It was Hollywood glamor in the great tradition -- a glow in the shimmer of sequined and beaded gowns, and an upbeat message. Billed as "A Commitment to Life," Thursday night's gala drew more than 2,500 entertainers, philanthropists, politicians and gay activists to raise more than $1 million to benefit AIDS Project Los Angeles.
The mood was festive. Along with its starry parade -- led by hostess Elizabeth Taylor and including an award to former first lady Betty Ford and a message from President Reagan -- the night offered show-stopping song and dance numbers and deftly aimed one-liners.
But the jokes were punctuated by emotionally wrenching moments, chief among them the reading of a message from Rock Hudson, the veteran Hollywood actor whose disclosure that he has AIDS helped make the night a sellout.
"I am not happy that I am sick. I am not happy that I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can, at least, know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth," the message read in part, and ended with thanks to "all my friends who are attending this evening, and to the thousands who have sent their prayers, thoughts, love, wishes and support."
And, underneath the joy and the sadness was a bitter, angry lining, apparent in the night's collective pleas for more government funds for AIDS research and for greater understanding of the disease.
It surfaced as Burt Reynolds, presenting the presidential message, was interrupted with hisses after reading the line "Since the first cases of AIDS was reported . . . the U.S. Public Health Service has made remarkable progress . . . "
Obviously angry, Reynolds told the crowd: "I don't care what your political persuasions are. If you don't want me to read this, then go outside."
When the crowd quieted, he continued the reading. Afterward, following applause, he said, "We're all here 'cause we care, kids. All of us."
The evening had begun in typical Hollywood style, with frenzied fans greeting celebrities as they arrived at Los Angeles' Bonaventure Hotel. As one Project AIDS volunteer noted, with a nod to the throngs that clustered near the hotel entrance, "This is the kind of event that brings out the worst in people as well as the best."
In the crowd were those intent on snapping a scrapbook memento of Hollywood glitz, "then" (classy duo Angie Dickinson and George Hamilton) and "now" ("Dynasty's" Heather Locklear with Mo tley Cru e's raven-haired Tommy Lee, in matching lion's-mane hairstyles).
But some had to ask what all the excitement was about. Surveying the hotel's grandiose lobby from a slowly rising elevator, a teen-age boy saw an explosion of flash bulbs and asked, "What's the big deal?" And then there were the two Texas gentlemen who asked, "Say, young lady, what's all the commotion for?"
Inside the Bonaventure ballroom, where speeches interspersed with entertainment lasted nearly four hours, project chairman Peter Scott stressed the importance of the event, which participants had paid $250 or $500 to attend. "Amidst all the controversy surrounding AIDS . . . it is not just a Hollywood disease. And it is not just a gay disease. This is the health crisis of this century."
The money raised Thursday will be used to help lobby for funds for research and to pay for supportive services for Los Angeles-area victims of the lethal immune-system disease. As of Sept. 16, AIDS had stricken 13,228 people in the U.S., 6,758 of whom have died as a result.
Many of the featured stars urged that the disease, rather than the Hollywood rumor mill, become the focus of concern. Said Shirley MacLaine, "This disease is telling us something. If suspicion and fear is allowed to triumph it is liable to tear apart the fabric of this lovingly democratic society, and the ravages of AIDS will be second to the damages we inflict on ourselves."
Reynolds, who had taken the stage with good-natured e'lan ("First of all, I want to congratulate myself on how terrific I look," he said, referring to a whispering campaign that finally forced him to go on TV to deny that he has the disease), quickly turned no-nonsense when he expressed his irritation with the press for repeatedly asking about his involvement with the benefit.
"I kind of find that truly amazing," he said, adding that through his past years' involvement with dozens of charitable organizations, "I've never before been asked 'Why?' " He said he hoped that the questions concerning "who has and who doesn't have AIDS" will stop, and that attention will shift to curing the disease, "and wiping it off of the face of the damn earth."
Reynolds read Reagan's message, noting, "I think it's important to remember that when Rock Hudson took ill, one of the first people to call was the President of the United States."
The Hudson message was read by Burt Lancaster, who was introduced by a beaming Linda Evans. Evans, who had performed with Hudson in "Dynasty" episodes last year, answered rumors that she was upset about kissing scenes with Hudson by extending "my love and respect" to him.
Lancaster said of Hudson's condition, "The attention has been good. But the things that have been said about the man are not." Hudson has been, said Lancaster, "sadly mistreated by some segments of the media." Throughout the ordeal, added Lancaster, the ailing Hudson "has never said a word to the press . . . He maintains his silence and dignity."
(Earlier that night, during a backstage press session, Taylor said she has visited with Hudson several times.)
It was not a night without laughter. When Cher announced a grand finale musical number, she declared it was good to see a benefit of this kind "with all of the beautiful people, all the self-centered people and all the selfish people -- and I'm standing right here in the center of it all." (Along with her usually outrageous hair, Cher sported new braces on her teeth.) Then there was Reynolds' appraisal of Taylor as he stood alongside her on stage: "Damn, you're beautiful!. . . Aaron Spelling is looking at us right now, thinking, 'Dynasty III.' " He also drew laughs when he asked Taylor -- who was to cohost an auction of three Andy Warhol paintings bought after spirited bidding by producer Jon Peters for $25,000 -- to get her "buns" up on stage.
But mostly, it was a night for what MacLaine called a "celebration of life." Thus, while there was hearty applause for a medley of Broadway tunes performed by Carol Burnett and Sammy Davis Jr., and polite applause for an off-key (and, true to her image, oddly dressed) Cyndi Lauper and Rod Stewart (who read his lyrics from a piece of paper he held above Lauper's shoulder), the audience was most responsive to those in attendance who have faced seemingly insurmountable odds.
In introducing Ford, recipient of the project's Commitment to Life Award, Taylor said: "I watched her at the Betty Ford clinic in Palm Springs. She comes every week . . . She is proof. She is courage. She is commitment. She is one angel that has never feared to tread."
Ford, who had fond words for Taylor ("A very gutsy lady"), said of the gala, "Tonight is about conquering fear -- and it's about saving lives." Discussing the public's change of attitude toward two diseases -- alcoholism and cancer -- she suffered in the past 15 years, Ford added "attitudes toward AIDS can change as well."
Several of the evening's most moving moments came from non-celebrities. Described by MacLaine as a person who "made the choice of love over fear," Los Angeles' Helen Kushnick fought back the tears as she told the story of her 3-year-old son who died in 1983 of AIDS he contracted during a blood transfusion.
And then there was the observation of the Rev. Stephen A. Pieters, a Los Angeles clergyman who has been diagnosed as having AIDS, who urged the public to "help people live with AIDS, not just die of it."