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The Big Night

Before and after the glittery gala, Oscar’s anointed glam up and get down

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Hi. House of Anxiety.” This was how James Woods, the Best Supporting Actor nominee for Ghosts of Mississippi, greeted well-wishers who phoned him on the morning of March 24. Kenneth Branagh spent the morning shooting John Grisham’s The Gingerbread Man in Georgia, ”being blown about in the wind,” he says, before boarding a small private plane bound for Los Angeles. Preparing for the Oscar ceremonies, nominee Joan Allen locked herself out of her hotel bathroom and called housekeeping in a panic. ”All of my toiletries are in there!” she said.

And there you have it: all the drama surrounding the 69th annual Academy Awards, which ultimately unfolded at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium with few surprises. If good taste is easy to recognize (according to Lauren Bacall’s cat food commercials), then the Academy took the easy way out, sending The English Patient home with nine Oscars and sending a clear message to Hollywood’s studios that commerce and quality need not be mutually exclusive. It was good news for Miramax, the wunderkind film company awarded 12 Oscars by evening’s end, but bad news for the stargazers outside the Shrine. Given the unprecedented preponderance of independent films and unknown players in the lineup, the arrivals at times seemed more like a game of Who’s That than a Hollywood Who’s Who.

Veteran greeter Army Archerd asked Fargo star Frances McDormand whether she and her ponytailed escort (writer-director Joel Coen) were any relation. ”No, we just live together,” said McDormand, who has been married to Coen for three years. Best Actress nominee Brenda Blethyn arrived unnoticed. Even Courtney Love got a tepid reception, though critic Roger Ebert, covering the awards for KABC, complimented her new, grown-up look. ”You can’t dive into the mosh pit after a certain age,” explained Love, 32, thereby becoming the first actress in Oscar history to make note of her waning youth and mosh pits on the red carpet.

Mel Gibson was upstaged by about 150 antiporn activists who infiltrated the bleachers to protest The People vs. Larry Flynt, holding banners proclaiming such sentiments as ”Freedumb of Speech.” Later, at the Night of 100 Stars benefit at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Flynt’s daughter Tonya showed up with her own placard in disapproval of Dad’s work: ”Milos Forman and Woody Harrelson and Larry Flynt should get the Award of shame.”

Back at the Shrine, however, the fury of antiporn activists was no match for the disappointment of Madonna fans, who had come from as far as British Columbia to get a look at the supermom. As the afternoon light began to fade and the carpet emptied, it became clear that Madonna had somehow sneaked in. ”I’m very disappointed,” groused one girl in an Evita T-shirt.

The awards themselves proved far more predictable, though Bacall’s (The Mirror Has Two Faces) loss to Juliette Binoche (The English Patient) stunned the world. ”It was an anti-Streisand move,” said comic Jack Carter. ”Whatever’s associated with her goes into the crapper.”