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 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. I compensated for the cost by skimping on the shoes: 4-inch spike heels with toes that pinched and whose silver glitter shed like a golden retriever. If Prince Charming had come round the next morning with one of those glass babies, he would’ve passed me over — by then the only slippers my swollen feet fit into were made of terry cloth. I didn’t care. Comfort, at the time, was secondary, if not irrelevant, to glamour. (That philosophy had its hazards; if you watch the tape of the ceremony closely, you’ll see Steven stumble as he makes his way to the aisle. I’d shucked the torturous pumps as soon as I’d sat down and left them directly in his path.) I went commando from the waist up: I was 29, and the girls were still riding high. Just before leaving the hotel, I pinked my lips with a little gloss. It was all I needed: My skin was naturally as rosy as our infatuation with one another — both were effortless.Trip #1 to the Emmys: Rallying, Sort OfIf part of marriage is developing a mythology of destiny, the Oscar that now sits on top of our fridge was integral to ours. Fifteen years later, however, we’ve been through a lot, and not all of it the stuff of happy endings. There have been books for me, other films for him, and successes and failures for us both. We’ve weathered the death of Steven’s father and those of several dear friends. On the sixth anniversary of our first date, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The surgery and radiation treated the disease, but it was Steven’s tenderness that healed me. And after all that, I thought nothing could divide us. Then came our six-year attempt to have a child.Do all women who can’t immediately conceive become obsessed with pregnancy? Do all of their husbands feel rejected and angry? There were months, maybe years, when we lay together at night not touching, not even thinking of touching, unless compelled by what we called "fertility sex." Our golden couple sheen began to seem as thin as the plating that was now dissolving on the Oscar’s legs, leaving a trail of rust that looked like necrosis.At the worst of it, Steven was nominated for another award — this time an Emmy — for a film on heroin addiction he’d made for HBO. The ceremony was smack in the middle of our second IVF cycle, right after whatever embryos we had were to be transferred back to my womb. There was no medical reason for me to stay home, though I desperately wanted to nurse my hopes and delusions in my own bed. "Would you mind if I didn’t go?" I asked.He sighed, his face weary. "It’s your decision. But it’s not like we have a lot of fun together anymore," he said.Touché. In weighing all the risks of fertility treatments, I realized, I’d willfully ignored the ones to my marriage. So I rallied. Sort of. I bought a $90 floor-length burgundy sheath. I can’t even recall the shoes. At the ceremony, in a Times Square hotel, three embryos tucked (uselessly, it would turn out) in my womb, I clapped politely as some network flunky who’d beat out my husband thanked his third-grade teacher. I wished desperately I hadn’t come. When I got the photos back from that night, I appeared to be naked in every one. Under the glare of the flashbulbs, my cheap dress had turned transparent. "How appropriate," I muttered as I threw all the snapshots away.For a while, things improved between Steven and me, but two miscarriages and another round of fertility treatment took their toll. Then, two years after the Emmys, when we least expected it, we conceived our daughter the old-fashioned way. Life is full of surprises. I like to think that our love would have held regardless, that we would’ve found our way through the thicket of disappointment and recriminations, but I’ll never know for sure.Trip #2 to the Oscars: Real & GorgeousAnd so, the morning of this latest nomination, I cast a cold eye on myself in the bathroom mirror. There I was. The lumpectomy and radiation left one breast smaller than the other and unable to lactate, which means I nursed our daughter entirely on my right side. Let’s just say, bralessness is no longer an option. There is also a seam across my belly — a souvenir from the C-section — and a little roll of baby fat that is apparently here to stay. (Silly me. I thought that term applied to the child, not the mom.) The scowl of concentration I wear while writing is permanently etched between my eyes and Howdy Doody lines extend from the corners of my nose to the edges my mouth. Sadly, middle age has not discouraged zits. I turned around to check my butt. "Toto," I said, "I don’t think we’re 29 anymore."Still, I’m more comfortable in this old cowhide than I was in my dewier days. The other ladies my age attending the awards would doubtless be Botoxed, liposuctioned, collagened, and sandblasted into some parody of their former selves. Not me. I decided to go come-as-you-are, and I was proud of it. Coco Chanel famously said, "Nature gives you the face you have at 20. Life shapes the face you have at 30. But at 50, you get the face you deserve." I was somewhere between those last two milestones, but I was ready to put my best face forward: This was the beauty I’d earned.For two weeks, I trudged to department stores and boutiques. I checked out frocks by Armani, Zac Posen, Vera Wang, but none looked quite right. Besides, although