From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Preparing for her much anticipated ascendance to the Oscar throne, Julia Roberts sought counsel not from $4,000-a-day stylists or from runway-scouting fashion editors but from the unlikeliest of experts: her 10-year-old niece Emma. Presented with Roberts's potential frock of choice—a vintage ('82) black-velvet Valentino couture—the precocious adviser feared that the TV audience wouldn't see the gown's striped back. "She said, 'Aunt Julia, that dress is nice, but if you win, what are you going to do?' " recalled Roberts, turning backward to display the dress in all its glory and throwing a practice grin over her right shoulder. " 'This?' "

Yes, that. Flashing her trademark smile—the one that looks as if it could solve California's energy crisis tooth by gleaming tooth-Roberts took home the Best Actress Oscar (for Erin Brockovich) at the 73rd Annual Academy Awards and won over hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide with her giddy, giggly "I love the world!" acceptance speech.

Well, maybe not all of them. The actress's self-created splendor at the March 25 ceremony at L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium couldn't have sat too well with Hollywood's professional stylists, who for years have been paid big bucks to micromanage the stars to red-carpet-ready perfection. Especially galling must have been the fact that Roberts wasn't alone. "This year I decided I didn't want to go through Oscar madness and work with stylists and look at 50 outfits," declared presenter Halle Berry, who—along with celebs including Sigourney Weaver (in Galliano for Dior), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Atelier Versace) and Russell Crowe (Armani)—grabbed the sartorial reins themselves this year, eschewing stylists in favor of working directly with specific designers. Berry teamed with fashion house Badgley Mischka to create her lavender, cowl-necked gown. "They were the only ones I dealt with," she said.

Even Best Supporting Actress Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock), who worked closely with a stylist, got a little help from Dad in cutting through all the haute-rageousness. "My father said to me, 'Honey, I want you to wear a strapless dress,' " recalls Harden, who donned a dazzling crimson Randolph Duke ball gown. " 'You've got what it takes to hold them up!' "

The stars' streamlined approach seemed just right for this year's Oscar telecast, which clocked in at a relatively lean three hours, 29 minutes. (Last year's long-winded record-breaker took 39 minutes more to amble to the finish.) First-time host Steve Martin, acerbic but deceptively mild-mannered, "zipped it right along," observed Best Actor nominee Tom Hanks. Yet the preceremony primping was as elaborate as ever-at least for some. "If it took three hours to get ready for the Oscars, I would take two hours and 45 minutes," joked Hanks's Versace-clad wife, Rita Wilson. "And Tom would take 15."

Pollock's Harden admitted to an even more extravagant preshow ritual: a series of spa treatments at her Los Angeles home. "We had wraps and massages and muscle rubs and relaxed at the house," said the actress, who brought her parents, Thaddeus, a retired Navy captain, and Beverly, a homemaker, to the ceremony. "As we left, my neighbors descended to say, 'Goodbye! You're a queen!' "

Feeling equally regal was Best Actress nominee Joan Allen, who settied on a tangerine Michael Kors gown. "It was a color that I had been told by friends looked good on me, and when I went to see Michael, he had designed one dress in this color," recalled the Contender contender. "I said, 'That's the one!' " Best of all, she added,"as beautiful as it is, it's incredibly comfortable."

Presenter Angelina Jolie, sporting a shiny white Dolce & Gabbana suit that contrasted starkly with her Gothic look at last year's Oscars, also emphasized the wearability of her ensemble. "I just wanted to be comfortable," said the actress, who arrived without husband Billy Bob Thornton, who was in Louisiana filming an upcoming thriller, Behind the Sun.

Similarly presenter Sigourney Weaver praised the lace-up side slit in her custom scarlet Galliano for offering a less constricting option. "If it gets uncomfortable," she said, "I can always untie it."

No such luck for Best Actress Roberts, who admitted that her Valentino was beginning to feel a bit snug by-night's end. "I was given fine advice from a few lovely tight-dress-clad gals such as myself," declared Roberts, who sported bare legs and matching silver toe rings. "Hilary Swank was one of them who, every time she passed me, would say, 'Breathe, just breathe.' Not so easy in this dress, but I'm doing the best I can!"

As for Swank, the source of her breathlessness had less to do with her Versace gown than with her borrowed Harry Winston gems. So precious were her loaner "yin and yang" earrings—one white diamond drop and one yellow diamond, worth more than $1 million—that Swank and husband Chad Lowe (also in Versace) had to be trailed by a tuxedoed bodyguard throughout the festivities. "At one point in the limo I said, 'Do you want to put the window up with those earrings on?' " recalled Lowe, concerned about having one of them snatched. The guard's not-so-reassuring response? "He said, 'Don't worry, I'm armed.' I'm like, 'Okaaay!' "

Of course, when it comes to armed escorts, perhaps no one has more experience than Gladiator's Russell Crowe, who turned up for the festivities with his usual posse of stern-faced bodyguards. (Still no word on who exactly threatened to kidnap the actor, despite host Steve Martin's tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Oscar competitor Tom Hanks might have been involved.) Even snagging the Best Actor trophy didn't seem to improve Crowe's mood. Sporting a knee-length Edwardian-style Armani jacket that he helped design, Crowe griped backstage that he wouldn't be able to celebrate with his native beer—Australia's VB—which isn't available in Los Angeles. And though he took a moment to explain the red-ribboned medal dangling from the breast of his tuxedo jacket, which he said had been given to his late grandfather Stan Wemyss, "for his work as a war photographer in the Second World War," he didn't stay warm and fuzzy for long. Asked whether he felt a connection with his Gladiator character, he snapped, "I'm an actor, and I read the script, and I put the costume on and bounce around."

Meanwhile, Crowe's Gladiator costar, Best Supporting Actor nominee Joaquin Phoenix, seemed to have lost patience not with the press but with his formal attire. Even before celebrating his film's Best Picture win, an Armani-clad Phoenix had loosened his tie and partially untucked his shirt. "I'm doing the best I can," he said with a shrug.

Also sporting Armani—but looking decidedly more polished—was Roberts's boyfriend, Benjamin Bratt, whose white cravat matched his shirt, and Best Actor nominee Ed Harris (Pollock), who trod fresh fashion ground with a bow tie-less powder-blue shirt under his Armani tux. But by far the most casual male star of the evening was presenter Tom Cruise, making his first major public appearance since filing for divorce in February from wife Nicole Kidman, who was not in attendance. Taking the stage in a dark blue jacket, light blue dress shirt, slacks and no tie to present the Best Director Oscar, Cruise looked garbed for Casual Friday, not Oscar Sunday. (He also had nothing to say, skipping the red-carpet stroll and departing promptly after the awards.) Why so dressed down? "It wasn't anything last minute," says the actor's publicist. "It's not like he went to the Salvation Army. It was the choice he made."

Far more glamorous was Traffic-stopper Catherine Zeta-Jones, who headed to the postceremony Governors Ball alongside husband Michael Douglas. (Their son Dylan, 8 months, opted out of the evening's excitement in favor of a night at home with the nanny.) Ravishing in a sleek updo, a fish-tailed two-piece beaded black Versace and a 50-carat aquamarine and diamond necklace from jeweler H. Stern, the actress was positively beaming. "I pretty much feel like
Cinderella!" she gushed.

Presenter Sigourney Weaver also had Cinderella in mind. Pointing to her diamond-and-ruby drop earrings, on loan from jeweler Harry Winston, the statuesque star joked that she would likely experience "severe" separation anxiety when the time arrived to give them back. "I think at midnight tonight," she joked, "they turn into pumpkins!"