The Kennedy Center Honors list this year slants toward the rich and sometimes wild expressions of music.
Yesterday the center announced that pop icon Sir Elton John -- he of the outrageous "Bennie and the Jets" days and the more recent ballads for Broadway -- is being honored. The center also selected Dame Joan Sutherland, one of the great post-World War II sopranos who proved bel canto was singable -- and did it beautifully -- and whose "Lucia di Lammermoor" is a textbook for aspiring singers.
And it picked composer John Williams, whose film scores have earned him 28 Academy Award nominations. His music for "Jaws," "Schindler's List," "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," "Star Wars" and his adaptation of "Fiddler on the Roof" brought him Oscars.
Rounding out the list are actors and producers Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, who have been married for 56 years, and actor, director and producer Warren Beatty.
The Honors will be given at a State Department dinner on Dec. 4, followed the next day by a White House reception and a celebrity-filled salute at the center.
Stephen A. Schwarzman, the center's chairman, tackled the range of this year's Honors recipients: "They are a film artist whose talents are astonishingly diverse; a greatly revered couple of stage and screen; a pop music icon who also composes stunning musical film and theater scores; an operatic superstar of unsurpassed artistic achievement; and one of the most influential American composers of the past four decades."
The selections are made by the board of trustees, working with producer George Stevens Jr., who review the nominations of the center's national artists committee. Members of the committee include Yo-Yo Ma, Nathan Lane, David Brubeck, Michael Douglas, Angela Bassett, Meryl Streep and Adrien Brody and Morgan Freeman.
The Kennedy Center Honors recognize lasting contributions to the arts, rewarding those whose careers made a lasting impact on the cultural life of the country. The paths of these six follow a sparkling trajectory from the 1940s, crossing through to the current century.
Dee, who will be 80 next month, debuted in the 1943 drama "South Pacific" and later starred in the original Broadway production "A Raisin in the Sun."
Davis, 86, started his theater career in "Jeb" in 1946. Later would come "Purlie Victorious," a satire about a jackleg preacher attempting to reform a plantation owner.
Gracing her first professional stage in 1947, Sutherland, now 77, appeared as the Queen of Carthage in Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas." Within years, Italian opera fans had christened her "La Stupenda."
Composer Williams, 72, created the theme for "Playhouse 90" in 1952. Later he would resurrect those lush symphonic sounds for film scores and take them to dramas and action, like " Raiders of the Lost Ark."
And Elton John, now 57, stormed into the limelight in 1970 with "Your Song." Later he broke Elvis Presley's record for the most consecutive years of Top 40 hits on Billboard's single charts.
Beatty made his acting debut in 1959 in the television series "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" and followed that in 1960 with a Tony nomination for William Inge's "A Loss of Roses." Later would come "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Reds."
Beatty said yesterday receiving the Honors was special because the setting is so close to where he grew up in Arlington. "It is particularly nice. I kind of figure I am the hometown boy," he said.
His first film, "Splendor in the Grass," with Natalie Wood in 1961, became a standard for teen romances. In 1967 he produced and starred in "Bonnie and Clyde." Not an immediate hit, in time the film became a classic for it melding of romance, style and stark depictions of crime.
"The film itself is whatever people say," says Beatty. "It definitely broke new ground in my life because it was the first movie I produced. At that time that was rare for an actor."
His acting credits cover only a few films. "From the age of 23 on, whenever I made a film, it was a comeback," he says. But he built a strong career of acting, directing and producing. Some of those films include "Heaven Can Wait, "Bugsy," "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Reds," which won him the Best Director Oscar. In his Kennedy Center biography, it doesn't mention "Ishtar," one of the biggest flops of all time. He says he's surprised.
"When you divorce it from the complexities of the company that was making it, you will find a funny little comedy," he says. "I like it."
Elton John started out small in the cabarets of London but his teaming with songwriter Bernie Taupin made him a star on both sides of the Atlantic. He was hard to miss, with his rocking piano, outrageous feathered wardrobe and $5,000 glasses. John has sold 200 million records and 60 million albums, and his version of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" stands as the most successful cover of a Beatles song ever. John Lennon played guitar on the track.
John has also spread his musical outpouring to Broadway and the movies. His music for "The Lion King" and "Aida" won Tony Awards for music and score. "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" from the "Lion" film earned him his first Grammy. "Candle in the Wind," which he rewrote as a tribute to Princess Diana after her death, was the second biggest selling single in history.
John, in Hong Kong yesterday, said through his spokesman in New York: "I couldn't be more thrilled and honored to be given this award." John has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
In discussing highlights of his career, Davis immediately thought not of art but activism, which has been a hallmark of his and Dee's life: "The March on Washington, and our participation, the funeral of Malcolm X and our participation, and the production of 'Purlie Victorious' and our participation," he said. At the march, they were part of a contingent of actors and Davis delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X's funeral. Dee cited "Purlie Victorious," "Take It From the Top," a musical she wrote, and special projects, such as a series for public television on poetry and writers. "I'm really proudest of having done 'Zora Is My Name.' She said something about the time. I love her so much," said Dee of writer Zora Neale Hurston.
Dee made her own mark in theater history, becoming the first African American woman to play major parts in the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. She has appeared in 20 films, and her work drew an Obie Award in 1971, a Drama Desk Award in 1972, an Emmy Award and an Ace Award.
Davis wrote and directed the film "Cotton Comes to Harlem" and the television film "For Us the Living: The Story of Medgar Evers." He wrote the book for the musical "Purlie." In recent years he's made steady TV appearances, most recently playing the father in "Miss Evers' Boys."
Sutherland sang every prime soprano role and her album "The Art of the Prima Donna" has stayed in circulation for decades.
Now retired and living in Switzerland, Sutherland released a statement: "I have such fond remembrances of the great audience reactions to my performances in the United States and look forward so much to the celebrations in December."