Byline: Marcy Medina

What’s a girl to do when she’s never seen an awards preshow before and she learns she needs an Oscar dress in six weeks? For Marcia Gay Harden, nominated for Best Supporting Actress in “Pollack,” the journey to the red carpet was one of her best projects yet.
“Oscar night is an American tradition. There is a grandness and mystery and allure behind it, and women are the proud bearers,” she said, clearly pleased with the honor of carrying the torch.
“It’s an opportunity to fit your dream. When else is someone going to offer you their diamonds to wear? When else is a world-class dress designer going to say, ‘We’d like to design something for you?’ It just doesn’t happen that often in most women’s lives,” she marveled.
Harden found her Oscar gown with the help of stylist Jessica Paster, with whom she worked on last year’s “Space Cowboys.” For the many pre-Oscar parties she hit last week, she arrived in Randolph Duke, Chanel and Carolina Herrera.
Lack of time and the need to tie all the details together were her main motivation in enlisting Paster’s help.
“At first, the idea of having a stylist seemed odd. But if they listen to you, then it’s really great. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to look like — Old Hollywood meets Jackie O — but how that translated into material, fabric, hair and all of that was not so clear.”
Harden knows the public lens can be pointed anywhere, any time. “Like it or not, actresses are photographed from Cannes to premieres to walking down the street. We don’t wake out of bed in the morning and have access to a closetful of gorgeous clothes that do the best for us. It takes work and money.”
And time, she acknowledged. “Sure, I could have tried on 15,000 dresses and finally said, ‘This is the one.’ But then there’s the shoes and the purse and the jewelry. Did I have confidence that I could do it myself? Absolutely. But I believe that sometimes a stylist can help you do better.”
She insisted she wanted to look perfect less for the fashion pundits than for her own satisfaction.
“For me it wasn’t about the reviews of the dress. It’s about how do I feel getting out of the car? How do I feel walking down the red carpet and talking to people? And I trust my work well enough to know that I don’t need to wear something see-through to get attention.”
For someone as down to earth as Harden, the immediate and intense designer courting threw her for a loop.
“Initially, it seemed wrong to have several people make you dresses. But all the designers assured me it was quite common. It’s been difficult to surrender to the process of people’s generosity.”
In fact, she found it could become unsettling. “Honestly, I felt bad about it. I’m sure I sound like Pollyanna, but I wasn’t brought up that way. If you say to someone you are going to wear it, you are going to wear it. It’s not ‘maybe.”‘
She described the process as “somewhat akin to choosing a wedding dress, but more frenzied. The wedding dress is very personal and the Oscars are very public. It’s a very different squeal from your girlfriend going, ‘Oh, what’s your wedding dress going to be like?’ than from someone going, ‘So whaddaya wearin’ to the Oscars?”‘
What’s more, Harden believes actors have never looked better. “Certainly, there are some people where you think, ‘Well honey, they should have had the fashion police there,’ but the other side of that coin is that they were expressing themselves.”
But she does feel the balance between art and artifice might have tipped too far in the superficial spectrum. The focus on clothes has intensified to extremes, she noted.
“Not to say it’s not thrilling to look the best you can and see a beautiful photo of yourself, but when it becomes about ‘I can’t tell you what film this person did, but I can tell you what dress she wore,’ it’s a bit weird. It’s a little sad when I see serious and well-respected actors thinking it’s about photo ops. Ultimately, it’s about your work.”
Of course, for Harden, it can mean the work begins to shape life, however subtly.
“If you’re playing Marie Antoinette, you’re not not going to walk out of the house in a bustle. But you might do little things that are a nod to her without even knowing it,” she observed. For example, in her turn as a pampered wife in “Meet Joe Black,” Harden wore Givenchy suits and Manolo Blahniks for the first time.
“I yearned to be in them all the time,” she recalled. “And the idea of Manolo always stayed with me.”
Her off-duty gear runs toward Chanel suits and Helmut Lang pants. A bicoastal life divided between a beachfront town house in Los Angeles and a cabin in upstate New York affords her plenty of variety. “In New York, it’s sweats, blue jeans and, I’m sorry to say, overalls, because we do a lot of outdoor activities. In L.A., I like simple sundresses and beautiful chiffon Chloe-like things. Ultimately, it’s all just dress-up, so why not have fun with it?”