An early winner in Oscars week will stride up the red carpet in Los Angeles on Tuesday night—Barack Obama.
The Democratic presidential hopeful with the rock star buzz is the guest of honour at a Beverly Hills fundraising party where the celebrity count will match Sunday’s post-Oscar bashes.
The reception, hosted by Steven Spielberg and his DreamWorks studio colleagues David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, is expected to draw 700 of Hollywood’s most influential players, including declared Obama supporters George Clooney, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Oprah Winfrey, Oliver Stone and superagent Ari Emanuel.
It is not only a major financial fillip to the 45-year-old Illinois senator’s campaign. It is also a crucial boost to his battle with the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, a favourite in Hollywood from her husband Bill’s White House days.
The apparent defection of Spielberg, a long-time Clinton supporter, set off alarm bells in the New York senator’s camp.
But the film director has since insisted that he has not committed to Mr Obama and has offered to co-host a future fundraiser for the former First Lady.
Mr Katzenberg and Mr Geffen are, however, backing Mr Obama. The frantic tug-of-love over the loyalties of the biggest names in the entertainment industry reflects the crucial importance of the traditionally liberal world of Hollywood in Democratic presidential politics.
In this struggle for cash and cachet, cheerleaders for the Democrat “Big Three”—former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards also has his fans in Los Angeles—will be quietly working the crowds at the Oscars next weekend, urging donations and endorsements. But Mr Obama will steal a march on his rivals at the renowned Beverly Hilton Hotel in the heart of Tinseltown.
Guests are paying $2,300 (about £1,200) per ticket—the maximum individual donation per candidate under finance laws. For that they can grab a handshake and a chat with Mr Obama from 5.30pm to 7.30pm. Those who commit to raising $46,000—buying 20 tickets—will be invited to a private dinner later at Geffen’s Beverly Hills home for the full “Obamamania” experience.
Mr Obama’s energy and charisma, his new-kid-on-the-block status and a life story made for the movies—he was born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas—have all enhanced his profile in an industry always looking for the next big thing.
By contrast, Sen Clinton’s support for the Iraq invasion has hurt her reputation among Hollywood’s prominent anti-war contingent.
“It is certainly a very significant signal that three of LA’s most respected and influential leaders are hosting such a prestigious event for Mr Obama,” said Andy Spahn, a political consultant and adviser to the DreamWorks trio.
“There is a tremendous enthusiasm about Tuesday’s event and it shows the seriousness and strength of his candidacy for people here. But Mrs Clinton has a deeper and longer-term commitment in California and has a lot of powerful supporters.”
It is too early to declare a seismic shift in the political allegiances of the Hollywood power elite.
Sen Clinton retains the backing of key LA players such as the movie moguls Haim Saban and Steve Bing, the father of Elizabeth Hurley’s son, Damian. Mr Bing donated $1 million to pro-Democrat groups in the 2004 White House race.
The pair, along with supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, will hold a Los Angeles fundraising gala for Sen Clinton in March, when celebrity backers such as Tom Hanks, Sharon Stone, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld and Martin Scorsese are likely to boost the star power.
Largely thanks to her husband, Sen Clinton enjoys a strong head start over her main rivals in Hollywood and has already recruited well-connected political fundraisers to head her West Coast effort.
Nonetheless, Tuesday night’s party is the talk of the town, according to Paul Bond, business editor of the Hollywood Reporter and an expert on the nexus between politics and showbusiness.
“Hollywood’s liberal establishment is very excited about 2008 and Tuesday’s event certainly promises to be the political fundraiser of this campaign,” he said.
It is not unusual for big names to hedge their bets by offering their help to more than one candidate in the early stages of a campaign.
Barbra Streisand, another long-time Clintonista, recently announced that she was making the maximum $2,300 donation to the former First Lady, Mr Obama and Mr Edwards.
And although Hollywood has long been regarded as a liberal bastion, there are some significant and wealthy Republican faces there too, many of whom came out of the political closet during the wave of patriotism that -followed the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Rudolph Giuliani, the Republican frontrunner, finds a more favourable reception for his liberal social views in California than in his party’s traditional heartland, and Hollywood supporters such as the actor Adam Sandler and Paramount chairman Brad Grey attended a recent fundraiser for the former New York mayor in Pacific Palisades.
With candidates needing to raise at least $75 million just to finance the fight for their parties’ nominations, California’s coffers are clearly crucial.