Saturday, March 8, 2014

An Oscar-Fashion Report Card

Lupita Nyong'o
Photograph by Jason LaVeris/WireImage/Getty.

Posted by Sasha Weiss
The New Yorker, March 3, 2014

The Oscars are a study in time passing and the denial of time passing. Hollywood dreams—the word was used in nearly every acceptance speech—are of eternal youth, but because the Oscars are an annual ritual, the streaks and scars of time are always visible. The young and the current (Lupita Nyong’o, Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Watson) were kissed by the cameras, while last year’s actresses (Anne Hathaway, Charlize Theron, even Angelina Jolie) were photographed off to the side. They carried the dangerous taint of the recent past.

Cate Blanchett
Photograph by Jason LaVeris/WireImage/Getty.

The announcers and the host paid over-the-top, maudlin homage to the over-fifty. Meryl Streep, Sally Field, Harrison Ford, Robert De Niro, Glenn Close, and Sidney Poitier were bathed in a haze of sentiment, as if they were already monuments to a golden age. Meanwhile, in the remembrances of this year’s dead, all the actors—though not the screenwriters, directors, or sound engineers—were shown in youth: friskily, brightly resurrected in the screen’s glow. “You’re too old to stand!” Cate Blanchett exhorted the crowd when they greeted her Best Actress win with a standing ovation. She’d spoken aloud everyone’s secret fear.

Meryl Streep
Photograph by Steve Granitz/WireImage/Getty.

In this tense atmosphere—and it is tense: all the celebration and frivolity is wooden and scripted, which is why any tiny crack in the proceedings seems to produce a weird terror—it’s hard to know what to wear. The actresses in the spotlight in a given year are going for more than just beauty. The savviest ones opt for a “timeless look” (it’s one of those clichés that has the virtue of being good fashion wisdom). A dress should function as well in 2014 as it might have in 1914. That way, you elude the capricious whims of fashion, and when one looks back at the pictures, it’s hard to know quite what year it was. On this score, Jennifer Lawrence, in her velvety red Dior dress, with its severely elegant neckline and playful peplum flare at the hips, echoed by a little lift at the bottom of the skirt, worked well. Sandra Bullock’s opulent navy Alexander McQueen, with a cascading waterfall of fabric that changed course across her body, was another entry in the timelessness genre; as was Amy Adams’s Gucci gown (she was much-applauded for picking it out and dressing herself), with its demure folds gesturing at a collar and pockets. (It was, happily, very different from the plunging disco neckline she’d taken to wearing this awards season in homage to her “American Hustle” character.)

Jennifer Lawrence
Photograph by Jeff Vespa/WireImage/Getty.

I’m in the minority on Lupita Nyong’o’s powder blue Prada gown, with its deep V-neck, Empire waist, and flowing pleats. To me it looked like a slightly more daring J. Crew wedding dress in its insistent breeziness. But Lupita (she’s just reached the level of fame and likeability that puts her on a first-name basis with her audience) earned a free pass from me during the Golden Globes, when she wore a majestic, caped red Ralph Lauren gown that made her look as though Little Red Riding Hood had been anointed queen. As the woman of the moment, Lupita has the freedom to dress experimentally (and she has been widely praised for her daring blues and oranges and reds and adventuresome cuts), but no one can elude the doctrine of timelessness for long. Next year I’d wager her dress will be plainer and more serious.

Amy Adams
Photograph by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage/Getty.

Cate Blanchett, at forty-four, and with two Oscars on her shelf, has assumed a place of eminence. Now she can say what’s on her mind, in a manner both regal and frank—and throughout the night she hit her talking points: people say films with female leads don’t make any money. Well, she was there to correct this myth with “Blue Jasmine.” Unfortunately, her dress—a pale, neutral-colored Armani Privé gown dotted with sequins that looked like wilting petals—told the same story: she looked hyper feminine and expensive. Meryl Streep, the other eminence, who always affects a “who, me?” attitude at the Oscars, was too plain: her off-the-shoulder Lanvin top looked like it belonged on a couch, in a living room (which is perhaps where she would rather have been). But her refusal to dress showily is part of her naturalness, which is preferable to the puffily frozen faces of the actresses who have attempted, through surgery, to preserve their youth and who can no longer stretch their mouths into full smiles. But who in the world can fault them for having tried? Plastic surgery can seem like the only human response to this pageant of the new, which honors the aging but for the most part looks away from them. (When Ellen, the evening’s host, hugged Liza Minnelli, who had a blue streak in her short hair to match her outfit, Minnelli touchingly asked: “Do you hate my hair?”)

Jared Leto
Photograph by Jason Merritt/Getty.

Which brings us to Ellen, who, though she changed her outfit five times, paired her typical slightly baggy suit-and-pants combo (the best was a bright white number, which made her look a little mod) with crisp, short hair, and black eyeliner. She looked comfortable and sprightly, the way she always does. Her attempts at bonhomie (pizza delivery in the aisles, a hat for collecting tip money) were a little forced, but maybe that’s because all of the women, sitting up very straight and not moving their faces too much lest they disturb their makeup, resent her for wearing pants. (I’m not even going to talk about the men, who, in their body-hugging tuxedos, looked beefy, and styled their hair as if they’d just tumbled out of the gym. Jared Leto’s flowing tresses were, of course, the exception, and he looked beautiful.) The burden of staying young, of eluding time, falls much more heavily on heterosexual women who are still upholding old ideals of femininity for the whole country to watch and learn from. Yes, the Oscars are getting more progressive and diverse (a win for a film about gay rights and an openly gay host; victories for black actors, screenwriters, and directors), but wouldn’t it be nice if the women didn’t have to fuss so much over the politics of their gowns?

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