Kennedy Center award dinner features honorees plus Sharon Stone, Hillary Clinton

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009

On Saturday night, inside the hulking stone walls of the State Department building, Sharon Stone and Lynda Carter became new best friends. Frank Langella and Barbara Walters turned heads by showing up together. One luminary after another stopped on the red carpet to pose for cameras and make bad gate-crasher jokes.

"We're not from Virginia!"

"We can't stop, we don't have an invitation!"

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed the glittering VIPs in from the cold to the awards dinner for the 32nd annual Kennedy Center Honors.

Few other events -- in Washington or anywhere else in this country -- draw together a pool of such varied and enormous talent. Saturday's honorees -- actor Robert De Niro, opera singer Grace Bumbry, rock legend Bruce Springsteen, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and writer/director/producer Mel Brooks -- will be feted Sunday with a gala performance at the Kennedy Center. On Saturday, they just caught up with a few old pals and mingled with a couple hundred new ones.

"You're my fan," Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican, bumbled to Martin Short. "Er, I mean, I'm your fan."

It happens, that kind of bumbling, in a room like this. Consider the guest list, or at least this sliver of it: Edward Norton, Sharon Stone (looking very thin in purple Galliano), Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Melissa Etheridge, Nora Ephron, Nancy Pelosi (sparkly black Armani jacket), Sting, Harvey Keitel, Chita Rivera, Alan Alda, Ben Harper, Laura Dern, Jane Krakowski, Christine Baranski and Matthew Morrison of newly-found "Glee" fame. (And yes, for the record, names and IDs were tripled-checked by security guards who didn't seem much amused by gate-crasher jokes.)

"When you see Thomas Jefferson's desk, it's almost like a fictional character," said Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles. "And Meryl Streep -- come on."

"It's very crowded and it smells old," reported Jon Stewart. "It smells Colonial. And I wandered into the Martha Washington room not realizing it was the ladies lounge."

Secretary Clinton wore a midnight blue gown and just a slight sheen of jet lag, having flown in from Brussels late Friday after working to drum up international support for the administration's Afghanistan plan. Bill Clinton wore a hiply straight tie and the biggest grin imaginable as he held up the receiving line.

The Kennedy Center Honors have none of the chest-clutching who's-going-to-beat-who tension imbued at most awards show. Here the only surprise is who-will-pay-tribute-to-who. (And in the age of digital megaphones, it's become harder to keep the air in that balloon -- you're not supposed to just Twitter it, Edward Norton!)

But there will always be a question of whose words or songs, in evoking the fertile geniuses of the honorees, will send chills down our spine. Reminding us that, as John F. Kennedy put it, there is "little of more importance to the future of our country and of civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist."

And that the people standing in the State Department's diplomatic rooms, admiring Thomas Jefferson's desk and inspecting a copy the Treaty of Paris, regularly go where diplomats and politicians rarely can: into the recesses of far-flung minds, still deciphering the world through movies and music.

After schmoozing for an hour -- can you believe Melissa Etheridge and Eddie Vedder had never met before? -- the evening's 260 guests repaired to the State dining room, where they were served risotto with goose liver, rack of lamb and cabernet sauvignon from the Russian River Valley. Carol Burnett, an honoree from the class of 2003, played emcee as this year's winners received their awards and were toasted by colleagues and admirers. Strangest pairing of the night: Itzhak Perlman and Springsteen. Apparently the violin virtuoso is a big fan of the Boss.

On Sunday, the honorees will attend a late-afternoon reception at the White House before taking their seats in the president's box at the Kennedy Center.

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