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Starry, Starry Night

For the Toasts of the Town, A Round of Acclamation

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2004; Page C01

In the clutches of camera-toting actress Cicely Tyson, with Warren Beatty just over there and Elton John wrapped up with Aretha Franklin by the window, there stands Ossie Davis, that self-described "rebel and reprobate," amused and delighted. This certainly is unexpected, this Kennedy Center Honors status conferred on Davis and his artistic partner and wife, Ruby Dee.

As stars in the crush of celebrity and deep history at the State Department's dinner Saturday night for the Kennedy Center honorees, both Davis and Dee couldn't help but note the irony.

The Kennedy Center Honors recipients -- composer John Williams, soprano Joan Sutherland, actor Warren Beatty, singer Elton John, actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis -- with President and Mrs. Bush last night. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

_____Kennedy Center Honors_____
Video: The Kennedy Center Honors
Politicians and Celebrities, Making Sweet Music
Photo Gallery: Honorees
Warren Beatty
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee
Elton John
Joan Sutherland
John Williams

"Have they read my dossier?" Dee joshed quizzically about the old blacklisting days and those times the FBI tailed them and those years of manning the intellectual barricades in the nation's cultural and civil rights skirmishes even as they acted and wrote and broke down barriers.

"We seem to be going against the mainstream together," Davis said of their lives.

But here they are, Davis, 87, and Dee, 80, the elders, some would say the muses, of our time, appearing refreshingly surprised.

"It's a very affirming thing about the country," says Dee, a diminutive woman who nonetheless towered amid the adulation of Saturday night.

It's a historic moment of transcendence, this honors weekend. That's one way of looking at the occasion each year when the Kennedy Center celebrates the artistic forces who mold and express our culture.

Sure, it's a see-and-be-seen moment, and the night was filled with posturing aplenty. But the nearly 250 guests at the State Department seemed all caught up in this charmed zone that surpasses the Hollywood scene and the New York scene and is larger than Washington and its politics.

And speaking of politics, here comes Beatty, another honoree, with 12-year-old daughter Kathlyn in tow, trying to introduce her to Davis and Dee.

Ah, Warren, the celluloid icon with the peripatetic libido that seems to have mellowed with age, whose politics put him on the losing end of things electoral last month.

But nothing diminishes the import of this night, he says.

"The election is over, and that has to be respected," he said. "The honor of being here is not diminished."

And his roots in Virginia, where he grew up with sister Shirley MacLaine, and still knows many people, made the night "more meaningful to me than if that weren't the case."

Annette Bening, his other half, hangs along the wall with the three younger members of the Beatty-Bening brood.

In due time, Bening will hail her husband and defend him against those who have ridiculed his famously profligate ways.

It is easy to expect an excess of preening here (and there is much in evidence). It is easy to forget that the popular perceptions of these people, these stars, tend to scratch the surface and render them caricatures, when in fact they have reached this place precisely because of their layered complexity, their level of perseverance and perfection.

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee: icons of theater and film (she as an actress, he as an actor and playwright) and of the civil rights movement, always pushing society to fulfill its promise.

Warren Beatty: actor turned producer and director; Academy Award nominee 15 times, twice a winner.

John Williams: composer, winner of five Oscars, whose music fills our heads. Themes from "Jaws," "Star Wars," "Saving Private Ryan," to name a few.

Dame Joan Sutherland: opera singer, one of the all-time greats, credited with helping opera rediscover the age of bel canto, or beautiful singing.

Sir Elton John: "a force of nature in the world of music," the honors committee says, and a campaigner against the spread of AIDS.

They were hailed in toasts, in speeches, in the conferment of the ribbons and brass plates that are the actual Kennedy Center Honors decorations.

And let us not gloss over Secretary of State Colin Powell's possible new career after he leaves State, as he demonstrated in hosting the evening.

"I want you to know you're not the only rapper here tonight, my man," Powell said from the podium, speaking to Beatty, who played a the rapping politician in "Bulworth."

"I'm Colin Luther Powell

Public service is my thing

Don't do it for the ring, don't do it for the bling."

And on it went, a nerdy, gut-busting rap that brought Kid Rock (aka Bob Ritchie) bursting from his seat, leading a raucous ovation that filled the chandeliered ballroom. (Rock, by the way, wore a strange little black hat that was not the only headgear of note for the night. There was Naomi Judd, in an ivory dress, wearing a pearly tiara on her head.)

Actual artistic royalty was in attendance, too.

Jack Nicholson, an honoree from 2001, had his usual inscrutable yet commanding presence. He introduced his escort as Chris Scott.

