Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly referred to Josh Brolin as Barbra Streisand's son-in-law. He is her stepson.

Freeman, Streisand, Tharp, Jones, Daltry and Townshend Receive Kennedy Center Honors

A look at the high-wattage stars who came to Washington to pay tribute to this year's Kennedy Center Honorees: Barbra Streisand, Morgan Freeman, George Jones, Twyla Tharp and The Who's Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry.
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008

It's Washington's big night for the glitterati, the evening each year when the red carpet and E! Online and the whirl of celebrity gossip and glitz all descend on this supposedly staid town. The Kennedy Center Honors is the D.C. event that has enough cachet to move the likes of Beyoncé to fly in, so that she can rise from the stage floor in a swirl of smoke to pay tribute to Ms. Diva Herself, Barbra Streisand.

All, of course, while Clint Eastwood and Garth Brooks and Queen Latifah and Jack Black and Lily Tomlin and Denzel Washington and B.B. King -- the roster of A-listers goes on and on -- share the same greenroom backstage. The nominees themselves -- actor Morgan Freeman, dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp, country singer George Jones, rockers Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of the Who, and Streisand -- get toasted at a State Department dinner and a White House ceremony. As icing on the cake, there's the big gala at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

George Stevens Jr., the man who pulls off this production every first Sunday in December, has the weight of many questions on his shoulders: Whom to honor first? Whom to honor last? How to make sure that multiple Oscar and Grammy winners don't feel snubbed?

(When Jack Nicholson was honored a few years back, the headliner to salute him was Warren Beatty. Stevens started the show with Beatty, who griped about being relegated to "the first act" -- before he watched the show and apologized. "He complained," Stevens says, then said later he realized there was "no such thing as a first act in this show.")

There certainly was no lesser act last night, either, at the 31st annual Kennedy Center Honors. The Honors are given to performing-arts icons and recognize lifetime contributions to American culture. This year's event will air on CBS Dec. 30.

"It's like an intersection of New York money, Washington power and Hollywood glamour," said Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, who was also a part of last night's tribute to his longtime friend Twarp.

Freeman, 71, was honored first, with Eastwood (who had his own Honors ribbon to wear, from 2000) and Washington among those paying homage to his legend. Washington introduced the traditional film tribute with a lighthearted story of his first time acting opposite Freeman -- as part of Shakespeare in the Park in New York -- and how he attempted to give the man some acting input. The tribute itself focused on Freeman's love for jazz and blues and his Mississippi roots, and he absolutely beamed as B.B. King performed in his honor.

Streisand, wearing black and gold, was honored last, with a moving introduction by Queen Latifah, who cited the acting, singing and directing legend for being so "passionate, fearless and funny, no wonder the artists of my generation want to be like Barbra." The theme of her tribute, as Latifah put it, was about the Brooklyn girl "jumping over barriers." Glenn Close thanked Streisand, 66, for her "audacity." Tony-winning Idina Menzel, of "Wicked" and "Rent" fame, was so nervous about singing in honor of Streisand that she told Stevens at Saturday's rehearsal, "I'm afraid I'm not going to have any breath." She apparently found it in plenty of time; her appearance was a show highlight, and when she sang, she worked in the phrase "Hey, Ms. Streisand, I'm your biggest fan."

Singer Rob Thomas admitted on the red carpet that he had practiced so obsessively for his tribute to Daltrey, 64, and Townshend, 63 (he sang "Baba O'Riley") that "my dogs know all the words to the song." Black, of "School of Rock" and other films, acknowledged he was one of legions of young boys who worshiped the Who; Black himself had tried to duplicate their rebellious anthems in a school talent show. (And Thomas, Dave Grohl and Chris Cornell all basically did a grown-up version of that imitation during their Who segment.)

Lily Tomlin came out to salute Tharp, 67, whose brilliant choreographic career provided the night with a departure from all the singing numbers; instead Tharp was honored with a series of dances from Marcelo Gomes and Luciana Paris.

While almost everyone declared the Honors an apolitical Washington gathering -- including former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who walked down the red carpet shortly before current Speaker Nancy Pelosi did -- Streisand did give the event, which is officially hosted by the president, a politically tricky moment. Streisand has been a noted opponent of President Bush's policies -- and her son-in-law portrayed Bush in the recent film "W" -- but that didn't deter her from being honored by the outgoing commander in chief.

"He's very warm and funny," Streisand said of the president, whom she met at the White House ceremony. Speaking as she strode along the red carpet with her husband, actor James Brolin, the singer added, "Art trumps politics tonight." Still, a ripple of laughter washed over the Opera House during a video presentation of the meeting, which showed Bush giving her a buss on the cheek. The two also blew air-kisses to each other in their box.

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