Stevie Wonder, the 49-year-old songwriter and musician who has been a spokesman for social justice, yesterday became the youngest person ever selected for the Kennedy Center Honors.
This year's salutes are also going to the comic pianist Victor Borge, the prototypical suave spy Sean Connery, the elegant dancer Judith Jamison and the playwright's actor Jason Robards.
"We honor a beloved entertainer who has created his very own art form out of laughter and music, a living icon whose charm and talent has enthralled moviegoers for decades, one of the nation's most individualistic and beloved dance artists, an actor who for half a century has been one of the leading lights of the American theater, and a musical genius who has been an integral part of American popular culture for the past four decades," said Kennedy Center Chairman James A. Johnson.
The Honors, a fixture of Washington's winter social season, will be presented Dec. 4 at an invitation-only dinner at the State Department, followed the next night by an all-star salute to the five honorees in the center's Opera House. The evening sells out before the honorees are named.
The selections always provoke debate. This year some will raise eyebrows at the choice of Connery, a staunch Scot who has never lived in America. Last year some critics sniffed at the inclusion of Shirley Temple Black because her show business career had ended 50 years earlier, but there nostalgia won out over any objections.
Robert Aubry Davis, the host of WETA's arts round table "Around Town," has interviewed all of the honorees and thinks the list is balanced and even superb.
"Sean Connery is a fantastic choice. Who can ever forget 'From Russia With Love'? Yes, he's truly Scottish, but that doesn't bother me," Davis says. "And have we ever defined what the Honors are about? They are honoring famous folk and getting people into the center to watch the famous folks get awards."
Wonder has sold almost as many records as the Beatles or Elvis Presley. He's been a fixture on the American music scene since 1963 when, as Little Stevie Wonder, his "Fingertips Pt. 2" became a hit. Playing the harmonica, drums and piano, Wonder was a staple of the Motown sound of the 1960s and '70s, pouring out "For Once in My Life," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" and "My Cherie Amour."
In the 1970s, after a bitter break with Motown Records and then a reconciliation, Wonder took control of his career and fashioned almost unparalleled musical innovation and lyrical depth. In a short period, he produced seven classic albums with songs that were topical anthems, from "Living for the City" to "Higher Ground," as well as the dance hits "Superstition" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life."
Wonder said yesterday that the Kennedy Center Honor ranks with his first Grammy (for "Superstition"), his 1984 Oscar for Best Song ("I Just Called to Say I Love You," from "The Woman in Red") and successfully lobbying to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday.
"This is a statement from the country in which I was born, and looking back on my life, and even though I'm just turning 49, I never imagined all this," he said. "I prayed for many things in my life. As a little boy, I prayed for things that would help my mother, my brothers and sister, all my loved ones. That isn't to say I didn't pray that God would help me. It is almost as if everything I prayed for has happened and even more."
Connery, 69, had a modest stage and screen career until 1962, when he was cast to play Ian Fleming's romantic daredevil agent James Bond. Connery made the franchise one of the most successful in movie history, starting with "Dr. No" and continuing through "Never Say Never Again" in 1983. At times, the more mature Connery has earned as much attention as he did during the Bond years, with the actor winning an Academy Award in 1987 for "The Untouchables."
Connery's preference for living elsewhere did not hinder his selection for this American honor. "This is by no means the first time we have taken someone who has had foreign citizenship," Johnson says. "We made a point that we want their principal artistic contribution to be with American audiences, and that can fairly be said of Connery's career."
In the past, foreign-born conductors Gian Carlo Menotti and Mstislav Rostropovich, choreographer George Balanchine, and actors Claudette Colbert, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy have been honored, but most had a long residency in the States.
Connery, in keeping with his jet-setting image, was on an international flight yesterday and released this statement: "I am absolutely thrilled and honored."
Both Robards and Jamison are coming full circle with their connections to the Kennedy Center. Robards recalled that he attended its groundbreaking with President Johnson in December 1964 and appeared in the first play the center produced, a revival of Clifford Odets's "The Country Girl," in 1971. Jamison is now director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and danced with the company the night the center opened in 1971.
Robards's career as a stage actor includes many of the landmark dramas of the last 50 years, and he is closely identified with the rediscovery of Eugene O'Neill, beginning with a 1956 production. "We did 'Iceman Cometh' and then we were given 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' by Mrs. O'Neill, and those two plays started the revival of O'Neill. America thought he was passe. He changed the way theater was written, and moved from this declamatory style and went back to the classic themes," Robards said.
Robards, 77, also has a distinguished film career. His portrayals of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in "All the President's Men" and novelist Dashiell Hammett in "Julia" garnered him back-to-back Oscars in 1976-77.
Jamison, 56, was traveling outside Bahia, Brazil, yesterday but released a statement recalling her association with choreographer Ailey. "When I realized that I was going to receive the Kennedy Center Honors, I was in tears looking at Alvin's picture," she said. The troupe performed with Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" at the center's unveiling. "I'm just thrilled to go back to accept this incredible recognition."
Jamison, discovered by Agnes de Mille in 1964, joined the Ailey troupe a year later and performed many of his signature dances, including "Revelations," "Blues Suite" and "The Lark Ascending." When she introduced "Cry," a 16-minute solo created by Ailey, the audience saw an athletic prowess and stature that female dancers, especially African American female dancers, had rarely displayed. She returned to the company in 1989 when Ailey died and has continued his tradition of narrative choreography.
Borge, 90, was a well-established concert pianist in his native Copenhagen before World War II. He had already developed his witty style but also was outspoken about the rise of Hitler in Germany. He escaped to the United States in 1940, and his broken English became part of his routine, immortalized in the early days of black-and-white television.
Borge is still on the road. He appeared this week with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. "I do as much as I feel I can without tiring myself. I used to do 98 to 100 shows a year. I cut it way down to 98. This year I am doing about 35 to 40," he said.
"I feel I have a mission. I have a feeling that when people spend money to hear or see a performance, they need it or they want it. If you have a performance that makes people happy, this makes you feel you are needed."
The recipients are selected by a special artists committee of the center, which this year included Julie Andrews, Renee Fleming, Morgan Freeman, Jack Lemmon, Martin Scorsese, Carol Burnett, Gregory Hines and Kevin Spacey. The slate is given final approval by George Stevens Jr., one of the co-founders of the Honors and a co-producer of the telecast, which airs in late December.
CAPTION: Among the honorees: From left, Judith Jamison (shown with Anna Deavere Smith), Sean Connery in his Bond incarnation, and Jason Robards.