Hollywood, as everyone knows, loves the Next Big Thing. And four years ago, Barack Obama was certainly that: a political supernova, the equivalent of a breakout movie star.
"He is 'The One,'" declared Oprah Winfrey, his biggest and most influential celebrity champion. "The best candidate I've ever seen," pronounced George Clooney. Halle Berry said she'd "collect paper cups off the ground to make his pathway clear." Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am chimed in with the famous "Yes We Can" video. And so on.
But you can't be the Next Big Thing twice. And so, with the 2012 vote less than a year away, there's clearly a different mood in heavily Democratic Hollywood: less gushing, not to mention snippets of criticism, most prominently from actor Matt Damon, who campaigned for Obama last time but now makes no secret of his disillusionment.
"I think he misinterpreted his mandate," Damon said earlier this year, and then recently told Elle magazine the country would have been better off with a one-term president with guts (he used a much saltier word).
But while the adulation of the 2008 election may be significantly muted among Hollywood liberals, as with liberals elsewhere, Obama supporters say that's only natural, given the circumstances. Fundraisers there say that events have been selling out and there's plenty of enthusiasm.
Most importantly, they add, the nation's attention has been on the battling Republicans. Soon, the choice will get starker and the Democratic base will be energized, they argue.
"The moment the Republicans have their nominee is when you're going to see anyone still on the fence jump in," says Chad Griffin, a Los Angeles-based communications strategist and Democratic fundraiser. "Once you have a head-to-head matchup, the contrast will be grand."
Numbers compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics show that while overall political contributions were up in Hollywood for the first three quarters of this year compared with the same period four years ago, contributions to Democrats were slightly down.
According to the group, the movie, television and recording industries — a large chunk of which is Hollywood — gave $17,639,267 in the first three quarters to federal candidates and parties, with 71 percent going to the Democrats and 29 percent to Republicans, as opposed to $15,642,561 four years ago, when 77 percent went to the Democrats and 23 percent to Republicans.
But numbers for the Democrats were down by more than $2.5 million from four years ago — $9,249,303 this year compared with $11,966,077 four years ago.
Obama's fundraisers note that four years ago, Obama was locked in a tense primary battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton — and primaries drive early fundraising.
"A re-election is always different," says Andy Spahn, a longtime political adviser to one of the top Democratic fundraisers in the nation, DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, along with his partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.
He calls the current mood among Hollywood Democrats a "matured enthusiasm," but says support is strong.
Though Damon's remarks about the president have been the most pointed, other celebrities have expressed disappointment, or at least mild disillusionment.
"I love the president like most of us," Sean "Diddy" Combs told Source magazine this year. "I just want the president to do better."
And will.i.am, creator of that viral video that ended with the word "HOPE," told The New York Times earlier this year: "I don't want to hope anymore." Asked if he was disappointed in Obama, he said: "I don't feel disappointed. I feel like, Argggh! Speak louder! I feel like, Do something!"
What about core Obama celebrity supporters Clooney and Winfrey? Far from being disillusioned with Obama, Clooney said recently: "I'm disillusioned by the people who are disillusioned by Obama."
"Democrats eat their own," the actor said. "I'm a firm believer in sticking by and sticking up for the people whom you've elected." He went on to list the accomplishments of the Obama administration, wondering why Democrats weren't selling them better.
And Winfrey, credited with helping Obama win over many women in 2008, told Politico in August: "I'm in his corner for whatever he needs me to do."
There already have been plenty of celebrities hosting or showing up at Obama fundraising events. Actress Eva Longoria hosted one at the home of Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas. Lady Gaga attended a September fundraiser at the home of Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg. Alicia Keys performed at a New York fundraiser.
And in the summer, film executive Harvey Weinstein held a Manhattan event sprinkled with celebs including Keys, Jimmy Fallon, and Gwyneth Paltrow and husband Chris Martin. A 50th birthday-themed fundraiser in Chicago featured performances by Jennifer Hudson, Herbie Hancock and the band OK Go.
Of course, celebrity support isn't always a win-win for a candidate. Just as Obama's opponents in 2008 tried to use his taste for arugula to paint him as elitist, they tried to use his celebrity connections to imply he was lightweight, all pizazz and no substance — most pointedly in an ad tenuously linking him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
The tactic seemed to scare Obama's campaign enough to downplay the role of celebrities at the Democratic convention that summer. Will the campaign similarly seek to downplay the celebrity role this time?
"Celebrities are helpful in terms of exciting a base," says Griffin, the fundraiser. "I don't think the president will have any shortage of surrogates."
One thing is clear: They won't include Damon, and the president wasn't shy about making a few jokes at the actor's expense back in May, at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner.
"Matt Damon said he was disappointed in my performance," the president noted. Then he referred to one of Damon's recent films. "Well, Matt, I just saw 'The Adjustment Bureau,' so right back atcha, buddy."
Damon, whose representatives did not respond to a request for comment, has given no sign that he plans to do anything as dramatic as switch sides in November. The real danger, say some Obama supporters, is that comments like his would lead voters — especially key younger ones — to stay home.
That's a threat the president faces in places well beyond Hollywood.
Ken Sunshine, a prominent public relations consultant who has represented top entertainers and politicians, thinks that ultimately "the activist community in entertainment and everywhere else will come home and support the president's re-election with the same degree of enthusiasm as before — if for no other reason than ... consider the alternative!"
"But once we help him get re-elected," Sunshine adds, "then we really hold his feet to the fire in the second term."