Big Wheels Turning

Kennedy Center Honorees
The five honorees pose for the formal group photo: Julie Harris and Suzanne Farrell (seated) and Tony Bennett, Tina Turner and Robert Redford. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 5, 2005

What a night it was, a night of unusual pairings: R&B's latest golden boy, John Legend, serenading Tony Bennett with his rendition of "For Once in My Life." Wynton Marsalis saluting him with "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," his trumpet plaintively singing the lyrics. Willie Nelson paying tribute to Robert Redford, his co-star in "The Electric Horseman," with not one but two cowboy songs. Melissa Etheridge whipping herself into a froth for Tina Turner with "Nutbush City Limits."

With the Kennedy Center Honors, it's all about celebrating the best of the best, the brightest of the bright, not for the one memorable role that snared an Oscar or for the one spine-tingling ballet, or the one fabulous song that perfectly captured a moment, but for a lifetime's worth of memorable acting and directing and spine-tingling jetes and fabulous singing.

Meritocracy at its egalitarian best, yada yada. But first let's dish, shall we? After all, for the people sitting in the audience, the ones who aren't being honored or doing the official honoring, it's all about the gawk. As in: Yes, that's Joan Rivers in the to-die-for chocolate velvet gown and the embalmed face. Yes, Kid Rock, that is-he-or-isn't-he Republican rapper, really did interpret "black-tie" to mean buckskin fringe and a fedora. Yes, Tina is still, at 66, scarily beautiful (the poster girl for the old expression "black don't crack") , though we're still trying to figure out if it's a wig or a weave. And yes, Oprah's in the house, sitting next to Kevin Spacey and still looking thin, even though she was sporting one enormous red dress.

It's about blow-outs and Botox, designer gowns and trotting out the jewels you normally keep in the vault. Rearranged faces frozen in time, thanks to a little surgical intervention.

The evening's hostess, Caroline Kennedy, gently steered our minds from such petty pursuits and to the matter at hand with a quote from George Bernard Shaw: "You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul."

"The artists we honor this evening," she said, "have indeed touched our souls."

Here, the glitterati toasted those they adored: Glenn Close and Tom Brokaw and Paul Newman saluting Redford, 68, not just for his acting but for his Oscar-winning directing and his work nurturing moviemaking talent with the Sundance Institute. Queen Latifah paying homage to Turner by singing "What's Love Got to Do With It." Ballet stars Jacques d'Amboise and Maria Tallchief and Arthur Mitchell waxing nostalgic on former New York City Ballet prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell for her "long-limbed elegant wildness" and for being, as d'Amboise recalled, "a demon of a dancer," legs flying, arms in danger of punching partners out, a muse always in tune with the music. Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin and Helen Mirren and Mary-Louise Parker paying homage to Julie Harris, a thespian so assured 0f her talents that when she met the Queen of England at a White House state dinner, Harris scoped out the royal and said, "I could play it better."

Which is why she was here last night.

Newman, a onetime honoree himself, strolled onstage in a regular workaday suit, Kennedy Center rainbow draped around his neck, and won his own standing ovation.

"On my 70th birthday," he said, glasses sliding down his nose, "I set fire to my tuxedo."

He held aloft his neckwear: "Black tie."

From there, Newman held court, riffing on Redford's notorious lack of punctuality, claiming that the only reason that he'd even made it into the Opera House on time was because he'd been told that "the thing was happening yesterday."

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