Love, Oscar, and What I Wore

Her marriage was the stuff of Hollywood drama: cancer, infertility, estrangement. But when her husband was up for a second Academy Award, all Peggy Orenstein wanted was a happy ending — and a killer dress.

By Peggy Orenstein

Trip #1 to the Oscars: Big Hair & SequinsI was 29 years old when my movie director boyfriend was nominated for an Academy Award. Calling him my boyfriend at that point may have been pushing it, since we’d met only one month earlier. I’d finagled an introduction through mutual friends after seeing the very film for which he had been recognized. It is a documentary set in the 1940s about a Caucasian woman artist who’d married a Japanese-American in 1928 (when miscegenation was still illegal in many states), then joined him in the internment camps of World War II. The story pierced my heart. I had to meet the man who’d made the film. Unfortunately, I’d also just crawled from the wreckage of a bruising relationship and was still a tad bitter. On my first date with the movie director, I downed too many Stolis, trashed my former beau, then all men, then declared, "If you’re looking for anything serious, I’m not interested." Forget about an Oscar-ceremony invite, I was surprised he ever called me again. "Women always say that kind of stuff when they like you," he’d say later, with a shrug.He might have let things play out a bit longer himself, hedged his bets, except I had mentioned — guilelessly, I swear — that I was planning to visit my parents in Minneapolis at the end of March. He’d been standing by the stove in his apartment, steaming broccoli for dinner. Suddenly, he looked trapped. "Um," he stuttered. "Do you have to go then? That’s the weekend of the Oscars and, um, I was thinking you might like to go with me."I felt like Cinderella invited to the ball. Except there was no fairy godmother to bibbidi-bobbidi-boo me up a gown. I may not have been wreathed in sackcloth and cinders (my standby back then was an Ace bandage-style miniskirt over black Lycra leggings), but how, on my meager salary as an editor of a nonprofit political magazine, could I ever afford to dazzle? Worse yet, what if I did shell out for a dress and our affections fizzled before the big day? There were four whole weeks between the nominations and the awards.Flash forward 15 years, to this past January. I’m 44 now. I usually wake at 5:45 a.m. — an hour that, in my 20s, I only saw when reeling home from the Palladium or some other disco — to sneak in a yoga class before packing my daughter off to preschool and sitting down at my desk. But on this morning, instead of zipping off for some Zen, I dashed to my computer and typed oscar.com into the Web browser. There it was: Steven Okazaki. Nominated again for best documentary short subject, for a film about Hiroshima 60 years after the atomic bombing. And this time I knew I was going to the ceremony, because, Dear Reader, I’d married him.I ran down the hall and leapt onto the bed with a war whoop. "You’ve been nominated again!" I shouted, kissing him. "I’m so proud of you."Then I thought, "Oh my god, what will I wear?"All those years ago, Steven’s parents paid for our hotel room. We drove a rented Ford Festiva to the show, parked in a public garage a few blocks from the Shrine Civic Auditorium and walked in through a side entrance. Despite that inauspicious start, the night was magical. We were seated near Sinead O’Connor (before the blasphemy charges), Michael Jackson (before the molestation charges), and right next to primatologist Jane Goodall (a competitor in Steven’s category, who, apparently having spent too much time with the chimps, snubbed us).When actress Phoebe Cates opened the envelope-please and read Steven’s name, he didn’t move. "You won," I said, feeling as if I were speaking through Jell-O, then stood to let him pass. On the videotape, there is a flash of big hair and mermaid-hued sequins before a clip from his film rolls — my nanosecond of fame, witnessed by all my friends as well as some 40 million strangers. I’d like to thank the Academy.I loved that dress. It was short and tight as a strait jacket, trimmed with beads that shimmered like Christmas tinsel. It had been mass-produced, not labored over by a designer, but in it I felt transported, as if I were somebody else. And why not? I was hardly yet myself. It had set me back $300 at Macy’s, which was more than I’d spent on any garment in my life, particularly one I never expected to wear again.

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