money wasn’t the obstacle it once was, I wasn’t ready to blow my IRA on a single dress. My most stylish friend dragged me to her favorite local designer, where I tried on gowns that looked stunning — or would have, on her. Everything else seemed to make me look like a bridesmaid or — horrors! — mother of the bride. I pressed on."Why don’t you call one of your editors and see if they can convince a designer to lend you something?" Steven asked."That’s cheating," I said, stubbornly. "This gown is supposed to be a reflection of my hard-won sense of style. It’s supposed to symbolize how well I know myself. Besides, I want to be able to keep it." Another friend suggested the designer Carmen Marc Valvo. "He makes beautiful gowns for grown-ups," she said. I gave it a shot. At Neiman Marcus, I found a blue silk chiffon Valvo embellished with mantilla-like metallic black lace. The color turned my eyes lapis, and the length, just below the knee, showed off my legs. It was lovely, a not-unreasonable $620, and I could even see wearing it again to a wedding or an haute garden party. I hauled Steven in for a second opinion."It’s great," he agreed, as I twirled before him. Then his eyes wandered to a rack behind me. "But how about this one?" He plucked out a black silk number, off-the-shoulder with a body-hugging, shutter-pleated bodice that kicked out into a confectionary, six-layered skirt. I slipped it on. It was frothy without being flashy, froufrou without screaming "prom night." Like my last Oscar dress, it was mass-produced rather than carefully crafted. At $450, it was also a bargain. I’d adored the Carmen Marc Valvo, but I had to admit it was a touch casual for the glitziest event on the planet. There was no question: This was the one.The dress flattered my form, but it destroyed my narrative line. I had wanted to set myself up as a woman who’d come into her own, who knew both herself and her style and would prove it by choosing the perfect, wearable-yet-soigné dress. Well, if I’ve learned nothing else from cancer and infertility, it’s that you have to be flexible when faced with an unexpected plot twist. Steven picked out the bag and shoes as well (rhinestone-studded Calvin Klein slides with 2-inch heels that didn’t hurt my feet). You see, I really do know myself: I was smart enough to marry a man with excellent taste. "You look beautiful, Mommy," my daughter said, gazing at me with a reverence usually reserved for Disney princesses. In the mirror, the woman looking back was 44. There was no doubt about that. But she was real, and she was gorgeous. In addition to purchasing the shoes, bag, and dress (and three pairs of hose in case I got runs), I hit the M.A.C counter for an understated makeover, had a manicure, a pedicure, and even a massage. It took a lot of effort, but I sparkled from head to toe.This time, HBO, which had acquired the nominated film, arranged our trip. They put us up at the Regent Beverly Wilshire (the hotel featured in the film Pretty Woman) and hired a stretch limo to ferry us to the ceremony. We strutted down the red carpet between Keira Knightley, in a perfect one-shouldered crushed silk taffeta, and Michelle Williams, in risky saffron tulle, both by Vera Wang. While a publicist guided Steven through a gauntlet of reporters, I drew on my dramatic training in the chorus of my high school’s plays and tried to mill inconspicuously near Joan Rivers’s pre-show cameras, hoping the folks at home would catch a glimpse of me in the background. No luck. I was quickly shooed away.We strolled farther down, a stone’s throw from Jack Nicholson, where a stand of bleachers was packed with photographers. Since the winners were still unknown, they shot everyone who passed. I watched as pneumatic-breasted starlet-wannabes, the dates of rich and famous men, struck their poses: shoulders forward, chin down, lips pouting sexily, feet in third position. Then it was our turn. Flashes popped. "Steve! Peggy! Over here! Over here!" they shouted, having been given our names by the publicist. Steven wrapped an arm around my waist and we looked up, down, left, right, smiles plastered on our faces. I imagined myself as Meryl Streep, Felicity Huffman. Yes, I’d sworn to be simply me, but who could possibly do that in circumstances that were so surreal?"Hey, Peggy," one photographer shouted. "I like your dress!" In his picture, wherever it may be, I’m sure my grin is real.This year the academy tried something new, moving the non-celebrity nominees to the front rows just before their categories were announced. That meant Steven and I wouldn’t be together at the big moment. It was a lousy time to be separated, and not just because it extinguished any chance of airtime for my dress. When the usher came to get him, I stood, just like before, to let him pass. He held me close for a moment. "I’d like to thank my wife," he whispered, and then he was gone. We didn’t yet know that the statuette on our fridge wouldn’t get its playmate. But it didn’t much matter. When I met him in the basement bar after it was over, we toasted our elegance, our love, ourselves. We’d gotten this far together. We’d won. Peggy Orenstein’s memoir, Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother, will be published in February 2007.Originally published in MORE magazine, September 2006.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:31

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