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Gala AIDS Fund-Raiser Is Sedate but Still Starry

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Perhaps it’s a sign of maturity, but AIDS Project Los Angeles’ Commitment to Life benefit has simmered down from being a passionately intense, megastar-driven evening to something more sedate.

Thursday’s 10th fund-raiser was a good solid show. It’s still one of the year’s premier charity events. What it lacked--and what it had in the past--was a fiery urgency that made superstar appearances by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler and Whitney Houston as much a statement of character as a performance.

This year’s show at the Universal Amphitheatre opened with co-chairman Barry Diller’s speech. Bottom line: “My money-grubbing, money-raising friends and co-chairs” brought in $3.2 million “to alleviate pain.” His financially adept co-chairmen were Ticketmaster’s Fred Rosen, DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Meyer of Universal and Sand Dollar’s Sandy Gallin.

Diller was followed by executive producer Dana Miller, who expressed gratitude to the volunteers and staff, but especially to Merv Griffin Productions for producing the show gratis. This means that 90% of that $3.2 million will go directly to APLA’s work. (The net for a comparable event without underwriting would be about 50%.)

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The night’s first standing ovation, and the most enthusiastic of the evening, went to Elizabeth Taylor, who said, “Hope is alive tonight for people living with HIV and AIDS.” As the grande dame of AIDS activism, Taylor left the stage to an enthusiastic standing ovation.

She was followed by the 60 singers of the H.B. Barnum and the Life Choir, singing “Seasons of Love” from “Rent,” and then Jason Alexander, who began by saying, “I’m not your host. I’m merely an intern.”

The “Seinfeld” star had mixed results as a stand-up, but he did score with the line: “Many of you are here in spite of the fact that this is the first night of men’s figure skating.”

Katzenberg presented the award to the evening’s first honoree, Ron Burkle, which was followed by Joely Fisher singing a torchy “It’s the Wrong Time.”

One talk-show veteran honored another when Merv Griffin presented to Rosie O’Donnell, who gave a straight-ahead speech on living up to the honor that comes with receiving the award.

By this point, there was a sense that the audience was going to waste. Here was a 6,000-strong crowd that was primed to yell, hoot and applaud, and there wasn’t much to yell, hoot and applaud about. It wanted a diva and that wasn’t on the card.

Jodie Foster introduced a video with scenes from the history of AIDS (the shot of Jerry Falwell drew hisses) and APLA co-founders discussing their work. This segued into Idina Menzel and Fredi Walker singing “Rent’s” “Take Me or Leave Me,” before Sandra Bullock presented an award to Joe Roth.

Roth’s acceptance was the most personal and began with video clips from his friend Kenny Sacha’s campy comedy act. The Disney exec talked about meeting Sacha at the Improv in 1975, the friendship that developed and the comic’s death from AIDS in 1992.

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The kind of performance this crowd loves came with Jennifer Holliday doing a shake-the-rafters rendition of “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going,” before Dustin Hoffman presented to honoree Jim Carrey.

Carrey served as the evening’s comic highlight, with an acceptance speech that included using the TelePrompTer as a shield, mentioning that receiving the award “creates the illusion of legitimacy I so desperately need,” asking why he should be honored and concluding that “Marilyn Manson, Linda Tripp and Jan-Michael Vincent would all have been poorer choices than myself.”

An a capella performance by Boyz II Men, clips from past Commitment to Life benefits, three songs from Natalie Cole and the choir reprising “Seasons of Love” rounded out the evening.

At its core, this night is about raising money, and backstage Diller said that, if anything, this has gotten easier.

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“I think in this case people really do know their obligations. Even though the most horrible part of the crisis has passed, people still know how much need there is for care.”


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