rossum and Renee Zellweger, wearing Ralph Lauren and Carolina Herrera, respectively. They looked rather like twins in their strapless, fitted crimson gowns. Then along came Sandra Oh in a strapless red Michael Kors gown, making it triplets.

It’s always startling when actresses first seen in unglamorous roles dial up the glam quotient on Oscar night. First-time nominees Catalina Sandino Moreno, in a narrow white gown with wide jeweled straps, and Sophie Okonedo, wearing a full-skirted white Rochas dress any bride would be proud to own, looked nothing like the characters they played on-screen.

Okonedo wound a few pearls into her upswept hair, and wore no other jewelry -- perhaps the novelty of borrowing a fortune in baubles has finally worn off. Penelope Cruz, in a strapless column of pale gold, Scarlett Johansson, in a long black sheath by Roland Mouret, and Halle Berry, stunning, as always, in lavender chiffon and satin, kept their jewelry understated. Johansson had three Victorian brooches in her hair and a black satin Tod’s bag adorned with rhinestones. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet didn’t load their necks and earlobes with bling, preferring to restrict the sparkle to their gowns.

Laura Linney’s delicate pearl necklace by Cathy Waterman didn’t look like jewelry she’d picked by the pound. It was striking, but it didn’t overwhelm her light gray ruffled dress by J. Mendel. Linney’s gown was one of a number in watery un-colors. Gwyneth Paltrow, Gyllenhaal and Charlize Theron went for dresses not represented in a Crayola box. Were they beige? Champagne? Gray? Ice blue? (Yes, something like that.) Natalie Portman’s pleated goddess gown was a more definite bronze, and a standout.

Although understatement was evident in many of the jewelry choices, eye makeup often looked as if it had been troweled on. Well, it’s a long night. Perhaps Drew Barrymore, Kirsten Dunst, Linney, Salma Hayek and Beyonce wanted to make sure their mascara and dark eye shadow would stay on till morning. In contrast, Blanchett, Swank and Winslet approximated natural beauty beautifully.