Malice in Wonderland

Joan Rivers, Bohemia, and the Oscars

By far the saddest moment at the Golden Globes last January came when Sela Ward, an actress nominated for her role in the syrupy TV show Once and Again, came trotting down the red carpet, her fair face beaming. Then Joan Rivers spotted her. Joan took a look at Ward's dress, a bright red prom-gownish affair held together in the front with a series of girlish bows that exposed plenty of Ward's over-40 flesh, and sneered, "Who are you representing? Kmart?" "It's Valentino," said Ward, half apology, half plea.

Poor Ward. An army of stylists and hair and makeup people, not to mention the eminent Mr. Valentino himself, had slaved to make her beautiful, and the result was the nightmare that is keeping actresses up this week as they prepare for the 74th annual Academy Awards on Sunday night. Are their stylists really giving them good advice, or just pushing clothes they may in fact be getting a kickback for placing? No matter how thin they are—will they look fat? Despite all their careful planning, will something go awry, causing Joan to go after them and setting off a media frenzy of abuse?

Rivers began her career as a self-deprecating comic making ugly-single-girl jokes about herself. Somewhere along the line she felt so bad about her own appearance that she embarked upon an extreme regime of dieting and plastic surgery that transformed her into something else—if not attractive exactly, then at least a person who conformed to a country club notion of how a woman of a certain age should look. Now instead of a frump, she's an anorexic surgery junkie whose stock-in-trade is sitting in judgment of some of the world's greatest beauties.

If Rivers has a saving grace, it's this: The heart of her shtick is that she thinks everyone, including herself, is at bottom really trash—and that means you too. Because we are all vile, mean characters, we're invited to sling the mud right along with Joan. To help us, the E! network, where Rivers holds court, has invented something called "Live Rank," for Oscar viewers not content to just mutter under their breath that someone looks doggy. "Who's sizzlin' and fizzlin'? With our interactive system you decide!" urges E!'s Web site. Oh lucky nominees: Now not just Joan and Melissa but everyone in America can tell you your outfit is a dud.

Rivers's cruelty has been widely remarked upon, though watching her and her sad daughter, Melissa, is as addictive as botox treatments. Still, if there's one thing really wrong with Rivers (OK, there's more than one thing wrong), it's that, like her cohorts who lunch at Swifty's and live on Park Avenue, whatever is different and weird and wonderful in fashion repels her. Rivers simply has no tolerance for bohemia.

By bohemia, we don't mean something like Cher's Bob Mackie getups: Cher has been dressing for the spotlights since she was a teenager and doesn't know any other way of looking. Nor are we talking about someone like Julia Roberts, who may break out the vintage on Oscar night but spends her downtime in sweatpants. We're thinking, really, of such rare exceptions as Björk, who last year wore that famous swan dress. Based on the company she keeps (she's friends with the As Four collective), this is how Björk likes to look. She'd wear her wings to a party on the Lower East Side; why shouldn't she wear them to the Oscars?

Well, for one thing, wearing a swan dress, or something like it, leaves one open to a level of universal ridicule unparalleled in human history. Even when you're not an actress dressed like a bird, if you're in the public eye and you're female, you're a target. You may have no intention of making a style statement, just living your life, but if you don't look like a supermodel you can easily become the target of a battery of rotten eggs. Look at Janet Reno, a dedicated public servant who may not be Sela Ward, but so what? If she were a man, her surpassingly ordinary looks would pass without comment. Ditto Katherine Harris—how come her creepy politics were always remarked upon in the same breath as her eye shadow? Too much makeup, not enough makeup—whatever you do you're wrong.

Oh, but to imagine a different world. A world where Renee Zellweger, who is five feet five and usually weighs 106 pounds, could look at the 20 pounds she gained for her role in Bridget Jones's Diary and say, "You know what? Eating was fun! I'm gonna do it some more! And by the way—I'm still really skinny!" But no, a few months after the film wrapped, Zellweger was back at a new skeletal low and the fashion magazines were cheering.

At this very moment, Zellweger and hundreds of her Hollywood sisters are borrowing jewelry (chandelier earrings, if the SAG awards are any indication), squeezing their tootsies into killer heels, and gazing with hope and dread at racks of size 0 evening dresses, in anticipation of the big night. No matter how gorgeous you are, the thought of billions of viewers drooling over the prospect of deciding whether you're glamorous or ridiculous has to be sick-making. If show business, as has been said, is high school with money, then the cafeteria tables all over the world are ready to hurl trays at the weird kids.

In this climate it takes a real revolutionary to break out the feathers and carry an egg purse. But go ahead—dress like a cat or a carnival barker, wear a cummerbund with bedroom slippers and a boa if it makes you feel good. It'll give hope to all those pink-haired Raggedy Ann types stuck in towns where everyone else looks like Britney Spears. The tragedy of poor Sela Ward is that you really have no idea what her intention was: Behind those Kewpie doll bows was there an Isabelle Blow screaming to get out? It is our fond hope that someone will show up on the red carpet next Sunday in a flannel shirt, or a tutu, or a bearskin suit, look the TV camera straight in the eye and shout, "Hey, Joan! Yo, Melissa! You ladies are greatly mistaken. This is not fizzin'. This is sizzlin'. "

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