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Politicians and Celebrities, Making Sweet Music Together

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2004; Page C01

Itzhak Perlman on violin.

Jack Nicholson in a monologue so funny the audience couldn't stop laughing.

Renee Fleming sending up the sweetest serenade.

Power couples: Teresa Heinz Kerry and Sen. John Kerry chat with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. (J. Scott Applewhite -- AP)

_____Kennedy Center Honors_____
Video: The Kennedy Center Honors
Starry, Starry Night
Photo Gallery: Honorees
Warren Beatty
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee
Elton John
Joan Sutherland
John Williams

And Kid Rock pounding out a tribute to the "Rocket Man" that had both President Bush and Vice President Cheney on their feet, clapping to the beat.

Renee Fleming and Kid Rock?

"Only at the Kennedy Center," said show producer George Stevens Jr., with wry amusement. "Where else?"

Where else, indeed. It's the magic, though, of the annual Kennedy Center Honors that a two-hour tribute to a handful of spectacularly gifted performing artists always draws a marvelous cross-section of talent from all walks of (super-famous) life. And so it was that the opera diva and he of the explicit lyrics and self-created bad-boy persona both took their turns onstage at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night.

Fleming was there to see honoree Warren Beatty; Kid Rock sent up a tune to legendary singer and composer Elton John. Also being honored were acting (and activist) legends Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, famed soprano Joan Sutherland and award-winning composer John Williams of "Star Wars" and "E.T." fame.

It was a night for numerous, and thunderous, standing ovations. There was a little bit of opera, a little bit of theater, a little bit of dance, and a healthy dash of the Rocket Man's good old rock-and-roll. The show -- which will be televised Dec. 21 on CBS -- is a pastiche, each segment a nod to the honoree's talents and history. That's why Faye Dunaway -- once Bonnie to Beatty's Clyde -- was there to introduce the video clip about her old friend; and why Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance -- also married black actors -- came to thank Dee and Davis for the example they had set.

And those are only a few of the names who came to honor their forebears and their friends. Audra McDonald was there, and Billy Joel; Steven Spielberg and Robert Downey Jr.; Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Marilyn Horne.

During the red-carpet arrivals, some of the biggest public applause came for Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, who entered separately, each with his wife. Dunaway could be spotted all but chasing Edwards down the red carpet, so eager was she to pass on her support. Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, meanwhile, found themselves sharing hugs with Beatty, the legendary Democrat, and his wife, actress Annette Bening.

Joel came in ahead of his pal John, whom he described as "wildly humorous, eccentric, humanitarian and a great musician."

"I think it's a big honor to him because this is our version of knighthood," Joel said. "He's already got the 'Sir' title in Britain, and now he's getting it from America, and we're the country who made him the star he is today."

It was a night for kingmaking, and for sweet memories. For Davis and Dee, the first to be honored, there was a gently moving tribute, a tale of great talent but also a great love affair. They were introduced by Combs, who had long admired Davis -- on strict childhood instructions from his mother.

Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell told the tale of how Davis found his direction in life one day in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. He was a Howard University student at the time, there to hear the legendary Marian Anderson, who would later be among the first-ever Kennedy Center honorees. In tribute to that moment, and to Davis's ongoing relationship with Howard, the university choir sang backup as McDonald -- who revived Dee's role in "A Raisin in the Sun" and won a Tony for it -- sang the spiritual Anderson had performed that long-ago day, "Let Us Break Bread Together."

For all the stunning musical performances that played out over the evening, though, few could live up to what came simply in the video tribute to Sutherland. Her own "stratospheric high notes" had the audience enraptured, and on its feet before the clip could end.

"We are here to salute you," her friend and colleague Horne said, "and to recall the unforgettable performances you have given us, and to honor the gift that you gave the world: your voice . . . your soaring, beautiful, incredible voice." Then Thomas Hampson and Paul Groves performed Bizet's tenor-baritone duet "Au Fond du Temple Saint."

From opera the show took a dizzy turn into show business, into the music of movie memories -- the music of Williams's films. To the strains of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," Spielberg introduced his frequent collaborator, calling his scores "guaranteed to make you use the whole Kleenex box."

"In the end," Spielberg said, "it's not Hollywood he writes for, he writes for all of you."

Perlman played "Schindler's List" to a hush of thoughtfulness and memory; then the Marine Corps Band followed with a medley of Williams's greatest hits -- "Star Wars," "Jaws," "Superman," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," each one fondly familiar.

The raucousness began, though, once Nicholson took the stage to introduce his longtime running buddy and good pal Beatty. The ripple of laughter that started with Nicholson's late but well-observed entrance earlier in the evening became a torrent as the actor launched into his monologue.

On Beatty's political ambitions: "For years Warren has dreamed of attending these awards. Unfortunately, not exactly as a Kennedy Center honoree, but as the president of the United States." (This prompted Bush and Beatty to look at each other amusedly across their aisle in the balcony.)

On watching Beatty while the film tribute played: "I was watching your reactions backstage. You look insane."

On Beatty's legendary hypochondria and obsession with all things medical: "Believe me, I did not allow him to lecture me on the difference between Viagra and Cialis."

On and on Nicholson went, employing both tongue-in-cheek flattery and outright laughers, as Beatty turned bright red and doubled over in his seat. Eventually, he got around to introducing Fleming, allowing the audience to finally take a deep breath.

"I've seen you weep at the talent of our next performer," Nicholson said, looking up at Beatty, "which is fortunate, because what we needed to find here was someone who was even a bigger diva than you, Mad Dog."

Fleming serenaded Beatty with "Over the Rainbow." Afterwards, he pointed to a tear in the corner of his eye.

And then it was on to John -- clips of the eyewear (for the record, he wore silver frames with blue lenses last night), the costumes, the mad stage performances -- all leading into a multi-song extravaganza that brought down the house.

First, though, he was introduced by Downey, who cracked about holding a post-show Democratic recovery session with Kerry, and made even more jokes about his checkered personal life and various jail stints for drug use. "There are trends and phrases in rock-and-roll," Downey observed, "but Elton John never goes out of style."

Then came the music -- more of it than anyone expected. Joel was on the piano, belting out "Bennie and the Jets" and "The Bitch Is Back." Fantasia sang the final song Ray Charles recorded before he died -- John's "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word." Downey came back to perform "Levon."

Then out raced Kid Rock, in jeans and a black T-shirt, and the beat to "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" started to pulse through the house. He demanded people get to their feet, and the response started with a few friendly stars -- Julia Ormond, Vance -- then the rest of the crowd started to succumb. Up in the balcony, Beatty rose, and Williams, and Condi Rice, and Bening . . . and then, finally, slowly, President Bush rose, followed by Cheney. Sir Elton was laughing.

It was stage star Heather Headley, though, who closed the night with a rendition of "Your Song:" "I hope you don't mind, I hope you don't mind that I put down in words, how wonderful life is while you're in the world." Up in the balcony, John rocked back and forth to the music, as Beatty smiled on one side of him, and Dee on the other.

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