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`I'd just like to thank my hairdresser...'

Monday is Oscar's night in LA. But florists, chauffeurs, trainers have been planning for weeks. By Daniel Jeffreys
Wednesday: there's mayhem in Charlie Horky's office. "I need 10 Rolls-Royces by Monday at noon," he screams down the phone. "You promised me 10. Don't screw me." The handset hits its cradle with a crack and the owner of CLS Transportation moves on to the next problem. By midnight on Monday, his 100 limos will have made more than 500 trips with more than 200 gorgeous stars.

It's Oscar night, 25 March. The night to see and be seen, to fret about which parties are hot and whether the dress is too tight or the wrong shade of ivory. But whatever its excesses, Oscar night could not happen without Charlie the Car. For 12 years, his limousine service has been the biggest in Beverly Hills. Roseanne has been sick in the back of one of his limos. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman made out in the back of one of his Cadillacs. Horky is a vital cog in the Oscar machine, part of an unseen army.

"Everybody has to be in their seats by 5.30 LA time because the broadcast is geared to the East Coast, which is three hours ahead," Horky says. "It can take two hours to travel three miles - the traffic jams are unbelievable. I meet with the Los Angeles police months in advance to make sure all our drivers get through. I tell all our clients they must be on the road by 3.30pm."

Horky's limousines are supplied with champagne, vodka, beer, soda and water with ice. He also carries pantihose. "Our most common crisis is snagged tights. We keep six shades in every car. It saved Demi Moore last year."

Salvation comes in many forms. In award week, LA's A-list hairdressers, dressmakers, personal trainers and chefs are all booked solid. "We have been fully booked on 25 March for five months. It will be crazy in here," sayscelebrity crimper Christophe. "I close on Oscar day," shrugs hair stylist Art Luna. "I just make house calls to clients like Annette Bening."

At Fred Hayman's Hollywood store, fashion consultants have been overwhelmed since February. "This year's fashions have much more colour," says Hayman's Ayre Gill. "Sharon Stone is leading the fashion pack - her Valentino gown is a knockout."

It had better be. All the big designers compete to dress the stars. After nominations, every contender gets letters of solicitation from Armani, Versace, Richard Tyler and on, down the list. No actress pays a penny; the designers all but beg to have their frocks on display. Calvin Klein has scored big: Sandra Bullock, Goldie Hawn and John Travolta will wear his label. Unfortunately, you can also expect to see men in some wacky, not to say tacky, styles.

"The tuxedo is being re-interpreted," says Patty Fox, the Academy's fashion consultant. One can only imagine. "There will be full-length jackets, iridescent burgundy and liquid black material." Nice. At least the ladies will be spared embarrassment. "We consult with all the presenters and nominees," says Fox, "to make sure they don't turn up in the same dress." The horror, the horror.

Vera Wang is also hot. Mare Winnigham, star of Georgia, will wear Wang, who has also made four gowns for nominees and presenters. "It takes us about a month and a half to design a dress," says Wang's Tory Robinson. "The final fitting is the night before. We tell our ladies to lay off the ice-cream until Tuesday morning."

Whoopi Goldberg will host the Oscars in Donna Karan, matched with diamond earrings and a diamond tennis bracelet worth more than one million dollars. "I asked Donna to make me something that can be comfortable for all that time I'm on stage," Goldberg says. "I do not need to be in a sheath dress with six-inch heels."

Fashion makes a statement, flowers say. Flower Fashions in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel (the place to stay and sold out for Oscar night since last November) took delivery of five tons of extra-large Ecuadorian roses this morning. "Lots of people send out flowers on Sunday, wishing people good luck," says Fred Gibbons, who used to get orders from President Kennedy every Oscar weekend to send white roses to Marilyn Monroe.

"Sharon Stone was in here last week sending flowers to Martin Scorsese," he says. "We also send out more than 1,000 orders the day after, to all the winners and presenters. It's a little nutty, you might call it excessive. There's an atmosphere of one-upmanship. Last year we sent more than 100 different arrangements to Jessica Lange after she won Best Actress. When somebody wins, everybody wants to be their friend."

Some don't have the time to stop and smell the roses. "The moment the names are announced we get calls," says Jake at Body by Jake. "The women want to trim down in time. We have designed six special programmes combining diet and exercise that are varied to meet the size of the problem."

That can be vast. "Last year we had a big star, I can't say her name. She needed to lose 20lb in four days. We put her on the treadmill and fed her nothing but camomile tea." Jake's clients include John Travolta, Sharon Stone and Meryl Streep. "The Oscars are seen by more than one billion people; it's not the night to look flabby."

Or underdressed. Jeweller Harry Winston will make sure that every important actress at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion gets to shine like the star she is. "We meet with celebrity clients from January onwards, looking for the right styles," says Ed Callaghan at the Beverly Hills branch. "Big stones and settings are in this year."

