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If only William Shakespeare could have been there. A full 383 years after the playwright's death, more than 2,600 of moviedom's finest were gathered inside Los Angeles's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion applauding as Shakespeare in Love, based on a chapter in his life (okay, Hollywood's sly, witty, fantasy version of it), nabbed top honors at the 71st annual Academy Awards ceremony. The March 21 show—the longest ever at four hours, two minutes—drew some 70 million U.S. TV viewers (fewer than last year's event, which drew a TV audience of 87 million, but a whopping number nonetheless). And if that weren't enough to thrill a bard, the festivities boasted bawdy tributes (courtesy of host Whoopi Goldberg, who noted that "little Willie is very large, baby"), a tragicomic clown (Life Is Beautiful director Roberto Benigni, whose over-the-top, almost intelligible acceptance speeches for Best Foreign Film and Best Actor stole the show) and a parade of elegant if understated fashions. "I like things that I feel comfortable in," said Annette Bening, whose beaded black Escada gown was typical of the evening's prevailing tasteful but tame approach.

Sartorial restraint can, of course, dampen the Oscar-watching experience, and if Shakespeare was grinning in his grave, ready-to-ridicule viewers at home had reasons to grieve. From Best Actress winner Gwyneth Paltrow, sweetly chic in a billowing pink satin gown by Ralph Lauren, to also-ran nominees Lynn Redgrave, in pale-blue bustled Amsale, and Meryl Streep, who chose beaded lavender Valentino, attendees at Hollywood's highest-profile shindig perpetuated the movement in recent years from exuberant excess to pragmatic simplicity.

Instead of titanic tresses, there were tidy chignons (on Paltrow and presenters Liv Tyler and Lisa Kudrow) or pancake-flat manes (Helen Hunt and Christina Ricci). Even the bombshells took the night off. "Find a dress that fits right," declared Out of Sight's suddenly sensible Jennifer Lopez, who traded her trademark clingy creations for a big-skirted, black Badgley Mischka number, "and you're okay."

Not that there weren't those who bucked the plain-vanilla status quo. Elizabeth star Cate Blanchett, who lost to Paltrow in the Best Actress category, achieved winning whimsy with a purple John Galliano frock that held a hummingbird on its sheer back panel. "It's comfortable, and I love the color," said Blanchett, whose bright red lips ("It's all in the lipstick," the Aussie actress declared) helped her stand out from the crowd. Others (Sophia Loren in peekaboo black Armani, Mariah Carey in cleavage-baring L'Wren Scott) managed to do so in gowns that combined style with sizzle. But no one proved gutsier than Celine Dion. On hand to sing "The Prayer," the Best Song nominee from Quest for Camelot, the singer did the absent Cher proud in a back-to-front white pantsuit by Christian Dior (yes, it was designed that way!) accessorized with a matching fedora and $25,000 diamond-studded Ray-Bans. "Ray-Ban said if I wore these they would give $50,000 to my cystic fibrosis charity, so you better believe I wore them," said the singer. (But she offered no explanation for the rest of her outfit.)

Diamonds were, as usual, de rigueur: The House of Harry Winston alone lent more than $70 million worth, including a $2.6 million ring to Geena Davis and $41 million in assorted baubles—a 107-carat, $15 million ring, a $1 million bracelet and $750,000 chandelier earrings—to Whoopi Goldberg. "It will be hard to part with these," said presenter and The Opposite of Sex star Ricci, who donned nearly half a million dollars' worth of Harry Winston diamonds with her pearl-gray-and-silver Versace. "It might even involve a tear or two."

The male contingent, for its part, made only token attempts at fashion forwardness, with black-on-black the most noteworthy affectation. Best Actor nominee (Affliction) Nick Nolte paired a black shirt with his regulation Pal Zileri tux, while Robin Williams chose a spunky neon-blue bow tie to enliven his Versace. Otherwise, the prevailing male credo was put forth by Best Actor nominee (American History X) Ed Norton. "The real key to style," said Norton, understatedly spiffy in a Prada tux and squiring Drew Barrymore in classy cranberry velvet Eduardo Lucero, "is having a girl on your arm who attracts all the attention."

