Madonna and a host of top-name stars turned out for AIDS Project Los Angeles' fourth annual Commitment to Life benefit Friday, a high-energy show at the Wiltern that took an audience of 2,400 through a night of emotional highs and lows.
"We have to stop meeting like this," said actress Carol Kane at the beginning of the evening, adding, "but if we do meet again, let it be in joyous celebration of a cure."
The audience heartily agreed.
Madonna was one of four honorees, along with artist David Hockney, congressman Henry Waxman and British actor Ian McKellen, who were singled out for their contributions on different fronts to AIDS causes. APLA is an 8-year-old nonprofit organization that assists people with AIDS by offering services such as support and counseling groups, dental treatment, transportation services and education programs.
Their awards were given intermittently throughout a two-hour show that featured the peroxided Madonna opening the show with "Vogue," performed in a Marie Antoinette costume (skirt occasionally lifted to reveal petticoats, naturally). Others on the bill included comedian Michael Colyar, singers Toni Childs, Melissa Etheridge, Sarah Brightman and Rod Stewart; Burt Bacharach and Herb Alpert performing a duet; violinist Joshua Bell; dance group Brat Pack; Jo Beth Williams reading Paul Monette poems, Bruce Davison and Alfre Woodard, and Sam Harris, Brenda Russell and the Diva Choir in a closing number. Vince Paterson directed the show, which was produced by Barry Krost, Bernie Taupin and Barry Josephson. The event raised approximately $1.15 million for APLA.
Madonna came on stage in a pin-stripe suit with garter belts dangling to say, "I'm very honored to receive this award. In the back of my mind I feel that I don't really deserve it; in fact, I feel a little guilty. Because it's very easy to lend your name to a celebrity fund-raiser if you're famous, and it's very easy to donate money to AIDS research if you're rich. What isn't easy is changing the way people think. While the AIDS epidemic is wreaking havoc on this planet, it's also released a wave of homophobia that is truly frightening. . . . It takes a lot of courage these days to come out and say, 'I'm gay,' but it takes a . . . warrior to come out and say, 'I have AIDS.'
"These are the people who deserve awards so much more than me. So to the handful of people that I have known and loved dearly who have died of AIDS, to the thousands I have heard about and to the millions I will never know, I share this award with you. You are my heroes."
Ian McKellen said that publicly declaring himself gay "hasn't done my career any harm. I was actor of the year in London last year, I played John Profumo in the film 'Scandal,' and all that anybody knows about Profumo is that he's a raging heterosexual. It's lovely out of the closet. . . !"
And Waxman reminded the audience: "It's important during this flood of sadness for us to keep clear memories of our friends and loved ones as they would want to be recalled. I also invite you to celebrate the people who have not died, the people with AIDS and HIV who have survived, who are thriving, and who may soon make this a disease that is beaten and is over."
Among the celebrities who acted as presenters, ushers or who just showed up, were Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, Tim Curry, Valerie Harper, Rob Lowe, James Woods, Marlee Matlin, Bette Midler, Anjelica Huston, Whoopi Goldberg, Jon Lovitz, Danny Glover, Corbin Bernsen, Dan Aykroyd, Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Jessica Parker, Robert Downey Jr., Richard Grieco, Meredith Baxter-Birney, Lainie Kazan, Jimmy Smits, Ricki Lake and Faith Ford. Chairing the event were Krost, Mark Canton and Harold Huttas.
In five years, the very tenor of the Commitment to Life benefit has changed. Speeches are more impassioned as people recalled friends and lovers who are HIV-positive or who have died from complications of AIDS.
On Friday night there were mentions of outing, of children dying of AIDS and of censorship, the last point brought home when photographs by the late, controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe were shown on stage.
The great buzz of excitement during the show carried over into the post-party at the nearby Atlas Bar and Grill, where guests were squished up against each other in a true survival-of-the-fittest test. Whoever could breathe and get to the food definitely won.