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Cannes ‘08: Pete Hammond’s Notes on a Season -- Madonna, Sharon Stone, and Harvey Weinstein draw big names, big money for AmfAR’s Cinema Against AIDS gala

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Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein used Thursday night’s 14th annual amfAR fund raiser, held each year during the Cannes Film Festival to raise money for HIV/AIDS research, to try and openly influence the festival’s jurors in attendance -- including Natalie Portman and Alexandra Maria Lara -- to vote for Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Che,’ the 4.5-hour film that premiered the night before.

‘I just saw a movie last night, actually two movies, ‘Che,’ and I think it is the most ambitious project I have ever seen in coming to Cannes for 25 years,’ he said. ‘I think it’s a masterpiece.’

Whether this means that, as rumored, the Weinstein Company may be trying to acquire the film(s) (which has domestic distribution rights up for sale) is anyone’s guess.

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What isn’t is Harvey’s personal dedication to the cause of this annual event, which he started at the suggestion of Dr. Mathilde Krim, whom he consulted after a friend, director Michael Bennett, died of the disease.

Weinstein shared hosting duties with celebrity auctioneers Sharon Stone (who has been doing this as long as he has) and Madonna.

Mary J. Blige stepped in for previously scheduled Seal and contributed a rousing three-song set that had the tony crowd on its feet. The red chiffon dress she had worn earlier in the evening, before changing for the performance, was created by Marchesa designer Georgina Chapman, Weinstein’s new wife.

In the wake of last year’s record-setting total take of $7.5 million, the event pre-sold $3 million worth of tickets -- which, added to the expected ancillary revenues, including auction proceeds, should get them near that mark again.

According to Weinstein, this is great when, as he put it, ‘we’re in a recession.’

At the elegant pre-dinner cocktail reception ...

... Weinstein told us he thinks one word describes why this event has become the must-attend Cannes tradition for stars, super models, producers, corporate leaders and European high-rollers, and that’s ‘fun.’

‘From the beginning when I managed to get Sean Penn to kiss Johnny Depp for $50,000, or Elton John to sing a Beatles medley for $200,000, or having a pink plane fly in 20 Victoria Secret models for a fashion show, you just never know what’s going to happen,’ Weinstein said. ‘Plus people like to come and see me sweat on stage.’

In his welcoming remarks, Weinstein also had a warning.

‘To every star in the room: You’re not safe tonight.’

That proved to be true when Sharon Stone, trying to boost Sean P. Combs’ bid for a personal portrait by painter/director Julian Schnabel, came out into audience, sat on his lap and offered to make out with him if he would go up to $320,000.

‘Madonna will make out with you also, Diddy, but only for a million,’ she added.

He didn’t budge and the painting went elsewhere.

Stone, a vision in leopard-print chiffon, who was just named Global Fundraising Chairman for the charity, announced that amfAR Rome was a big success in its first year. Similar events are planned for China (with attendee Michelle Yeoh helping) and Moscow, which co-sponsor Bold Films (‘Bobby’) and its founder, Michel Litvak, who lives there, decided on the spot to announce they will underwrite.

‘In the beginning I pretty much totaled my career taking this job,’ Stone said. ‘People thought maybe I had AIDS or was some kind of crazy socialite.’

Stone then movingly described a recent visit with Israeli hospital patients, whose medical staff didn’t want to acknowledge their existence, which she said is the case with most countries.

Madonna made her Cannes amfAR debut by showing clips of her new documentary about Malawi’s AIDS orphans, ‘I Am Because We Are,’ which she premiered the night before in the Palais (she courted controversy for her adoption of a Malawi orphan herself).

Madonna was auctioning off her white guitar for $300,000, a private two-song concert (for two) backstage on her fall tour ($350,000) in addition to peddling her Chanel diamond alligator evening handbag and all its contents (except her BlackBerry).

‘You step into a world of cynicism, criticism, doubt, ‘No,’ ' she said, mentioning that like Stone, she was accused of having AIDS and had to deny it when she started her involvement in the cause in the early ‘90s. ‘You know you’re doing the right thing when everyone’s against you.’

Other auction items sold (all in euros, just to hike up the price) included a vintage Porsche 911 Tiagra that was restored by Stone and her brother after it had been stolen and stripped ($500,000) and a lilac silk chiffon dress adorned with 2,904 carats of Chopard stones ($300,000).

Also on the block was a package themed to the upcoming Weinstein movie musical, ‘Nine,’ from ‘Chicago’ director Rob Marshall.

This year’s top Oscar winners, Daniel Day-Lewis (who knew he could sing?) and Marion Cotillard, star in the film along with Penelope Cruz and Sophia Loren ($100,000).

Additionally another $2 million was raised for her pediatric AIDS project when Stone encouraged individual $100,000 donations from the audience.

Among those attending were Donatella Versace, Milla Jovovich, Alan Cumming, Rose McGowan, Dennis Hopper, Christian Slater, Petra Nemkova, Sam Riley, infamous Egyptian arms dealer and producer Adnan Khashoggi, and newly single Star Jones, who said she had been in Cannes for the entire festival with friend Denise Rich and was headed to the Monte Carlo Grand Prix on Saturday.

-- Pete Hammond

Photos: WireImage.


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