The movie industry's annual ritual of self-worship has often (and with some justice) been condemned as excessive, self-indulgent and unfair, but none of this has blunted its appeal. This year more TV viewers than ever - some 1 billion - are expected to watch the rich and famous strut their paces on the global stage; the BBC is spending lavishly to broadcast it live, even though it starts in the small hours of Tuesday morning.
LA has been preparing for the Oscars for weeks: all the city's celebrity service industry smell money. The city's vast army of security guards and 500 limousine rental companies have long been fully booked by clients who will pay at least $600 a night for stretch limos, equipped with bar, CD player, video, and, of course, colour television so they can watch their friends walking up the red carpet outside the Shrine Auditorium while their Cadillacs and Lincolns queue up. The extravagant can spend even more. "I can get you a 14-passenger limo with a jacuzzi," said Craig Friedmann, of Music Express, one of the city's largest limo rental companies "It's really obnoxiously long, between 35ft and 40ft."
But word has it that this year will be a little less garish than usual, though how that can be with the House of Winston on hand to loan $25m worth of gems to presenters and nominees remains to be seen. Perhaps Fred Hayman, fashion co-ordinator of the Oscars, knows. He is trying to bring back more formality to the occasion, mindful of its uglier moments when rebellious stars have breezed in wearing tuxedos with T-shirts, or in gowns so revealing and garish that even Hollywood concluded they were vulgar: eyes are still smarting from Cher's sheer, see-through Bob Mackie body stocking with full-feathered head dress in 1985.
This month Hayman held a sneak preview of this year's styles. Black is apparently out; in come softer golds, reds, marabou feathers, glitter, pastels, coral oranges. "They are going for the old Hollywood look of the Forties and Fifties, when movie stars were really glamorous," says Barbara De Witt, fashion writer for the Los Angeles Daily News.
Hayman, who has premises on LA's fashionable Rodeo Drive, is a key player in the multi-million dollar event. He is the first call for any leading lady when she is trying to establish if there's a risk someone else might pitch up in exactly the same salmon sequin sheath dress with sheer netting as the $10,000 outfit hanging in her wardrobe.
His is a tough job. La Star does not merely pick up the cellphone and summon a chosen designer up to the Hollywood Hills mansion for a few happy hours sipping Chablis under the lemon trees and poring over sketches before settling on a Vera Wang, Karl Lagerfeld, Krizia or Badgely Mischka. Bribery abounds. For months before the Academy Awards, designers bombard Tinseltown's leading women with white roses, champagne, plane tickets, free clothes and sunglasses in the hope that this will encourage them to choose their label. The men aren't safe either. Last year Tom Hanks was sent tuxes from eight designers.
Revealing details of one's dress before Oscar night is the social equivalent of smoking in a Los Angeles restaurant or, for that matter, wearing an "Oliver Stone for President" T-shirt or denouncing Forrest Gump as over- long sentimental bunk about a tenth as good as The Madness of King George. It is not the done thing.
However, we can make some fairly reliable predictions: Susan Sarandon will wear a Hang Feng; Jessica Lange, tipped to win Best Actress for Blue Sky, will be in a Calvin Klein. And Martin Landau, a shoo-in as Best Supporting Actor for his role in Ed Wood, has personally told me that he has acquired a new tuxedo for the occasion, a Versace. "When I was a little kid growing up in Brooklyn, I used to listen to the Oscars on the radio," he says. "This is like a dream."
His new suit will see good service: Landau has been invited to eight post-Oscars parties and intends to go to all of them, putting himself in a tiny, privileged minority. Beyond getting nominated for an Oscar, there is nothing that a movie industry aristocrat cares more about than the calibre and quantity of his or her post-Oscars party invitations. Haggling for the best tickets goes on for weeks beforehand in an effort to avoid the nightmare scenario - turning up at a post-Oscar bash only to discover that you don't recognise anyone and, worse, no one recognises you.
This year hosts have gone to great lengths to ensnare the limited supply of so-called "A-list" Hollywood names. The first party of the evening is the $500-a-head Governor's Ball at The Shrine. Anxious to stop the stars from drifting away early, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has hired Wolfgang Puck, whose Los Angeles restaurant, Spago, used to be the venue for super-agent Swifty Lazar's annual Oscars thrash. (Until his death in 1993, Swifty's party was the most prestigious of them all.)
Oscar winners and some 1,700 guests will be able to watch edited extracts of their acceptance speeches on giant screens while nibbling Puck's Jewish pizza (topped with cream cheese), smoked salmon with caviar, spring rolls with lobster, crostini with foie gras, roasted salmon with horseradish crust, Mongolian lamb chops, and chocolate hazelnut cake with a mini-Oscar on top. Once events are in full swing, Puck - who is nothing if not flamboyant - will fly across the LA rooftops by helicopter to Spago where he is holding a party of his own for his friends like Roseanne, Michael York and Sharon Stone. And, of course, they will be surrounded by abundant, tastefully arranged, and very expensive flowers. Last year one hostess spend $25,000 on decorating the rented tent pitched in her back garden.
This year's most coveted invitations are for Vanity Fair magazine's party at Mortons, a traditional post-Oscar venue, where guests are expected to include Jodie Foster, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers; Elton John's Aids Foundation party (anticipated guests: Hugh Grant, Tom Hanks and Quentin Tarantino); and the Miramax party at Chasens, where most of the British contingent from Tom & Viv are expected, including Miranda Richardson.
The Chasens party represents a milestone, as it is the last to be held at the chteau-style restaurant which for years has stood as a symbol of old Hollywood. It has catered for some of America's biggest names: Jimmy Cagney, George Burns, Howard Hughes, Joe DiMaggio, James Stewart, Kirk Douglas. Not long ago the Reagans were spotted there, entertaining Margaret Thatcher.
It's not the only piece of history that will be made on the night: at the Wyndham Bel Age hotel, Hollywood is having its first alcohol-free post-Oscars party. Now, in this addiction-addicted city, that really is a sign of the times. Let's just hope there will be mineral water glasses raised to Nigel Hawthorne and Miranda Richardson.