Activism Takes Center Stage at amfAR Gala

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Scarlett Johansson and Donatella Versace

Scarlett Johansson and Donatella Versace receive the night's Award of Courage.

Lena Dunham had to excuse herself from hosting duties at Wednesday night’s amfAR gala at Cipriani Wall Street because she was under the weather, said Zosia Mamet — and Dunham’s Girls co-star knows it wasn't just a lame excuse: "Wearing a vintage gown and being in a room surrounded by incredibly talented gay men is the center of every one of her sex dreams." Mamet deadpanned, "so she's not faking it."

That was one of the better jokes at this annual fundraiser for The Foundation for AIDS Research, an evening always tinged with moments both funny and poignant. Designer Kenneth Cole, amfAR’s chairman of the board, has demonstrated from his ad campaigns that he loves a good pun, but drew only groans with, "You should know I am a big fan of Ms. Versace’s … but Don-a-tella!" Even Cole knew his attempt was a stretch to "don’t tell her." 

Donatella Versace and Scarlett Johansson, recipients of amfAR’s 2017 Award of Courage, were the night’s big draw, and were joined by Iman (who opened the evening by taking over Dunham’s hosting duties), Mark Ruffalo, Alan Cumming, Diane Kruger, Chloe Sevigny, Zac Posen and Ellie Goulding (who capped the night with a three-song concert).

Jeremy Piven pointed to New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey while onstage to highlight the need to donate during the event. "He makes about $150,000 per pitch, so Matt, you will be doing big things tonight," joked Piven.

Prior to the night’s program, Piven discussed the fast-growing role activism has been playing since the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration. "It’s been amazing how people have mobilized from the jump. If there’s a silver lining to what’s happening, I think it’s that," he said. "There’s been a huge movement to resist, but it’s also about people coming together to raise money, going into their pocketbooks, and also people coming out who maybe are a little bit well-known and helping with that momentum. It’s an honor to be a part of that."

Cumming agreed. "I’ve been to lots of amfAR evenings, but now it’s taken on more importance," he said. "I’ve never felt that the government of this country has stepped up to the plate in terms of AIDS research, but this present government is even worse. So an evening like this becomes more important, not only to raise money that’s not being provided by the government, but also to raise awareness and to say, ‘Look, there are people who care and who are compassionate in this world.’"

Among the night’s highlights: While accepting her award, Versace recalled that brother Gianni had first produced an AIDS fundraiser in Milan in 1992. “Gianni was so proud to organize this event,” she said. "He was a pioneer, Gianni, in this fight, and I’m very, very proud of him, and I intend to continue this fight as strong as he did." (Given Donatella’s presence, Versace also proved to be the dominant label in the room: Naomi Campbell, Heidi Klum, Diane Kruger and Zoe Kravitz were among those wearing Versace gowns, while Johansson wore a custom tuxedo by the designer.)

Johansson and Versace also got into a bit of a bidding war during the night’s auction, going against each other on a 1988 Christopher Makos photograph of Elizabeth Taylor. "Marvel and Versace: Which is the stronger franchise?" quipped auctioneer Alexander Gilkes, referencing Johansson’s ongoing role as Black Widow in the Avengers series. Donatella ultimately prevailed with a winning bid of $40,000, but minutes later Johansson captured her own prize, paying $50,000 for a pair of diamond and ruby earrings by Harry Winston, the night’s presenting sponsor. The event ultimately raised almost $2 million for amfAR’s programs.

But the night’s most poignant moment took place when Johansson accepted her award. The actress told a touching story about a family friend, Tony, a "kindred spirit" who had formed a bond with her mother in 1985 while he worked as a maitre d’ at the iconic Theater District restaurant Joe Allen. After he died from AIDS in the summer of 1993, Johansson said, "My mother dreamed about [Tony] for a while, and as time passed her dreams gave way to poignant memories, and she admittedly thinks of him all the time … she never had a friend quite like him again."

Telling such stories remains key to amfAR’s "Countdown to a Cure" goal, says Cole, who believes the grants provided from the money raised at Wednesday night’s gala and other events will be integral to finding a broadly applicable cure for HIV/AIDS by 2020. "We’re optimistic and we’re supporting it on a bunch of different levels," he said. "It’s harder now in light of global realities, but that makes it more important that we be steadfast and relentless."