Winston offers a great deal. His gems cost millions, but for Oscar night he lends them. "We think it is a privilege and an honour," says Callaghan. You bet, plus Harry must get a big kick out of purring over all those beautiful dames, who this year include Whoopi, Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas, Best Actress), Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking, Best Actress), and our very own Emma (Sense and Sensibility, Best Actress and Best Screenplay).

"Miss Thompson will be wearing two-carat diamond earstuds in platinum," says Callaghan. "They retail for about $200,000." Tip money compared to Susan Sarandon, the big favourite to win. "We have dressed her in sapphire- and-diamond bracelets with earrings to match." Price? "Oh, probably around $1.5m."

Those who don't get invited to borrow Winston's gems have to find their own. Competition to get on his list can equal the fight for an Oscar. "Actresses have been upset," says Callaghan. That's an understatement. One famous English actress once screamed abuse at employees for half an hour after she had not been asked to flaunt Harry's rocks.

The jewels are important, not just because of the awards; they also come in handy at the post-Oscar parties. The granddaddy, the Governors' Ball, is held next to the Academy auditorium. Some of the 2,000 extra security guards hired every year will funnel the newly crowned royalty of film into an extravaganza that entered its planning stage 10 months ago.

"This year will be the most fabulous ever," says David Corwin of the aptly named Ambrosia productions. "There will be 160 tables for 1,600 guests. The centrepiece will be 5ft high with French tulips, roses in jewelled tones and green fern. The food will be prepared by more than 50 chefs."

Imagine you have just won an Oscar. You trip lightly down darkened corridors past some of the 1,200 members of the Awards' audience who don't have a ball ticket. You then enter Corwin's creation. Forty-one thousand square feet of canvas stretch the length of a football field. It has been artfully decorated with Lycra and Spandex screens to give the impression of a cathedral complete with flying buttresses.

Lighting makes the ceiling look a deep blue, like the night sky. From above hang chandeliers, each one weighing more than 1,000lb and incorporating hand-blown glass sculptures. You sit at your table and eat free-range veal followed by Oscar's favourite chocolate cake with wild berries. You are in heaven.

"The setting will cost millions of dollars," says Corwin. "Nothing like it will have been seen before. Sadly, few members of the movie- going public will get a glimpse. Cameras are forbidden - if the stars try to bring their own they will be confiscated."

The dedicated star has to make all the big parties. Miramax, with 11 nominations for Il Postino and Georgia, will hold its party in Spago's, where the legendary agent "Swifty" Lazar used to hold court. After his death, the award for Best Party became an open race. The Miramax bash will be jostling with Vanity Fair's do at Morton's, the ultimate Hollywood power restaurant. Wolfgang Puck, Spago's innovative chef, is also making his duck pizzas for the Governors' Ball and has hired two helicopters to shuttle him between the two. He expects to make the journey at least four times.

"Getting the guest list right is so important," says Beth Kesniak, the Vanity Fair organiser. "We have had screaming matches. Last year one actress was turned away at the door holding her Oscar because a young assistant didn't recognise her. But it's a wonderful evening, nothing is overdone." Surely she jests? "I mean, I'm from New York and, yes, the people are overdone, but everything else is subtle."

Meanwhile, Emma Thompson will be feted by Columbia at Drai's. "We have been badgered for tickets by BBC people for weeks," moans Drai's Adam Gordon. "I'm up to my ears in the BBC. Frankly, I have better things to do."

Army Archerd has covered the Oscars for Variety since 1972. "There is no one party that is the best any more," he sighs. "The party to be at will be the one for whoever wins."

The only people who know the winners now are Frank Johnson and Greg Garrison of Price Waterhouse. This weekend the names of this year's Best this and Best that sit in a downtown bank vault. Come Monday, Johnson and Garrison will take their own copies of the envelopes and place them in briefcases chained to their wrists. Then they get into separate limousines which will take different routes to the ceremony.

The show will be produced this year by the record producer Quincy Jones, who also did the honours in 1994. He began rehearsals six weeks ago. "The show is a daunting logistical problem," says Jones. "We have 22 cameras inside and three outside to make sure we get all the reactions from the nominees." All this week, cardboard cut-outs of the nominees have been placed in their designated seats and 36 actors have been hired to give phoney acceptance speeches (insiders say these are usually better than the real thing).

Fifty Oscars will be distributed in over four hours; each one took five hours to make by a hand-casting method first used in 1929. And each one is engraved with a serial number and will arrive inside an armoured car. "Once all the parties are over, this is what the winners have left," says Owen Siegel, who owns RS Owen, the Oscar manufacturer since 1983. "The flowers die. The hair falls down. The dresses go out of fashion. Nobody really recalls the parties. But when they wake up, there it is - the most famous trophy on the planet. I think that's the moment every winner always, always remembers."