Part documentary, part variety show, the Kennedy Center Honors offered graceful tribute to five artists whose own marvelous work sometimes upstages any effort to praise them.

President Bush couldn't make the show because he had to leave for South America but sent Barbara Bush and a tape of his voice instead. Vice President Dan Quayle and his wife, Marilyn, joined Mrs. Bush in the presidential box.

The show -- produced as usual by George Stevens Jr. and Nick Vanoff and taped at a packed and glittering Kennedy Center Opera House for airing on CBS Dec. 28 -- opened with Bill Cosby looking up from the stage to his friend in the balcony, Dizzy Gillespie, and saying, "When I look up and see my friend in that box, and everybody else is looking so straight, I know there's one person up there who isn't. And I can tell he's looking around right now to see who I'm talking about."

They did look straight -- musician Gillespie, actress Katharine Hepburn, opera singer Rise Stevens, composer Jule Styne and film director Billy Wilder -- and honorable, wearing their rainbow striped ribbons around their necks. As scenes from their youthful pasts unfolded before them, they watched with dignified restraint.

Each star got a celebrity tribute followed by a filmed biography and an example of the person's own work. Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra -- "three Brazilians, three Cubans, a Panamanian, a Puerto Rican, a Dominican and six blacks from anywhere" as Cosby described it -- rocked the house with a great blast of Gillespie's composition "A Night in Tunisia." Just before they began, musician James Moody offered his own tribute, a remarkable jazz yodel aimed at his partner "on the mountain" in the presidential box.

There were pictures of Gillespie as a "young, hip cat" in beret and round glasses, of Rise Stevens as a sultry young Carmen and of Billy Wilder in his youth in Vienna.

The film clips of Hepburn included a rare peek at her family's home movies -- a very young Kate sailing, climbing a tree and dropping down from its branches, doing a back flip off a diving board -- as well as excerpts from some of her most famous movies.

After the movie clips came the first of three ovations for Hepburn, who looked both humble and slightly tearful. There were tears in the audience too, when a scene from "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" flashed on the screen. It was the scene where Spencer Tracy, in his last film, talks to Sidney Poitier while Hepburn is seen crying quietly in the background, looking in the film very much as she did last night.

Departing from procedure-as-usual, Hepburn spoke from the balcony. It was hard for everyone to hear her, but she said in part, "I never saw Spence do that role ... I was lucky. I've never seen such remarkable actors," referring to her film colleagues.

Actresses Glenn Close and Lauren Bacall joined Angela Lansbury to read things by and about Hepburn. "Acting isn't very difficult," Hepburn once said. "Shirley Temple could do it at 4."

In closing, Bacall looked up and said, "Thank you, Kate," and the three beautiful blond actresses walked to the front of the stage to lead Hepburn's third ovation.

Earlier, mezzo Marilyn Horne said she shared with Stevens the disadvantages of having a lower voice. "Take it from me, being a mezzo is like being an Avis in a Hertz world. We have to try harder." She remembered that the elegant opera singer had started her career on the Pet Milk Radio Hour before going on to the Metropolitan Opera.

Soprano Aprile Millo offered a thrilling rendition of "La Mama Morta" from the opera "Andrea Chenier," which might have seemed too lugubrious for a festive evening but fortunately was in Italian. But it just so happens to be what conductor Julius Rudel is rehearsing at the Met.

Excerpts from some of Wilder's most wonderful films, like "The Apartment," "Some Like It Hot" and the incomparable "Sunset Boulevard," almost made one wish that the celebrities could be pushed aside and the movies played in their entirety.

Jack Lemmon noted that Wilder was particularly good at portraying "hustlers, outsiders and alcoholics." He also told a story about Wilder overhearing some studio executives trash another director who had recently suffered two flops in a row. Offered the chance to snipe at the man, Wilder said instead, "You are as good as the best thing you've ever done."

There was a reason why composer Jule Styne was saved for the last act. His music, from shows like "Gypsy" and "Bells are Ringing," is the kind of stuff that got even this comparatively staid audience toe-tapping. "We've collaborated on six Broadway shows, and his is the music that always makes me dance," said dancer-choreographer Jerome Robbins in his introduction.

When Tyne Daly, who recently closed a long run in a revival of "Gypsy," belted out the classic "Some People," things began to take off. Tommy Tune and Ann Reinking danced and sang "Just in Time" with effortless panache, and Jack Jones rounded things out with a good belt of "People." Barbra Streisand was not missed.

And then everything came up roses as the entire ensemble, from Art Buchwald, to Walter Cronkite, to Walter Matthau, poured on stage for a rousing finale.

Hepburn went backstage after the show to greet and thank those who had been on stage. According to one who was there, performers lined up on either side of her; there was much hugging and much back-stage applause.