U2 Surprises at Sean Penn's Haiti Benefit Gala

U2 Haiti - H - 2014
Associated Press

Who else but the acclaimed actor could gather Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Martin and Emma Thompson for a $6 million fundraiser -- and end it with a performance by the iconic rock band?

Let's start with the surprise ending of Sean Penn's charity gala: a three-song set by U2 wowed the intimate A-list crowd at the Montage Hotel on Saturday night. The rock band, longtime pals of the actor, haven't played on a stage together in four full years.

"It's been a while since we played a hotel lounge," frontman Bono told the audience of 300 when he took the stage around 10:30 pm. "I think the last time was a bar mitzvah."

Audience members who've seen it all and then some were on their feet screaming and dancing to the strains of "Desire" and "I Will Follow."

This was Penn's third annual pre-Golden Globes fundraiser for Haiti, and it's becoming the most talked about event of the awards weekend. It's always sponsored by Giorgio Armani and all the funds raised -- $6 million in this case -- go to benefit the J/P Haitian Relief Organization. The actor  was much more jovial than usual, and he even did a bit of press before turning to a PR rep and stating, "This is the last interview I'm doing!" He then apologized to a reporter, saying "I'm sorry you had to hear that."

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Bold-faced names at the event included: Julia Roberts, Goldie Hawn, Kathryn Bigelow, Diane Kruger, Steve McQueen, Bette Midler, Kevin Bacon, Uma Thurman, Idris Elba, Michael Douglas, Charlize Theron, Emma Thompson, Gwyneth Paltrow and husband Chris Martin.

Penn presented the evening with his agent Bryan Lourd  and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who kept the long speeches and musical acts moving. Turns out, Cooper has spent a lot of time in Haiti with Penn, working with relief efforts. He referred to the country in reverent terms: "Our neighbor, our love, Haiti."

As the evening continued, with more and more wine in evidence, Thompson took to the stage in a white Armani blouse and black pants to present the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Pamela White. "I just want to tell you how much I hate charity," she said, startling the crowd. "The only thing that makes human beings happy is being about to serve other people. Otherwise, what the f---'s the point?" 

"I know it's supposed to be 'awards season,' " Thompson said with a slight sneer. "But this is the first night I'm actually having a good time! And stop looking at the screens!" She was referring to the very large video screens flanking the stage. "Look at me! I'm right here!" If this speech doesn't help get her an Oscar nomination, nothing will. Speaking about Ambassador White's tour of duty in Liberia, Thompson added, "I've been to Liberia -- it's f---ed!"

Ambassador White, a small blonde woman in a great black dress with a big husky voice, must have been on stage for half an hour -- and the crowd ate it up. She told the story of being named ambassador to Haiti, only to find out Penn wanted to meet with her there. "The GREAT Sean Penn!" she said sarcastically. She didn't believe a movie star could be as committed and sincere as she found out he was, after their first meeting. "And he loves to swear as much as I do." White reminded the crowd that the 2010 earthquake in Haiti killed 300,000 people in five minutes -- with 1.2 million left homeless. "It's cost over a billion dollars to begin to repair Haiti," she explained. "But there's only one thing to do when you get hit that hard: GET BACK UP! I'm not here to ask for your money -- but your support. Sean will ask for your money!" And ask he did, when the on stage auction began later.

Hillary Clinton sent a video congratulating Penn and thanking him for the extensive work he's done over the last four years for Haiti.

Then Penn took to the stage saying that the night he met White at her house, she said, "'What do you want to drink? And don't tell me you're not drinking!' I fell in love with her right there!"

Penn, swaying just a little bit, explained that he was, naturally a bit tipsy: "I'm chewing gum on stage and acting drunk. I feel like Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night." Then, starting the major auction to raise funds, he coerced the crowd with his love of, and dedication to, helping Haiti: "We only share a few seconds on Earth. Let's do it right!"

Aside from Martin's winning bid of $650,000 for the Banksy work, "Balloon for Haiti," Charlie Sheen sent Penn a check for half a million, and Penn gave up 67 of his own firearms to artist Jeff Koons (having been convinced of their powers of destruction by a friend), to make an artwork out of totally destroying them.

Cooper bid against fellow CNN host Piers Morgan -- fiercely anti-gun himself -- with Cooper emerging victorious, spending $1.4 million on a Koons work that doesn't even exist yet. But then, Penn explained, Koons was just paid an astounding $58 million for a piece. "So you're getting off cheap," he laughed.

Penn kept promising the crowd that they would be rewarded for writing the big checks at the end of the evening, and he was right. While rumors of a U2 performance were in the air all night, when the foursome finally hit the stage, it was the amazing highlight to one of the most reverent -- and irreverent -- charity events ever staged in Hollywood.