- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 2004

“Every one is the same, and every one is different,” proclaimed a philosophical George Stevens Jr., producer of the Kennedy Center Honors, as the 27th annual performing-arts celebration got under way this past weekend.

Simply put: There’s always a last-minute surprise and a last-minute chance one of the honorees won’t show up on schedule… but somehow, they always do.

Elton John flew in from Glasgow, Scotland, sandwiched between performances there on Friday and tomorrow. But he couldn’t make Saturday’s luncheon hosted by new Kennedy Center Chairman Steven A. Schwarzman.

The pop superstar, however, proved to be the exception.

Honorees Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, his wife of 56 years, appeared on time with their extended family — as did Warren Beatty (with actress wife Annette Bening and their four children), composer/conductor John Williams and retired opera diva Dame Joan Sutherland. All were hailed by peers during the 48-hour salute that included a formal award decoration ceremony and dinner hosted by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in the State Department on Saturday.

The festivities concluded last night with a sold-out benefit gala before an audience of 1,800 in the center’s Opera House. The gala will be broadcast Dec. 21 on CBS.

Last night’s program was timed to follow a White House reception and featured videotaped remarks by President Bush from that event. The president, in footage shot earlier, shared an interesting exchange with Mr. John, which appeared to amuse the two of them and left the crowd buzzing. The pop great has been a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq.

Former Honors’ emcee Walter Cronkite introduced Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, who, as the evening’s hostess, offered brief summations of the recipients’ accomplishments.

And while the night belonged to the honorees, a dazzling galaxy of stars came out in full force to offer plaudits: Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, Oscar nominee Angela Bassett (attending with husband and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” star Courtney B. Vance) and hip-hop mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs for Mr. Davis and Miss Dee; two opera greats — former honoree Marilyn Horne and Sherrill Milnes for Miss Sutherland; Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg and violinist Itzhak Perlman for Mr. Williams; Oscar winners Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson plus opera diva Renee Fleming for Mr. Beatty; and Kid Rock, Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr. and “Piano Man” Billy Joel for Mr. John.

The tributes were heartfelt.

“Ossie always says, ‘Acting is not a dream. It’s an activity like cutting weeds or planting oats,’” Miss Bassett said of Mr. Davis’ down-home bent.

In his tribute, Mr. Combs thanked the couple for visiting his dressing room during previews for “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway. “I almost fainted when they came into the dressing room,” he said.

Mr. Mitchell talked about the day in 1939 when Mr. Davis, then a Howard University student, heard opera legend Marian Anderson (a 1978 Kennedy Center honoree) perform at the Lincoln Memorial, after the Daughters of the American Revolution had prohibited her from singing in the then-segregated Constitution Hall. Later, three-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald recalled the historic moment by performing the moving spiritual, “Let Us Break Bread Together.”

In a sort of diva relay, Miss Horne then kicked off Miss Sutherland’s portion of the show by recalling her nickname, La Stupenda. Her voice is “an avalanche of sound, full, rich … which sailed into the stratosphere effortlessly,” Miss Milnes later said while Miss Sutherland blew kisses her way.

Mr. Spielberg led the celebration of Mr. Williams’ composing career by recalling the duo’s long partnership.

“John’s music can make the tears fall,” Mr. Spielberg said, “scores guaranteed to make you use a whole box of Kleenex.

“Sometimes, I think the reason I work so much is to keep him writing for my films,” said Mr. Spielberg, who teamed with the composer on many major films, from “Jaws” to “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.”

Next, violin great Itzhak Perlman came on stage, walking on crutches, to play part of the memorable violin theme from the soundtrack for “Schindler’s List,” another acclaimed Williams/Spielberg collaboration. National Symphony Orchestra conductor Leonard Slatkin wrapped the segment with a glorious medley of Mr. Williams’ best scores, performed impeccably by the President’s Own United States Marine Band.

Miss Dunaway, who starred in “Bonnie and Clyde” with Mr. Beatty, began the tribute to the actor, a local Arlington boy, who graduated from Washington Lee High School. Then Mr. Nicholson, a 2001 honoree, played it chummy in remarks about his pal and neighbor Mr. Beatty.

“For years, Warren has dreamed of attending these awards; unfortunately, not exactly as a Kennedy Center honoree, but as president of the United States,” Mr. Nicholson said. “Things didn’t work out that way, so Warren made sure his films always had a strong political theme.”

The star of “The Shining” then teased Vice President Dick Cheney after landing a few gags rat-a-tat-tat, asking if the vice president was laughing yet. And he joked about Mr. Beatty’s penchant for multitasking.

“On the plane coming here, I said to myself, ‘I could even ask him to write this speech’ … and I can imagine him endlessly going over word after word. … Then he would compliment me on its content,” Mr. Nicholson teased.

Miss Fleming was next — a surprise match for Mr. Beatty’s segment — with her rendition in high operatic style of “Over the Rainbow.”

Finally, the house started to swing when Mr. Downey, Mr. Joel, and Kid Rock appeared on stage to liven things up.

Kid Rock’s rendition of “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting” (he also performed “The Bitch is Back”) actually coaxed a few in the black-tie crowd onto their feet, including actress Julia Ormond and Mr. Nicholson. By song’s end, much of the president’s section was up and dancing, or at least bobbing in place.

Mr. Downey seemed an unlikely choice to honor Mr. John, but the singer had helped the actor with his drug recovery, forever bonding the two. The actor called him a “lifesaver,” but then dubbed him “the other first lady,” which seemed to leave Mr. John unamused, along with the rest of the audience.

If that wisecrack fell flat, it soared compared with his political jabs.

“My name is Robert, and I’m a recovering liberal-aholic,” he said to a cool response. Likewise, a joke about Altruistic Democrat Disorder (ADD) also tanked, as did a proposed support group for backers of former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, who was in attendance.

Mr. John’s video life story returned the program to its former state of excellence.

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