Liz Smith Takes a Tour Through Christie’s Dresses of Oscars Past

“Is Army Archerd going to greet us at the end of this hall?” said Liz Smith, wending her way down a long corridor to an exhibition space on Christie’s second floor on March 10. The untethered Texan native, who once described her brand of gossip as “news in a red satin dress,” batted the long lashes of her porcelain blue eyes. “I’m sorry I can’t shake your hand,” she chuckled in her plummy drawl, “because my nails are wet.”

“I know you don’t believe me,” she said. One usually does not associate Liz Smith with such Babe Paleyisms as makeup and manicures.

Nevertheless, Ms. Smith and her aide-de-camp, writer Denis Ferrara, had sauntered uptown from their Murray Hill office to preview a collection of Oscar dresses to be auctioned at a benefit sponsored by Vogue for the American Foundation for AIDS Research on March 18.

“I’ve always lived on the fringe of fashion,” Ms. Smith explained, citing her friendships with Halston, Hollywood’s Jean Louis, Arnold Scaasi, Calvin Klein and Joel Schumacher when he started out in the fashion business. “But I’ve never put much importance on the way I dress.” She admitted, however, to “thousands of fashion-victim moments, especially a gold leather motorcycle jacket I bought in 1950. In 1950! My friends wouldn’t walk on the street with me. I had to give the jacket away.”

Back at her office, the countdown was on to the Academy Awards in Los Angeles on March 21. As usual, Ms. Smith will fly out to L.A. to cover the event, and all the parties, for her syndicated column, which appears in the New York Post and Newsday , and for her television turns on Good Day New York . She has covered the Oscars since 1976; this will be the first year she is sitting in the audience rather than covering the event from backstage. And this is the first year she will wear an evening dress–probably a brightly colored evening sheath with a matching coat specially made for her by Arnold Scaasi.

Silver-spoon Christie’s customers might have found this exhibition of Oscar dresses as startling as Felix the Cat might find Mars, but for Liz Smith it was familiar territory. She and Mr. Ferrara recognized dresses the way some parents can remember their children’s school plays.

“Susan Sarandon,” Ms. Smith announced, recognizing the black, stretch tulle Dolce & Gabbana number the actress wore in 1997.

“Susan Sarandon, who has been known to wear a few abominations, looked wonderful in this dress,” said Mr. Ferrara.

Ms. Smith marveled at the slim lines of a Calvin Klein champagne-colored full-length slip dress. “Goldie Hawn, who doesn’t eat flour.”

“She doesn’t eat anything,” Mr. Ferrara interjected.

“Oh, yes, she does,” Ms. Smith said. “She ate a whole, great big salad with chicken on it when we had lunch the other day in New York. She just doesn’t eat flour. I suggested she have pizza, and, oh, my God, you should have heard her. ‘Oh, Liz, I can’t eat a pizza!'” Ms. Smith reported, and imitated Goldie Hawn’s voice.

“What is this dress?” Ms. Smith asked about a bluish-green silk evening dress with coat by Galanos. “When is it from? That’s more covered up than anyone would ever be now.” Jennifer Jones, 1997, reunion of past Oscar winners. (Ms. Jones won Best Actress in 1943 for The Song of Bernadette .)

“She’s got to cover up now,” smiled Mr. Ferrara, whose association with Ms. Smith dates back to 1981. Mr. Ferrara would write her long letters about movie stars, anonymous missives at first. Ms. Smith liked his point of view, and hired Mr. Ferrara in 1984. “The summer Elizabeth Taylor played The Little Foxes on Broadway,” he recalled. “I glued myself to the stage door.”

Surveying more frocks, Ms. Smith said, “The Oscars are just fun. A demarcation in a year in which nothing happens. All award shows, not just the Oscars, have become fashion shows. It happened mainly because people in America don’t dress up anymore. Evening clothes used to be de rigueur .”

Confusing Melanie Griffith’s dress with one worn by Meg Ryan, she said, as an aside, “Everyone always confuses those two.”

“I mean,” she continued, “[award shows] are a wonderful opportunity to see evening clothes on some of the most gorgeous and interesting people. The fashion designers aren’t fools. They saw their opportunity.”

Both Ms. Smith and Mr. Ferrara felt that the “fashionization” of the Oscars has its downside. “When it becomes not about the work but about ‘What’s your dress?”‘ Mr. Ferrara imitated Joan Rivers barking Oscar-night coverage on E! Entertainment Television, “and it’s all borrowed dresses and jewelry, well, what’s the point?”

“You’re a star and you don’t have your own jewelry?” Ms. Smith said, shaking her head. She stopped in front of the black silk Oliver Theyskens robe and Jean-Paul Gaultier dove-gray tulle ball skirt Madonna wore to the 1997 Academy Awards. The dress, which launched young Mr. Theyskens’ career, was all right, but Madonna’s hair, in a gothic style, bordered on the grotesque.

“Madonna’s hair is such a problem for me, for her, and for her millions of fans,” Ms. Smith declared.

“I love Ellen Barkin,” she said, coming upon the gold mesh Gianni Versace dress Ms. Barkin wore in 1993. Asked about the prospect of encountering Monica Lewinsky at the Oscars, Liz Smith responded, “Yes, I’m told she’ll be there.” Ms. Lewinsky is supposed to attend Vanity Fair ‘s Oscar party at Morton’s. “I’m sure many connections will be drawn if she shows up,” said Ms. Smith, referring to the potential headlines about Ms. Lewinsky’s Cinderella tour of Hollywood.

When Ms. Smith first covered the Oscars in 1976, the year she started writing her column for the Daily News , the only party except the Academy’s Governor’s Ball was the small dinner the late Irving Lazar gave at the Bistro, which later moved to Spago. Most years, Ms. Smith wears a favorite Yves Saint Laurent smoking jacket and pants with flat shoes, “so I can get around easily and fast.” This year, it’s Scaasi; Mr. Scaasi also made the dress for Ms. Smith’s statue in Madame Tussaud’s Times Square museum, which opens next year. The columnist was recently measured for her wax likeness.

“Men make the worst mistakes at the Oscars,” she said, admiring the red Fortuny dress Lauren Bacall wore in 1978. “Why do men want to mess with traditional black tie, one of the most perfect things ever invented?”

And women? “If you have something on top, show it off at the Oscars,” said Ms. Smith. “Particularly if they’re yours.”

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. “Boo.com” is:

a. a psychic on-line chatroom all the rage with models like Naomi Campbell and Amber Valletta.

b. a hip on-line superstore to become active in May.

c. the name of Fiona Apple’s terrifically sad new ballad.

2. The coming French film Vatel is set in the days of Louis XIV and stars Uma Thurman and Gérard Depardieu as Vatel. Who was Vatel?

a. The king’s couturier.

b. A kingly chef.

c. The king’s tortured trompe l’oeil artist.

3. Who wrote: “By misusing an object, layering it with our intentions, and reforming it in our lives, it can become a commentary on how we create sense within our world”?

a. Shelley Wagner in The Lost Journals of Elsie de Wolfe , to be published by Pantheon in late May.

b. Robin Byrd in her mail-order catalogue, Hot Houses, Hot Stuff .

c. Aaron Betsky in Icons: Magnets of Meaning .

Answers: (1) b; (2) b; (3) c.