- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Kennedy Center Honors class of 2004 features a powerhouse acting couple and the first-ever musician recognized primarily for work meant for the cinema, not the concert hall.

Longtime husband-and-wife team Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, “Star Wars” composer John Williams, actor-director Warren Beatty, opera legend Joan Sutherland and pop master Elton John make up this year’s Kennedy Center Honorees, the center announced yesterday.

The annual Honors Gala will take place Dec. 5. A telecast of the event will air that month on CBS.

The Honors, established in 1978 by George Stevens Jr. and Nick Vanoff, recognizes artists for their contributions to American culture.

Mr. Beatty’s voluminous resume includes 15 Oscar nominations scattered over four categories and six films. Miss Sutherland’s unforgettable voice has made her one of opera’s most powerful emissaries for decades.

And at any given moment someone is likely either whistling, humming or putting in a CD with one of Mr. John’s familiar songs.

Mr. Williams says it’s a happy accident when the music he creates for films breaks free of the medium and becomes a work of art unto itself.

“We need to serve the movie first,” says Mr. Williams, who created the memorable scores behind “Star Wars,” “Superman” and “Schindler’s List.”

It helps to team up with directors who share his passion for the movies, he says.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with [everyone from] William Wyler to Alfred Hitchcock, wonderful collaborators,” Mr. Williams remarks.

Some of those relationships can be stormy, he admits, but his enduring bonds with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas prove the benefit of teaming with iconic talents.

Mr. Williams will soon see a rough cut of Mr. Lucas’ next “Star Wars” film to begin the scoring process. He then moves on to “The War of the Worlds,” his 20th big-screen project with Mr. Spielberg.

The prolific composer could be forgiven for regretting how his cinematic work overshadows what he calls his other “musical personalities.” Mr. Williams is the principal conductor for the Boston Pops Orchestra and tours the world as a sought-after guest conductor, among his many musical projects.

Instead, he is grateful audiences get to see so many sides of his music.

“In Boston, they think of me in that [conducting] role,” he says, and not nearly so much for his film work.

What makes yesterday’s Honors announcement extra-important to the Long Island, N.Y., native is that it marks the first time a composer known primarily for film achievements has been so recognized.

“From that point of view, it makes me especially honored. Music and cinema have such a reach,” he says.

If a film connects with audiences, “billions of people will hear it,” Mr. Williams says of the orchestral score. “That couldn’t possibly have been done if it was written for a concert piece.”

Mr. Davis says being recognized by the Kennedy Center makes a statement for senior citizens everywhere.

“It symbolizes we live in a culture where the seniors and elders are still to be empowered and not patronized,” Mr. Davis says. “It shows to the younger generation you can live a full, artistic life without diminishing your civic responsibility and activities.”

Both Mr. Davis and Miss Dee, his bride of 55 years, were as active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s as they have been in forging a lasting legacy on the stage and screen.

“We didn’t hesitate to go where our hearts told us to go,” Mr. Davis says.

Working in the pressure-packed world of show business helped forge the couple’s enduring bond, Miss Dee adds.

“Life is a struggle. Anything worth doing is a struggle. Opposition is part of the equation,” she says.

The couple’s careers stretch back to a time when black talent was difficult to find in the industry.

That situation has improved dramatically over time.

“You see black faces at all levels — actors, singers, dancers, directors and producers,” Mr. Davis says. “When we came into the business, none of that was there.”

Mr. Davis, who just wrapped another project with Miss Dee, a film version of their autobiography, says neither he nor his wife is ready to rest on their considerable laurels.

“We’re still busy,” he says.

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