It's easy to get celebrities to show up for a cause. Follow-through is another matter. When it happens, it makes all the difference.
Take Brad Pitt's yearlong effort to assist residents of New Orleans' ravaged Lower 9th Ward return to their own homes. Twelve months ago, amid of blaze of international publicity, Pitt and producer-financier Steve Bing launched a private effort (kicking in $5 million each) to build safe, affordable housing for people who had lost all to Hurricane Katrina's savagery.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, December 06, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Star couple: In Friday's Calendar section, the Cause Celebre column mistakenly referred to Angelina Jolie as Brad Pitt's wife. They are not married.
More than a few stars would have basked in the attention and moved on to the next project or fashionable cause. Pitt and Bing have stuck with the 9th Ward throughout the effort. And this week, they were on hand to watch families moving into the bright new homes that guarantee them a future in the city they loved.
Pitt told reporters it was a bittersweet moment.
"I'm really happy for the families that are going to be here, but I can't help but think about the families that aren't," Pitt said. "It's a push-pull for me. The excitement is that it's being proven, that it's working. The frustration is that we have a long way to go."
Others have similar thoughts, which is why members of President-elect Barack Obama's circle of advisors are floating Pitt's experience as a new model for celebrity activism that the incoming administration would like to encourage.
"I've had at least 10 calls from Hollywood people who have an idea they want to get off the ground now that they feel there is a president in Washington who wants to partner," said Kristina Schake, a longtime industry politics and policy consultant. (She's also an advisor to California's first lady, Maria Shriver.) "Celebrities are longing to be involved, whether it's on issues like diabetes or domestic violence or healthcare for children. The Obama administration would be incredibly smart to tap into that."
Pitt and Bing have done more than simply lend their names and money to the New Orleans project, called the Make It Right Foundation. They've enlisted a coterie of world-class architects, including L.A.'s Thom Mayne, to design the houses, which cost an average of $150,000 each.
They've also made it possible for people of more ordinary means to participate by going to their website, www.makeitrightnola.org. You can sign up to simply donate money, or go on a virtual shopping spree, buying such accessories as water heaters and rooftop solar panels for the new homes.
There will be plenty of opportunity in the years ahead. So far, six homes have been built (one of them is already decorated for Christmas). Construction on two others is underway. Work on 14 more is scheduled to begin early next year.
"You're going to see 100 homes here, mark my words," Pitt predicted earlier this week. "It's nice to see a few, but I'm anxious to see 100, 150, 1,000."
As Pitt told Cause Celebre in New Orleans a year ago that the notion of home and family always have been of vital importance to him. When he saw the people of New Orleans stripped of both, it struck him not simply as an act of nature or even a tragedy, but as an injustice America could not allow to pass.
"It will be great to see barbecues in the backyards and kids riding their bikes on the streets again," said Pitt, whose fondness for New Orleans prompted him and wife Angelina Jolie to buy an early-1830s masonry mansion in the French Quarter.
This week was a particularly busy one for Pitt, who also attended a special New Orleans screening of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which was filmed in the city. (Pitt's character, Button, begins life as an old man and then grows younger with time. There's considerable Oscar buzz around the movie and his performance.)
The actor told a local journalist that the film was a "love letter" to the storm-ravaged city that has become his growing family's home. "There's a sense of magic here, so it made this fantastic story almost believable," he said.
He added: "It's a gorgeous, gorgeous film. It's a film that makes you want to hug your kids and call your folks."
Love letters, though, are like activism: They can be beautiful in the moment, but it is the follow-up that counts.