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Hollywood banquet provides food for thought

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In a town where the distinction between reality and fantasy — and good taste and bad — is often hard to discern, a big-name Hollywood fund-raiser this week to benefit the hunger-relief agency Oxfam America is treading both sides of the line.

No one denies that the Nov. 21 event is pulling together celebrities, including Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Cybill Shepherd, Edward James Olmos, Jackson Browne, Daryl Hannah, and Jason Priestley, for a worthy cause: drawing attention to the problem of world hunger. But most of the 600 beautiful people who limo in for the event at Sony Studios will be shelling out $150 a plate for the privilege of playing poor — lining up for bowls of rice and water, which they’ll eat on wooden crates above a soundstage floor covered with straw mats. To emphasize the imbalance in global food distribution,15 percent of the guests (randomly selected) will eat in high style, walking down a red carpet to a roped-off dining area in the center of the room to feast on stuffed chicken, sun-dried tomatoes and radicchio, salad with shrimp, wine, and dessert. Another 25 percent will eat a more modest meal of beans, rice, and tortillas, cafeteria-style.

The rest will chow down on rice and water, representing the 60 percent of the world’s population who live in low-income countries and for many of whom this is a typical meal.

But who benefits most from this production — the hungry of the world or the egos of Hollywood? The emcee for the evening, activist actor Mike Farrell (from TV’s M*A*S*H), says that in addition to raising $100,000, the theatrical nature of the evening will give the problem of world hunger ”a very personal and immediate reality.” Celebrities should be praised, not ridiculed, for wanting to experience it, he says. ”These people would be paid the same for making movies if they stayed home,” Farrell says. ”So why then should they be criticized for doing something that is intended to at least point toward a remedy for one of the major ills of the world?”

But the notion of the rich and famous playacting world hunger, however good the cause, rankles some in the Hollywood community. ”They’re preaching to the converted, as far as I can tell,” says one movie executive. ”It’s not like the people there are going to give more or less money because they’re sitting on a straw mat.”

In addition to the one in Hollywood, large-scale ”hunger banquets” will be held in five other cities across the country the same night, including a similar dinner in San Francisco supported by David Crosby and Graham Nash and attended by Al Jarreau, and another in Washington with Richie Havens and members of Congress.

Although Oxfam America has been sponsoring consciousness-raising dinners like these for nearly two decades, this is only the second year it’s been done in Hollywood. Oxfam’s national projects director, Phillip Martin, admits the organization adopted the strategy despite ”some trepidation.” Last year’s event, similar in format but less hyped, raised $16,000. Although it did not raise a staggering amount, the event managed to quell some of Martin’s doubts.

”Celebrities understand that by using their names you can actually get people to pay attention to these issues,” says Martin. ”If I were to go out there and ask people to pay attention to this issue, certainly no one’s going to. My name’s Phillip Martin, not Mel Gibson.”

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