The Kennedy Center Honors this year go to solid-gold legends.
The 2005 recipients are screen star Robert Redford, the timeless rocker Tina Turner, crooner extraordinaire Tony Bennett, ballet muse Suzanne Farrell and theatrical legend Julie Harris, the center announced yesterday.
"We honor five extraordinary American artists whose unique and abundant contributions to our culture have transformed our lives," said Stephen A. Schwarzman, the center's chairman. "Tony Bennett is a brilliant musician and singer's singer whom even the great Frank Sinatra called the best there is; Suzanne Farrell's profound artistry has inspired the creation of masterpieces and is teaching ballet to a new generation; for half a century, the enchanting Julie Harris has been one of this country's most acclaimed and revered actors; Robert Redford is an actor and director whose extraordinary support of independent film has had an immeasurable impact on filmmakers and audiences alike; and Tina Turner's sizzling talent and indomitable spirit has made her one of the world's best-loved entertainers."
The Honors, in their 28th year, are among the country's highest tributes to performing artists. The weekend of events that surround the ceremonies has become a highlight of the social and cultural season. This year the Honors will be presented Dec. 3 at the State Department, followed the next evening with an all-star show for the honorees at the center.
Farrell danced at the first Honors evening, when the center saluted master choreographer George Balanchine, dancer Fred Astaire, songwriter Richard Rodgers, classical singer Marian Anderson and pianist Arthur Rubinstein.
"To have been part of that evening -- and now I am truly honored and privileged," said Farrell, who now makes Washington her home and whose ballet company is supported by the center. Her onstage career spanned 28 years. "I loved dancing and how fortunate I am to have had a career I loved doing."
Bennett, 79, has been interpreting the American songbook professionally since 1949. At that time, he was opening for Pearl Bailey, and Bob Hope was in the audience. Hope asked him to sing and then asked the young man his name. Hope nixed it. Anthony Dominick Benedetto of Astoria, N.Y., became Tony Bennett.
The hits started with "Because of You" and "Rags to Riches" and were followed by a fruitful association with Count Basie and other jazz musicians. He recorded "I've Got the World on a String" and "The Best Is Yet to Come." In 1962 he recorded his signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." In recent years Bennett cultivated younger audiences with a music video of "Steppin' Out With My Baby," which became part of MTV's rotation.
In a phone interview yesterday, Bennett said he was a survivor mostly because he got good advice early. "We used to do seven shows at day at the Capitol Theater in Washington and the Paramount in New York. The manager said you are doing the young crowd in the morning, the senior citizens in the afternoon, the engaged and married couples in the evening. And he said just sing good songs and everyone would like it. I stayed with that."
Luckily for his audiences, Bennett doesn't tire of singing "I Left My Heart." Laughing, with a slight hint of awe, Bennett said, "that song made me a world citizen. And when I do it, it always feels like the first time."
Harris, 79, stepped into the limelight on Broadway in 1950 with her performance in Carson McCullers's "The Member of the Wedding." She received an Oscar nomination for the film adaptation of the play. Her first Tony Award came in 1952 when she played Sally Bowles in "I Am a Camera." Since then she has won five Tonys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, more than any other actor, and holds a record 10 nominations.
Her credits include interpretations of historical women ranging from Joan of Arc to Mary Todd Lincoln to Queen Victoria to Emily Dickinson. Her one-woman look at the poet, "The Belle of Amherst," was a major hit that toured the country for years. And television audiences got to see her range in the series "Knots Landing." In recent years she suffered a stroke, and going to the theater has been a welcome respite. "This summer I saw 'Tea at Five' twice. And loved it," Harris says. The play is about another legend, actress Katharine Hepburn.
Looking back, she said, "All of the plays are my favorites. But I'll start with 'Member of the Wedding,' and 'The Lark,' with Boris Karloff, 'The Last of Mrs. Lincoln,' and my work with Charles Nelson Reilly and Charles Durning," she says. "I am blessed in every way."
Redford, 68, brought his golden looks and a theater-honed talent to film, with a breakthrough performance in "Barefoot in the Park" in 1967. Two years later, he made "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and his legend started to build. Subsequent successes included "The Way We Were," "The Sting," "All the President's Men," "The Natural," "The Horse Whisperer," "Downhill Racer," "The Candidate," "Quiz Show" and "Three Days of the Condor." Redford won an Oscar in 1980 for his direction of "Ordinary People," the story of a family trying to hold things together after a suicide.
The center is also recognizing Redford for his commitment to independent film for more than 25 years through the Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival. Since 1981 more than 1,000 artists have gone through its workshops and the festival has helped long-shot films take flight. Success stories include "sex, lies, and videotape," "Hoop Dreams" and "Boys Don't Cry."
In a statement, Redford said: "I have been blessed with a love for and ability in art, and it is a gift which I have attempted to make the most out of. It is an honor to be recognized for this."
No one in this honors class has had more ups and downs than Turner, now 65. Her raw, bluesy voice was the mainstay of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue in the 1960s. Their songs -- "River Deep, Mountain High" and "Proud Mary" -- were explosive and a departure from the softer, more soulful sounds of the period. When their abusive marriage broke up in 1976, Tina retreated. But she found another musical family with rockers Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger and forged a new identity. Her comeback in the early 1980s -- still featuring her heavenly legs -- brought the classics "What's Love Got to Do With It?" and "The Best." She sold out stadiums around the world and won six more Grammys for a total of seven. Her stadium tour in 2000 was the highest-grossing tour of the year, according to Pollstar.
She has also done some movie work, mostly notably "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" in 1985 and a cameo at the end of the Oscar-nominated film of her life "What's Love Got to Do With It" in 1993. "I am truly humbled by this honor and look forward to a wonderful evening," Turner said, in a statement.
In an interview earlier this year, Oprah Winfrey asked Turner if she saw herself as a legend. Turner replied, "I finally accepted that, and it is incredible. I never had as many records as Whitney Houston or Aretha Franklin. But after years and years of work, people finally came to see me in my sixties. I said, 'Why are these people still coming? What is it? I dance and I sing and I make the people feel good. So what?'"
Farrell, 60, is tied forever to another legend, Balanchine. She auditioned for him on her 15th birthday, was selected for the School of American Ballet, and a year later was promoted to the corps of the New York City Ballet. Balanchine, the company's founder, went on to create ballets for her, including the full-length "Don Quixote" and "Meditation." Her repertory included 100 ballets, and she danced more than 2,000 performances with the New York ballet.
After her retirement in 1989 Farrell worked to preserve Balanchine's legacy and teach his work to a new generation of dancers.
In 1993 she began an association with the Kennedy Center. From master classes the effort has grown into a full-fledged company, supported by a $2 million annual budget from the center. "That is one of the wonderful things about dance. You do it to pass it on to someone else. It is a short career, and it is longer when I can teach," said Farrell.
The recipients are chosen by a national artists committee of the center and approved by the board and George Stevens Jr., the producer of the Honors show since 1978.