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March 26, 2000|Mary Melton

Because accurate "manicure-character coordination" is essential in film, manicurist Ila Hirsch buys an ad in the trades around Oscar nomination time each year to announce the Hollywood Hand Awards. This year, Hirsch, the awards' executive director, bestowed "Best Pinkie Action" to "The Spy Who Shagged Me" and "Best Hand Gestures" to "Galaxy Quest," "Flawless" and "Dick." "Prettiest Hands" went to Uma Thurman in "Sweet and Lowdown," while Faye Dunaway in "The Messenger" took home "Most Distracting Nails."

By contrast, Annette Bening's correct nails in "American Beauty" were "perfect for her character, super!" Hirsch says. "She was very into having her manicure changed. Cate Blanchett in 'Pushing Tin' was good on that, too."

Hirsch noticed that?

"Yes!" she says. "In 'Holy Smoke,' there's henna on the characters' hands in India. Kate Winslet's sister-in-law, with the artificial nails and rings, is exactly what she needs to be."

This attention to detail is understandable. Hirsch, 54, is the daughter of Beatrice Kaye, studio manicurist at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from the mid-'30s until Sony bought the studio and closed the barbershop in 1991. MGM titan Louis B. Mayer had always demanded characters to be "coordinated right down to the fingertips," Hirsch recalls.

"I grew up on the lot," she says. "It was a little shtetl. I was always the underling with my nose over the polishes." She considered acting "hey diddle dee dee," so Hirsch devoted herself to motherhood and teaching, later joining her mom as a manicurist. "When Sony took over, we went out on the road," she says. The two roved from set to set and catered to the in-office buffing needs of movie moguls. Beatrice, now 80, "was still holding hands until two years ago," says Hirsch, her own dark hair showing gray streaks above the ears.

Hirsch admits that while some Hand Awards might seem a bit esoteric--the "Best Hand Fidgeting" went to "The English Patient" in 1997, for example--anything that ups the manicurist's profile is worthwhile. She has been announcing the awards since 1992. "You see drivers in the film's credit list, but not manicurists. Why? Because they're women," she says.

Hirsch recently began contributing "The Movie Buffer" column to Nailpro, the monthly magazine for nail professionals. On Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in "Runaway Bride," she writes: "Although [Gere's] character is a writer, there's never a close-up of his hands! The pair cleans up nicely for the wedding, but where's the nail grooming?"

Though she paints her own nails (on this afternoon a clear polish), Hirsch bemoans the chemicals that manicurists are exposed to and advocates the "natural nail look" her clients prefer (a simple buff with no polish). Frequently, she holds hands with well-known studio execs while they are on the phone, negotiating deals and gathering stock tips. Some confide in her, but she will disclose neither her client list nor buffing fee.

"One man I have falls asleep and actually snores," she says. "Luckily, he has an office with a beautiful view."

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