Scarlett Johansson whispered into Sean Penn’s ear and led him out of the crowded ballroom of the Washington Hilton for a smoke break. There was a kiss by the pool, we’re told. Later, the starlet, newly redheaded, nuzzled her beau’s sinewy neck on the soft-lit patio of a grand Kalorama mansion. They left the party hand-in-hand, his jacket on her shoulders.
That was Hollywood’s one gift to Washington this weekend — a pair of media-shy stars confirming their May-October romance by canoodling in front of the journalists and Beltway insiders who’d convened, fancy-dressed, for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and the many parties that surround it. (**White House Correspondents’ dinner photos**)
ScarJo and Sean let us in on their love, but Washington was otherwise feeling shut out — wallflowers where once we were prom kings and queens. The celebrities who once decorated the weekend now dominate it. (Flanking Wolf Blitzer at CNN’s best table, up by the dais: Paula Abdul and Mila Kunis.) And what used to be a free-form mingle (look, there’s Natalie Portman talking to John Dingell!) has been velvet-roped into submission.
The dinner, always a hard ticket (only 3,000 get to go!) has gotten harder than ever: More media organizations vying for tables, more corporate honchos wanting in on the fun, more seats going to advertisers and the celebrities whom the table buyers use to impress them.
For many rank-and-file journalists and their sources in government, the goal is no longer to get into the dinner but simply into one of the many glitzy sideshow parties. At the Hay-Adams Friday night, every young pundit you’ve ever seen hold forth on cable mingled over champagne and canapes for the “Emerging Voices in Media” party, sponsored by the Brunswick Group lobbying firm. Rodell Mollineau, a longtime aide to Sen. Harry Reid who just left the Hill to run a new Democratic mega-PAC, noted wryly that it was the first year in many that he hadn’t scored an invitation to the dinner.
“Not getting invited,” sighed Terence Samuel, an editor at National Journal, “is a rite of passage.”
There was no VIP room at the People/Time party across the street at the St. Regis, where a slimmed-down and vivacious Bristol Palin, Mira Sorvino and Steve Buscemi mingled with bona fide Beltway denizens Dana Bash (showing off a baby bump) and Cate Edwards (showing off her new fiance). But there was a VIP attitude: Cookbook diva/A ndrew Cuomo girlfriend Sandra Lee glared frostily when we asked what brought her to town, and she declined to be photographed with Valerie Jarrett.
Some cold shoulders we could understand. At a late Friday “First Amendment” party (hosts: National Journal, the Atlantic, Funny or Die, and Impact Arts & Film Fund) throbbing with music and free booze, one inebriated fan asked for a photo with Penn and then turned snippy when the famously prickly star declined. Hostilities escalated: Penn struck the man’s cameraphone and drink from his hand. We’re not sure on the timeline, but, around then, the organizers hastily erected a velvet rope across a section of the room and divided the crowd by wattage.
Inside the Ronald Reagan Building during the waning hours of Saturday, an overwhemingly young crowd at a party hosted by Capitol File magazine and search engine Bing focused on two things: Scoring a drink at the bar, or penetrating the cozy but restricted VIP hut. Jeremy Piven ventured outside its confines to greet his public; but most of the showbiz professionals — Tim Daly, Jack McBrayer, Marlon Wayans, Alyssa Milano, David and Patricia Arquette among them, many brought in by arts-advocacy confab Creative Coalition — clung to the comforts of the room’s white leather banquettes. “You look so much hotter in person,” Michelle Trachtenberg cooed to Piven, sharing an inside joke, we think, about our civilian small talk.
At MSNBC’s after-party at the Italian embassy, Luke Russert strolled the red carpet with Terrell Owens, arms wrapped brotherly around each other’s shoulders, Rachel Maddow poured cocktails, slowly (“I’m a hobbyist,” she apologized), and Cee-Lo sang. Here, the barriers to celebrity were much lower, if you could make the cut to gain entry. Emeritus rock stars Michael Stipe and Mike Mills of R.E.M. gamely posed for photos with fans. Mills enthused about President Obama and Seth Meyers’ expert skewering of Donald Trump : “We’ve been waiting for someone to call this birther stuff on being the [baloney] it is,” the bassist said. “Some say it’s thinly veiled racism. For me, coming from the South, it’s racist plain and simple.”
Mills’ media host, David Corn of Mother Jones, leaned in to convey that the car would be coming around in a few minutes to whisk them to the Vanity Fair/Bloomberg after-party.
“Do we have to go?” Mills asked. “Is it better than this?”
It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but for many, the sheer exclusivity of the VF fete — held for the third year at the French ambassador’s residence in Kalorama — has become the weekend’s elusive golden ticket. Under pastel-lit trees was the best opportunity to inventory the night’s starpower. We learned that Penn and “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm were clearly the Alphas of the A-list, both having made the cut for the most exclusive VIP chill zone of the weekend — the pre-dinner reception with the president at the Hilton. (Kate Hudson and Steven Tyler, both expected at dinner, were last-minute cancellations.) And the VF scene was also an occasion to note the night’s surprising absences: There were relatively few members of Congress. Few media superstars, what with the royal wedding sucking away all anchorpower. And only a handful of top White House officials: Gene Sperling, Susan Rice, Eric Holder.
But Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks and Kerry Washington were chatting long into the night on the veranda — with each other. SNL veterans Amy Poehler and Andy Samberg were huddling together to get a photo with Rashida Jones on her BlackBerry. Down by the pool, in a closed circle of chaises longues, sat Seth Meyers; his SNL colleagues Fred Armisen and Jason Sudekis; “Hangover” stars Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Justin Bartha — lingering until after 3:30 a.m. in a little self-contained showbiz ecosystem. Hey, no hard feelings: If all of our friends were at a party, we probably wouldn’t have felt like chitchatting with strangers either.
So Matthew Morrison, what prompted you to return to this bizarre affair? “There’s nothing like this,” said the “Glee” crooner, who made his WHCD debut last year. “An incredible combination of New York, Los Angeles, Washington — and amazing finger foods!”
“Excuse me,” his handler interrupted, and then turned to Morrison: “I want to take you over to say hi to Sean Penn.”
Our colleague Dan Zak contributed to this report. Some elements of this story, printed in the Style section of Monday, May 2, appeared in a Saturday posting on this blog.
2011 White House Correspondents' dinner