In fact, given the media scrutiny Oscar attendees endure, sartorial caution seemed downright sensible. "It's such a scary thing, worrying about what you're going to look like," said Liv Tyler (who lowered her own stress levels before the ceremony by having Pamela Dennis, who designed her strapless lavender gown, come to her hotel to help her dress). Some of the most seasoned celebs admit to cringing in the face of fashion criticism, especially when delivered by Joan Rivers. Though this year the last half hour of Rivers's E! channel two-hour preshow snipe fest was preempted by Geena Davis's bland rival ABC show, Her Cattiness still found time to do the disses. Standing on the red carpet outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Rivers (outfitted in a crimson-sequined trumpet gown by Pamela Dennis) told Mariah Carey, "Everyone said you gained weight." Ouch! No wonder k.d. lang, standing outside the Vanity Fair postshow party at Mortons, told a reporter that she had "a big fear that Joan Rivers will come flying across the parking lot and tell me how hideous my outfit is." And lang didn't even attend the ceremonies.

Emcee Goldberg, at least, did not seem worried about the figures she was cutting. From her entrance as a parade-float-size Queen Elizabeth ("I'm the African Queen," she trumpeted to gales of laughter, the most heartfelt of the evening) to the show's closing moments, when she donned her 11th ensemble of the night, a poodle-esque black satin coat with curled ostrich-feather collar, she reveled in her finery. "She just wanted to have a good time with her outfits," said Ray Aghayan, who designed eight of them. "She was so incredibly together."

If her fellow attendees felt more fashion-fettered, it didn't keep their emotions from running high. Hearing that his Holocaust tragi-comedy Life Is Beautiful had won Best Foreign Film honors, Italian Roberto Benigni danced across nearby seat backs before leapfrogging to the stage to say, "It's a hailstorm of kindness of gratitude for you." Later in the ceremony, when he took Best Actor honors, he went one better by declaring: "This is a terrible mistake! I have used up all my English....I would like to be Jupiter and kidnap everybody and lie down making love to everybody."

Equally overcome was Best Actress Paltrow. As her parents, actress Blythe Danner and producer Bruce Paltrow, held their breaths in their seats, Gwyneth let loose some podium sobs as she accepted her statuette for Shakespeare in Love. "I would not have been able to play this role," she said, "had I not understood love of a tremendous magnitude, and for that I thank my family." Backstage afterward, a more composed Paltrow reflected, "The whole thing is like a dream. I don't remember it at all."

Some things could not be forgotten—or forgiven. While the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award to director Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront)—still reviled in some quarters for having named eight former colleagues as Communists during 1952's House Un-American Activities Committee hearings—didn't disrupt the proceedings as some had feared, audience members displayed their feelings. While many gave the 89-year-old Kazan a standing, if subdued, ovation, Nick Nolte, Ed Harris and scores of others remained seated and stony-faced. (Said a frail-looking Kazan: "I want to thank the Academy for its courage. I think I can just slip away now.")

Which is just what many in the audience longed to do. As the show's fourth hour finally drew to a close, famished stars began filing toward the Pavilion's doors and the half-dozen parties that awaited them in the cool Los Angeles night (see page 102). "It [was] nerve-racking," said Spielberg, who left with his second Best Director nod for his acclaimed World War II epic Saving Private Ryan, but without the Best Picture honor he had hoped for. "I'm glad it's over."

Over, that is, until next year, when viewers will again tune in to see if Oscar fashions are subdued or sassy—or even out of this world, like presenter Anne Heche's silver Cerruti, a slinky number made of a synthetic used by NASA. "It glows the dark," quipped Heche's girlfriend, Ellen DeGeneres, as the hand-in-hand pair kicked back at the IN STYLE-Elton John post-show bash at Pagani restaurant. "If we're ever stranded on a road, we wouldn't get hit."

Prized Events
Star-studded Oscar parties all over town gave everyone—winners, losers, even Monica—the chance to let their hair extensions down

The night was young, but Camryn Manheim had already fulfilled her Oscar mission. Wielding a little red book, the unabashedly starstruck star of TV's The Practice had scored autographs from Ellen Barkin, Madonna and Annette Bening—fellow guests at Vanity Fair's post-Oscar party at Mortons in West Hollywood. But it was a certain former White House intern with no professional acting experience whose pen was poised over the book's most exclusive page—the one containing Bill Clinton's John Hancock. "Don't look at the other signature," Manheim urged Monica Lewinsky. "Just sign."

Decked out in a low-cut black vintage dress and accompanied by her date for the evening, entertainment lawyer Jonathan Marshall, Monica scrawled her moniker without complaint. Then La Lewinsky, who was later turned away when she tried to crash hotelier André Balazs's party at the Standard hotel, issued her own restraining order. "I really feel," she reminded hovering reporters, "that this is Hollywood's night."

