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On the Night Before the Big Event, Hollywood's Brightest Stars Are Twinkling in the East

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 5, 2005

Once more into the intimate, lavish, star-studded dinner at the State Department on the eve of the Kennedy Center Honors: You share an elevator with Bo Derek. You dish movies with Army Archerd. You wink back at Oprah Winfrey. You get mistaken for a waiter.

Kid Rock, wearing a blazer, an open-collared dress shirt and his stringy mop topped with a fedora, is snaking his way through the John Quincy Adams Drawing Room -- past Condoleezza Rice, resplendent in a bright red Oscar de la Renta gown, past the table where the Treaty of Paris was signed.

"Hey, where's the bar at?" he asks. (Wouldn't you think Kid Rock would always know?)

If the 28th annual bash at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Sunday is the big wedding reception, then the dinner for 250 at a red-carpeted, dolled-up State Department on Saturday night -- with this year's five honorees, Tony Bennett, Suzanne Farrell, Julie Harris, Robert Redford and Tina Turner, in attendance -- amounts to the toniest kind of rehearsal dinner. It's a marriage of art and politics, of the Hollywood glitterati and New York theater crowd rubbing elbows with Washington's haute monde .

It's like flipping through the pages of Us Weekly and reading "Stars -- They're Just Like Us!" There's Mary-Louise Parker showing off her son's pictures to Tom Skerritt! There's Florence Henderson (Merry Christmas, Mrs. Brady) asking where the ladies' room is! There's Oprah, seated at Tina's table during dinner, applying some lip gloss! She catches us looking -- we're only a couple of feet away -- and winks. (And we wink back.) It's closest thing buttoned-up Washington gets to a Vanity Fair Oscar party.

Or, as George Stevens Jr., co-creator of the Honors program, puts it: "Well, we'd like to think that Vanity Fair's Oscar party is the closest to Washington they're going to get."

There's Vanessa Williams sharing a chuckle with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, while k.d. lang whisks by. We're within earshot of CBS President Les Moonves with his wife, CBS "Early Show" co-host Julie Chen, and then Tom Brokaw, then Bob Schieffer, then Christine Baranski, escorted by her 21-year-old daughter, Isabel, looking for -- who else? -- Turner.

Everyone is looking for belle-of-the-ball Tina, who is wearing a strapless, skin-tight, brown and cream-colored leather number, with her longtime boyfriend, Erwin Bach, in tow. Who are you wearing? we ask. Galliano, the 66-year-old purrs. Then Turner's publicist, a pearl-necklaced woman named Michele ("one 'L,' " she says), tells us that the honoree isn't doing any press tonight, but goes on to add that Turner's leopard-print Christian Louboutin shoes are a gift from her dear friend Oprah.

"I didn't see the shoes. But that dress, honey. Tina was poured into it, honey," says Debbie Allen, who's on the artist committee of the Honors. She is standing next to Mayor Anthony Williams, sipping chardonnay and chitchatting with Herbie Hancock. "Tina is an icon of pure energy, the power of rhythm and blues, the ultimate beauty," she says. "She is the Venus of black women."

A few feet away, Farrell, the great prima ballerina who's now 60 and the head of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, a Washington-based troupe, is basking in the adoration, taking it all in. As ever, she's modest and demure, saying that receiving the Honors "is a great tribute to all the wonderful dancers that I've worked with, to Mr. Balanchine and all that he's taught me."

Nearby, Redford, 68, takes a minute to talk. He says he's closely following the Valerie Plame leak case and says, on the record, "I'm very interested in this issue of confidential sources." He smiles. "Now, that's all I'm going to say about it." He then excuses himself and takes his 10-year-old granddaughter to meet Harris, his fellow honoree -- and, as luck would have it, his co-star in a play called "Little Moon of Alban" some 45 years ago, though Redford says he died by the end of the Act 1.

"Julie, it's wonderful to see you," says Redford, who towers over the diminutive Harris, who looks visibly moved. "This is Lena."

The 80-year-old Harris, who's hard of speaking -- she suffers from aphasia following a stroke -- grips the freckled little girl's right hand and gives her a hug.

This has been somewhat of an extended coronation for Bennett, right there holding hands with his lovelady, Susan Crow. On Friday night, Sen. Edward Kennedy, in a full-throated baritone, had serenaded him at the Italian Embassy. Rep. Charles Rangel called Bennett -- the first male vocalist to front the Count Basie Orchestra -- a "singer's singer," on par with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, an "honorary brother." Bennett, 79, would just as well talk about art: "I don't know the date, but the Smithsonian has absolutely accepted my huge painting of Central Park. Isn't that something?" he says.

"Isn't it a magnificent list of people?" says Glenn Close, in black Armani, making her way to the Benjamin Franklin Dining Room, where the chandeliers are dimmed low. "To the point where you think, what, they haven't been honored already?"

Bennett. Farrell. Harris. Redford. Turner.

In their respective fields of music, dance, theater and movies, they are natural wonders, considered icons by their peers, imitated, celebrated, revered. Parker, in describing her adulation for Harris, kept on stopping and starting, her hand on her chest, at a loss for words.

"I wish I could accurately describe to you what she means to me -- to anyone who loves the theater," gushes Parker. "Julie is the top. . . . There's no one really. . . . There aren't many theater legends. . . . Let me put it this way: She's an endangered species."

"I personally will never forget, nor do I think any woman will ever forget, Hubbell Gardiner's smile in 'The Way We Were,' " Rice says of Redford. As secretary of state, Rice is hosting her first Kennedy Center dinner this year. In her opening remarks to the guests, she speaks of her background as pianist, as a 3-year-old who started taking lessons and could read music before she could read words. She was good, she says, but she wasn't great: "I quit music because of people like our honorees. People who define the difference between what is good and what is great."

Dinner was a miso-glazed black cod, jalapeo cheese grits and chocolate brownie pudding. The most surprising -- and heartfelt -- moment was Itzhak Perlman, a 2003 honoree, toasting Turner.

"I'm a classical fiddle player born in Tel Aviv. She's a contemporary singer born in Tennessee. She's known for, among other things, her great legs. I . . . well . . . not exactly," says Perlman, who had polio at the age of 4 and plays his violin while seated. "What do I got to do got to do with it? Even though Beethoven is my guy, I'm a great fan of Tina."

In this room, everyone is. Even Kid Rock, who found the bar and is now sharing a drink with Willie Nelson, a 1998 honoree, and talking about the newly single Jessica Simpson. We ask Nelson what it was like to work with Simpson in "The Dukes of Hazzard." "She's beautiful," he says. And what about her singing? "She's beautiful," he says again. And Kid Rock laughs, and says she ruined "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'."

By the way, Kid, what exactly brings you here? Turns out, he's one of the 97 people on the Kennedy Center Honors artists' committee -- keeping company with such names as Meryl Streep, James Taylor and Christopher Plummer. And perhaps some day he'll get the Honors himself, circa 2041.

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