Clandestine meetings. Unspeakable turmoil. Murderous rage. No, it’s not the plot of In the Bedroom; it’s the annual Oscar fashion circus. This year’s ceremony is shaping up to be one of the most stylish in recent memory, with glamour girls like Nicole Kidman, Halle Berry, Jennifer Connelly, and Renee Zellweger among the golden hopefuls. And those are just the nominees. Perennial fashion plates Uma Thurman and Jada Pinkett Smith will be accompanying their nominated better halves, while Julia Roberts, Marcia Gay Harden, and Gwyneth Paltrow are among the chic presenters.

”Nominees alone, you’ve got four of the most glamorous women in the business, which never happens,” says Berry’s stylist, Phillip Bloch. ”Every year, there’s the One everybody wants. There was Gwyneth, then there was Hilary [Swank]. This year it’s very spread out.”

Meanwhile, the studios seem to be spread thin. During the recession, fashion and beauty mavens — typically paid by the stars’ studios for Oscar-night services — are being squeezed harder than a Moulin Rouge corset. ”Budgets are really tighter since Sept. 11,” says makeup artist Laura Mercier, who prettified Zellweger for last year’s Oscars. She admits to occasionally splitting her fee between a studio and a celebrity if the studio isn’t able to pay the full charge. (A makeup artist can command from $2,000 to $6,000 a night; hair stylists average about $3,000.)

Despite all the supposed belt-tightening, it’s not likely a studio will tell a glam nominee she can’t have the stylist she wants. ”Halle’s attendance at awards shows, in terms of what it does for us and the film, [is] considered publicity,” says Lions Gate rep James Ferrera. ”We have, thus far, taken care of [expenses].” Says makeup artist D. Garen Tolkin, who groomed Willem Dafoe for last year’s Oscars (yes, even craggy actors get caught in the whirlwind): ”Stars aren’t representing themselves, they’re representing the movie they’re up for. If they win they don’t get a paycheck, so of course [the studio] will be picking it up.”

Money issues aside, what will be the look? ”It’s going to be as glamorous as ever,” says E! style guru Melissa Rivers, who predicts flowy, feminine styles on the carpet. But flowy doesn’t necessarily mean fuss-free. ”We’re talking about women lying stretched out across the backseat of the car so they’re not wrinkling,” giggles Rivers.

It’s still too early to know what nominees will be wearing — decisions are usually made in the days leading up to the event — but there’s plenty of speculation. ”The dress we’re looking at is phenomenal,” says Bloch on Berry, who wore a coffee-colored Valentino at this year’s Golden Globes. Admits Roberts’ rep: ”We’re having some stuff made, but we probably won’t make a decision till the Friday before.” And Sissy Spacek’s stylist, Ann Caruso (who has dressed the actress in understated suits this season), says viewers will be ”pleasantly surprised” with what her client dons on Oscar night. But should she need an assist, Bloch is ready to lend a helping outfit or two. ”Call me, Sissy!” he says. ”We’ve got some extra dresses!”