At Manhattan's Supper Club, Angelina Jolie--humanitarian, Oscar winner, erstwhile wearer of a vial of Billy Bob Thornton's blood--is scheduled to speak about Sierra Leone. It's a benefit dinner for Witness, a group that has been chronicling abuses in the war-torn African country--slaughter, rape, the drafting of child soldiers. So, naturally, a swarm of cameras are there to get her take on the big issue of the day: Isn't she, like, totally excited that Brad Pitt has decided to adopt her two kids?
Jolie ducks questions from the reporters, who instead corner actor Tim Robbins and singer and Witness co-founder Peter Gabriel, among other high-profile guests. The event is covered by Entertainment Tonight, Extra and The Insider, TV shows that do not generally report on internecine bloodshed in sub-Saharan Africa when it is not connected to the woman who hooked up with her married co-star in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Jolie's notoriety is now a charitable asset. If you could place a dollar value on a broken marriage, Jennifer Aniston could claim a monster tax deduction.
It's fitting that Jolie should be hounded by cameras at an event for Witness, a group that supplies human-rights workers with video equipment to record atrocities. Its slogan: See It, Film It, Change It. Cofounded by a celebrity, the organization harnesses what celebrities know best: that in this world, nothing matters that does not have a camera pointed at it. When I ask Gabriel why it's useful to have Jolie as a spokeswoman, he is blunt. "Number one, you're here talking to me," he says. "Also, when she went to Sierra Leone with us, straightaway we got into the President's office, which would have been very hard without her." Ignore Kofi Annan all you want, but blow off Lara Croft at your peril.
Jolie is just a woman of her time. 2005 will go down as the year of charitainment. The networks broadcast celebrity telethons for both tsunami and Hurricane Katrina aid. Bono and Bob Geldof organized the Live 8 concerts with the help of screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love Actually), who wrote HBO's The Girl in the Café, the world's first romantic comedy about African debt relief. (As propaganda goes, it was at least a better date flick than Triumph of the Will.) Even celebrity cartoons were pressed into service. UNICEF blew the Smurfs into little blue smithereens for a commercial intended to raise money for the rescue of child soldiers.
Meanwhile, charitainment became a bona fide TV genre. Joining the ABC do-gooder hit Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Oprah's giveaways and crusades was Three Wishes, in which Christian-rock singer Amy Grant bestows largesse on needy people every week. Time was, the occasional celebrity like Audrey Hepburn would lend her profile to a cause. But Grant and Makeover's Ty Pennington are a distinct kind of charitainment star, celebrities whose good deeds are their chief claim to fame. Their shows aim not just to solve personal problems (help autistic kids, build a school library) but also to salve the nation's wounds (build houses for soldiers in Iraq, give a new start to a Katrina refugee family).