Who could argue? Though by the time the attendees had spilled out of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion after a grueling show, most were hungry for food and starved for socializing. At the Governors Ball held under a giant tent next to the auditorium, Best Supporting Actress (as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love) Judi Dench sampled a feast fit for a monarch: smoked salmon, lobster remoulade and tuna tataki à la celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. But that other Elizabeth, Cate Blanchett, had fueled up before the show with a health tonic. "I drank about three bottles of Rescue Remedy," she said, "so I'm punch-drunk."

The Dream Works-Paramount fete could have used a little punch of its own. With Saving Private Ryan's 11 nominations having yielded just five statues, the bash at Barnaby's in L.A. was somewhat subdued. But as a swing band jumped and jived, Ryan star Edward Burns and his girlfriend, actress Heather Graham, made frequent buss stops, while Steven Spielberg, beaming after his Best Director win, obliged well-wishers who wanted a picture with him. Rita Wilson, meanwhile, showed off her 200-year-old diamond ring and drop earrings, both gifts from husband Tom Hanks, who quipped, "It's stuff I find with a metal detector."

Leave it to Hugh Hefner, though, to parade the greatest number of trophies. The septuagenarian playboy strode into the Dream Works-Paramount festivity with five of his favorite Playmates in tow, promptly inciting major buzz. And just how did Hef, 72, pick his comely quintet? "I bring them all," said the irrepressible publisher, who split from wife Kimberly last year. "These are my girlfriends."

At the witching hour, clusters of stars at the Miramax party at the Polo Lounge schmoozed with Miramax chairman of the bard Harvey Weinstein, who had green-lighted Shakespeare in Love. Nearby, Best Actress Gwyneth Paltrow held radiant court with her family and her costar in the upcoming Duets, Scott Speedman, 23, while her ex, Ben Affleck, enjoyed a cozy chat with singer Mariah Carey.

But at the IN STYLE-Elton John bash, Kevin Costner, who escorted his 14-year-old daughter, Anne, had decidedly less luck enchanting Charlize Theron. "Just because I'm a foreigner you think I wouldn't get that," joked the South African actress after a Costner tease. "You hurt my feelings." Turns out it wasn't Costner's night. "I always have trouble with the cuff links," he later confessed. "Cuff links make me know that you need a woman in your life, because you can't do it yourself. A tuxedo makes you realize you shouldn't be alone." Others found ample companionship at the soiree, where 1,200 guests noshing on sashimi and duck wontons at the packed Pagani restaurant raised $300,000 for John's AIDS charity. Geena Davis, wearing a borrowed 25-carat diamond worth $2.6 million, couldn't shake the Harry Winston bodyguard shadowing her. "I hope he's looking after me as much as the jewels!" she announced over the din. And the host was so caught up in the crowd that he didn't notice the glass of wine spilled by a guest down the back of his purple Versace suit. "I didn't even feel it," shrugged John, who kibitzed with k.d. lang, Rod Stewart and Alec Baldwin. "It's quite a buzzing little party!"

By 2 a.m., though, most of the festivities were winding down. While Jim Carrey entertained the stragglers, never losing his grip on the hand of model Carol Alt (who is separated from her former hockey-playing husband, Ron Greschner), other revelers—whose revs were ebbing—fished in their pockets for their valet-parking stubs. While awaiting her ride, presenter Goldie Hawn slumped in a chair, lit up a cigarette and, kicking up her silver heels, rotated her ankles to relieve the pain. Lynn Redgrave, her voice hoarse from a night of cheer, also exhibited the agony of de feet: "I'm very tired now," she said, in perhaps the evening's most succinct—and telling—speech.

Kim Hubbard, Anne-Marie O'Neill, Julie Dam, Tom Gliatto, Jeremy Helligar, Dan Jewel, Michael Lipton, Samantha Miller, Lisa Russell, Susan Schindehette and Alex Tresniowski
Reported by: Steven Cojocaru, Ken Baker, Kelly Carter, Tom Cunneff, Julie Jordan, Elizabeth Leonard, Monica Rizzo, Maria Speidel, Ulrica Wihlborg, Paula Yoo and Irene Zutell in Los Angeles; Cynthia Wang in New York City; Joanna Blonska in London

  • Contributors:
  • Steven Cojocaru,
  • Ken Baker,
  • Kelly Carter,
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Julie Jordan,
  • Elizabeth Leonard,
  • Monica Rizzo,
  • Maria Speidel,
  • Ulrica Wihlborg,
  • Paula Yoo,
  • Irene Zutell Cynthia Wang,
  • Joanna Blonska.