All five recipients of the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors were born in the United States — and one of them turned that fact into an anthem.
Singer-songwriter and working-class hero Bruce Springsteen; method-acting legend Robert De Niro; jazz composer and pianist Dave Brubeck; funnyman Mel Brooks; and pioneering opera singer Grace Bumbry were named the recipients Wednesday of the nation’s top performing-arts honor.
This year’s group, made up of popular entertainers beloved by a wide cross section of society — with the exception of the woman taking the high-art slot usually reserved for classical music or dance — could give a ratings boost to the ceremony’s annual telecast.
The Kennedy Center will host the Honors Gala Dec. 6, with luminaries from the worlds of stage and screen offering encomiums to the winners. The 32nd annual ceremony will be turned into a two-hour special for broadcast on CBS Dec. 29.
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will sit with the awardees at the gala and receive them at the White House beforehand. The iconic rainbow sashes and medallions themselves will be presented the evening before at a dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who’s no stranger to the annual event - as first lady, she sat with honorees for years.
Mr. De Niro, 66, is not just one of the greatest actors of his generation; he’s one of the greatest actors in cinematic history. The son of two New York painters, he dropped out of high school to study under method-acting guru Stella Adler and often plays unsavory, even psychotic, characters, making them strangely sympathetic.
He has said, “There is a mixture of anarchy and discipline in the way I work,” and he’s known for throwing himself into his roles. He gained 60 pounds to play real-life boxer Jake LaMotta in 1980’s “Raging Bull,” an intense portrayal that won him the Oscar for best actor. He’d already won a best-supporting-actor Oscar for “The Godfather Part II.”
The actor is a regular collaborator of “Raging Bull” director Martin Scorsese — who won a Kennedy Center Honor himself in 2007 — working with him on such films as “The King of Comedy” and “Goodfellas.” His work on the 1976 Scorsese drama “Taxi Driver” made him an icon; the actor improvised the famous line, “You talkin’ to me?” More recently, he has turned to comedy, most memorably in 2000’s “Meet the Parents.”
Mr. De Niro plays other roles, in and out of the film business. He also is a producer and has directed two films, “A Bronx Tale” and “The Good Shepherd.” The restaurateur co-founded the Tribeca Film Festival to revitalize the New York neighborhood after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Mr. Springsteen, 59, grew up across the Hudson and became the voice of blue-collar New Jersey. He was inspired at age 7 by seeing Elvis Presley on “The Ed Sullivan Show” but inherited the mantle of another musical giant - like Bob Dylan, Mr. Springsteen is considered one of rock’s great poets. He began playing in New Jersey clubs in the 1960s and released his first album — on Columbia, Mr. Dylan’s label — in 1973. “Born to Run,” released two years later, made him a star.
Though he has had recent successes — such as his meditation on the Sept. 11 attacks, “The Rising” — and remains a popular concert draw, he’s still best known for his 1984 album “Born in the U.S.A.” Its title track has his signature mix of politically informed lyrics extolling the underdog with guitar-driven, folk-inspired music.
Mr. Brubeck, 88, has had even more influence on music. It took him some years to realize he had a calling, though; he started college studying veterinary science, thinking he would help his father run his cattle ranch. But the piano lessons he’d received from his mother had instilled a love of music he couldn’t deny.
After graduation, he was drafted, and his talent led his superiors to insist he form a group, one of the Army’s first integrated bands. It was while serving that he met saxophonist Paul Desmond, with whom he eventually would form the Dave Brubeck Quartet. It was, again, an integrated group, and Mr. Brubeck canceled gigs when there was resistance to having bassist Eugene Wright onstage.
The composer loved to experiment with rhythm, and the quartet made mainstream music that wasn’t in jazz’s traditional 4/4 time. The group’s classic album “Time Out,” released 50 years ago, had a number of songs with distinctive time signatures. “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” inspired by Turkish street musicians, was in 9/8 time. The album’s most famous track wasn’t written by Mr. Brubeck, though he provided its piano syncopation; Mr. Desmond wrote the 5/4-time “Take Five.”
Mr. Brubeck is still touring and composing — he and wife Iola wrote the 2006 jazz opera “Cannery Row Suite.”
Mr. Brooks, 83, is another octogenarian who shows no signs of slowing down. Born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, the multi-hypenate artist turned to comedy as a way of dealing with bullying. He started out as a stand-up and then moved into writing for television, including on “Your Show of Shows” with Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner. He co-created the satirical spy comedy “Get Smart.”
Mr. Brooks’ very first feature film is still in the popular consciousness. “The Producers,” a 1968 black comedy about two unscrupulous men who try to make the worst possible Broadway show, won the filmmaker an Oscar for best original screenplay. When he turned it into a 2001 musical, for which he wrote the music and lyrics, it won a record-breaking 12 Tony awards; the musical itself was then made into another film.
Two 1974 films - “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” — perhaps best display Mr. Brooks’ distinctive brand of zany comedy. The latter, a hilarious parody of horror films starring Gene Wilder as the experimenting doctor, also became a Broadway musical. Mr. Brooks has won Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy awards.
Miss Bumbry, 72, is the least known of this year’s honorees — at least to those outside the opera world. Black artists in the classical world and beyond owe her gratitude, though. Along with singers such as Leontyne Price, she followed the trailblazing Marian Anderson — to whom she paid tribute at the very first Kennedy Center Honors gala - in opening up the performing arts to blacks.
Miss Bumbry won a scholarship in a radio contest at age 17, singing “O don fatale” from Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” but couldn’t claim the prize - the conservatory wouldn’t admit black students. The singer started out as a mezzo-soprano but then moved to more dramatic soprano roles before ending her operatic career sometimes singing mezzo roles again.
She began her career big and stayed big, usually playing starring roles. She made her debut in 1960 with the Paris Opera Company as Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida” and her Metropolitan Opera debut five years later as Princess Eboli in “Don Carlo.” She also was known as a dramatic and fiery Carmen. In 1961, she became the first black to sing at Bayreuth. Miss Bumbry was born in St. Louis, Miss., but now lives in Salzburg, Austria.