CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Those flipping through TV channels might have thought they’d stumbled across a Hollywood awards ceremony: there were Eva Longoria, Scarlett Johansson and Kerry Washington dressed up and giving speeches during prime time; Tom Hanks narrating a tribute to veterans; Mary J. Blige and the Foo Fighters performing and James Taylor making folksy jokes against a backdrop of wilderness pictures.
And just when you wondered if it was Oscar season again, serious-looking people in suits started talking about some guy named Barack Obama.
Democrats have long looked to Hollywood celebrities for fundraising help. But on Thursday, the last night of the Democratic National Convention here, they asked celebrities for help putting on a show.
It might have been a risk — Republicans likely regretted bringing celebrities onstage at their convention after Clint Eastwood delivered a somewhat rambling criticism of Obama by speaking to a chair. And the Democrats’ emphasis on celebrities is sure to invoke the scorn of the right, which has criticized the president for his coziness with Hollywood.
PHOTOS: Scenes from the DNC
Maybe that’s why the speeches downplayed the celebrities’ millions and emphasized their working-class roots (because let’s admit it, details about celebrities’ childhoods are probably more interesting anyway).
“I speak to you not as a representative of young Hollywood,” Johansson said, “but as a representative of the many millions of young Americans, particularly young women, who depend on public and nonprofit programs to help them survive.”
Johansson, dressed in rust-colored pants, stilettos, a tan blazer and a shirt featuring an American flag, spoke of growing up in a struggling middle-class family in New York City and living in a housing development for lower-middle-class families. Her family depended on benefits for school transport and food, she said, and some of her friends still depend on Planned Parenthood and Medicaid.
“That’s why I’m here today,” she said. “To use whatever attention I’m fortunate enough to receive to shed the spotlight on what’s at stake for all of us.”
Johansson then had a line that might have made hearts in the Obama campaign skip a beat.
“I’m not going to tell you who to vote for,” she said. “I’m here to ask you to commit to vote.”
Longoria, wearing a blue dress with her hair down, spoke of growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, the youngest of four girls, including a sister with special needs. Her father worked on an Army base, her mother was a special ed teacher, and “in my family, there was one cardinal priority: education,” she said. Because money was tight, she said, Longoria changed oil in a mechanic's shop, flipped burgers at Wendy’s, taught aerobics and worked on campus to help pay back her loans.
That biography led Longoria, co-chair of Obama’s reelection campaign, to a succinct attack on the president’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.
PHOTOS: Protests of the DNC
“Mitt Romney would raise taxes on middle-class families to cut his own and mine. And that’s not who we are as a nation. And I’ll tell you why,” she said. “The Eva Longoria who worked at Wendy’s flipping burgers, she needed a tax break. But the Eva Longoria who worked on movie sets does not.”
Washington, who led off the celebrity trifecta but is probably the least well-known of the three, also talked about how Obama and the policies he supports had helped her.
“I'm here not just as an actress,” Washington said, “but as a woman, an African American, a granddaughter of immigrants who came from Ellis island, a person who could not have afforded college without the help of student loans and as one of millions of volunteers working to reelect President Obama.”
Washington stars in the ABC drama “Scandal,” and was also in the film “The Last King of Scotland.”
Other celebrities didn’t make an appearance on the stage, but were spotted in Charlotte throughout the week, including actors Tony Shalhoub, Wayne Knight (Newman from “Seinfeld”) and Rose Byrne, who was trying to make her way through the crowds at Time Warner Arena on Tuesday night like the rest of the hoi polloi.
On Thursday it was a musician who might have had the best line of the night.
James Taylor entertained the crowd by singing “Carolina on My Mind,” “You’ve Got a Friend” and “How Sweet it is To be Loved By You.” But as Taylor walked on stage, he threw in an ad-lib of his own.
“Don't worry about the empty chair!” he said. “I'm just gonna sit in it, not talk to it!”
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