"My 'executive assistant,' let's call her," he said, sounding very much like Jack-you-old-devil-you.

Leontyne Price, honored in 1980, turned her toast of diva Sutherland into a crystal-shattering aria. Sutherland, at 78 another elder of the evening, retired from her opera career years ago and seemed delighted, when she'd arrived earlier in the evening, just to be there.

"Thank you!" she said as photographers bathed her in their flashes. "I can't believe this. It's been a long time."

Mainstays of the event gilded the night with their intense glamour, such as Carmen de Lavallade, the famed dancer, gliding through and tingeing her surroundings a bright emerald green from the satin sheen of her hoop-skirted gown.

At what other event can you just walk up and be a fly on the wall as Elton John and Aretha Franklin chitchat?

"It is such a thrill to meet you! You look fantastic," said David Furnish, John's companion, as he was introduced to Franklin, who was honored in 1994 and said she is "so going to enjoy" just being a guest at this year's event.

John was saying how much he loves the United States, loves Washington, how its circles and boulevards conjure up Paris. And the history of the place, like "coming into this room tonight, for instance." The desk at which the Treaty of Paris was signed stands across the room, backing a settee where Walter and Betsy Cronkite are seated. (Betsy Cronkite, a former reporter, catches the eye of this fellow scribe and winks delightedly, remembering when.)

And Thomas Jefferson stands in a larger-than-life sculpture in the next room, which bears his name.

"They had some great outfits back then," says Billy Joel, looking up at Jefferson.

Joel hasn't been to one of these events before and said he was relishing it as a break from the typical music-business gatherings. At his table, the conversation veered to Iraq, the election, the direction of the country, he said.

It wasn't just "music, music, music, yeah, yeah, yeah," he said.

And the fact that these honors cut across all genres of the performing arts lent the occasion a feeling of greater respect for the artist, he felt, adding, "This is about as close to knighting somebody as you can get!"

And it certainly did have that feel, what with the bestowal of the medals and the ribbons. And then the toasts.

What will no doubt be among the most memorable moments of the ceremony (other than Powell's rap) was Bening's toast to her husband.

The pair had held hands under the table for a while, part of a chain of familial affection running between them and their children. The kids jumped slightly in their seats and looked at their dad pridefully each time his name was mentioned.

At the podium, Bening told the story of 8-year-old Warren going to art classes at the Corcoran School and finding himself inadvertently in the wrong room. There, he witnessed "an image that was forever etched in his consciousness."

"Standing in the middle of the room was a totally naked woman," Bening continued, as ripples of laughter filled the ballroom. "Needless to say, Warren was riveted."

Bening, her voice now more forceful, continued: "My husband gets a lot of kidding about his interest in women. But as his wife, I take great pleasure in taking a moment to instead honor and celebrate his appreciation, respect, love and enjoyment of women. Hypocrisy, whether sexual or political, is a subject that Warren knows well."

When she returned to their table, the couple chatted quietly together and smooched, surrounded by table mates Jack Nicholson and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who earlier had joked that "Warren has been in pictures as long as I've been in politics, and everybody knows that's a long time."

Sunday, many from this crowd attended a sumptuous afternoon buffet at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, hosted by George Stevens Jr., one of the creators of the Honors program, to fete the honorees once again.

Davis and Dee commandeered a corner to accommodate the family they brought along: their three grown children, seven grandchildren and a few others. There was a huge cake and much song to celebrate the birthdays of a granddaughter, a driver and a friend.

"The delightful thing is we insisted it be a family affair as far as we're concerned," said Davis. "We stress the fact that whatever happens to all of us as a unit."

"It's exciting," said Dee. "I've never had an award that lasted three days."

Davis and Dee have clearly spent some time reflecting on the meaning of the Honors. They are known as much for their stage and screen performances as for their philosophical musings of the kind that have made them models of perseverance and dignity in the minds of fans and supporters.

Their presence as Kennedy Center honorees holds an extra special importance for many. And this is what had singer Audra McDonald worried on Saturday night. She would be performing for Davis and Dee at Sunday's program and knew it would be a moving experience. She was hoping she could get through it, she confided.

"That's the hardest thing, because of what they mean to African Americans," she said. "I'm just going to try not to cry."

In listening to Davis, you could understand what would move her so.

"Art," he mused Sunday in that formal basso voice of his, "is a serious tool, indispensable for arriving at our humanity . . . . As important as religion is, ultimately art is a step above. Religion tells us what should be. Art tells us what can be."

Staff writer Roxanne Roberts contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company