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Oscars' new look - Like the nightclub of your dreams

THE "new look" Academy Awards ceremony will have an up-close stage, nightclub atmosphere, a "Project Runway" competition and Hugh Jackman as host, reports Sandy Cohen.

The film academy is adding a "Project Runway" element to the Oscars this year by asking the public to vote on which gown the trophy presenter will wear.

The academy tapped seven emerging designers to create dresses for the competition. They unveiled their entries last week during the annual Oscar fashion show at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' headquarters.

The winning dress "will be seen on Oscar night probably more than any other gown on the red carpet," says Oscar fashion coordinator Patty Fox. She and show producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon selected the competing designers.

Moire Conroy, Alan Del Rosario, Sam Kori George, Marianne Kooimans, Maria Pinto, Nicolas Putvinski and Robert Rodriguez each had about three weeks to design their dress.

Del Rosario, who already counts Michelle Pfeiffer and Debra Messing among his clients, says he was inspired by "old Hollywood glamor" when creating his strapless silk-and-lace mermaid gown.

"The Oscars is all-time glamor," he says. "It's one of those events when a woman can go all out."

Maria Pinto, famous for making Michelle Obama's Inauguration Day dress, called her Oscar entry "modern Marie Antoinette."

The strapless silver column "is a study of control and release," she says, noting that pleats at the waist shape a makeshift bustle in back.

Putvinski cited New York City skyscrapers as the inspiration for his flowing white gown with folds of silver across the front. Rodriguez also chose white, looking to Grace Kelly as a muse for his silk Grecian column accented with an asymmetrical black strap.

Conroy was inspired by the 1960s summer of love for her floaty gray chiffon design, while George was inspired by champagne - specifically the Taittinger girl °?- for his strapless silver crepe gown adorned with handmade orchids. Kooimans showed an intricately embroidered, one-shouldered dress dripping with antique diamond brooches.

Oscar-worthy gems decorated each of the dresses. Neil Lane, a red-carpet regular who has worked with Marisa Tomei and Angelina Jolie, says he expects vintage looks and subdued glamor at the Oscars this year.

"Everything is classical," he says. "Everything goes back to the golden days of Hollywood."

Fox says that while she didn't offer the design contestants any guidelines, she hoped they'd embrace classic colors and styles.

"All the fashion gods were with us," she says.

The winner of "Oscars Designer Challenge" will be announced during the red-carpet show before the Academy Awards on Sunday.

Meanwhile, other Oscar fashion preparations were under way at a penthouse on nearby Rodeo Drive. That's where Spanx, the body-shaping undergarments favored by Beyonce, Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway and dozens of other Hollywood beauties, set up its annual awards-season suite. So many stylists request the tummy-flattening, hip-slimming underthings this time of year that the Atlanta-based company comes to Los Angeles to dole out boxloads of products in person, says spokeswoman Maggie Adams.

Oscar host X-Man Jackman says: 'Celebration is the key'

Lynn Elber

Hugh Jackman says he knows the Oscars ceremony isn't about him, but he'd better enjoy it all the same. "Celebration is the key. I'm certainly going to have a good time. If I'm not going to have a good time, how the hell is anybody else?" says Jackman, who sounded up for the job in a phone interview before the Sunday ceremony.

Academy Awards producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon have said they plan to take the ceremony in a new direction. Asking the multitalented star of "Australia" and the "X-Men" films to host was their first apparent step.

The rest of the details have been under wraps, but Jackman, who thrice soared as host of the Tony Awards, dropped a few hints - including a more "intimate" look for the ceremony's home, the Kodak Theater.

Q: How would you compare your Tony experience to that of the Oscars?

Jackman: The Oscars is obviously a very different beast. There's a lot of hype. There's so much anticipation ... I chatted with Steve Martin on the phone who gave me some great tips.

The first five or six minutes you're going to have possibly the best audience you've ever had in your life, because all of them know they're going be on camera at any moment, none of them have lost yet and they're all sort of generally ready for a good time. He said from that point on, just move it on quickly. Just be quick.

In terms of style, there's a quantum shift happening this year, and fingers crossed we get a lot of it right ... There's an obvious amount of business that has to happen in the night. There's 24 awards; you can't change that. But I think Oscars could do a little more of the show in show biz. I think there's been a little too much business.

Q: The producers intend to try different things. Does that add to your excitement or trepidation?

Jackman: I think it's great ... Obviously I'm not a standup comedian and generally there's been comedians who are actors as well (who) have been doing it for the last however many years. So there's not the same pressure. I don't think people expect me to come out and do seven minutes of bang-bang-bang jokes ... They really just encourage me to do what I feel I do best. It's a night to have a feeling of celebration, of community.

The look of the theater is very different. It's more like the nightclub of your dreams. It's very intimate ... It's got to be a lot closer. It's been a little austere in the past. You know, there's that stage, the host being up above the stalls, looking down at everybody ... But this is a lot more intimate. It's still spectacular, being in the Kodak Theater. But it's a real difference in the way things are laid out.


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