What a night it was, a night of unusual pairings: R&B's latest golden boy, John Legend, serenading Tony Bennett with his rendition of "For Once in My Life." Wynton Marsalis saluting him with "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," his trumpet plaintively singing the lyrics. Willie Nelson paying tribute to Robert Redford, his co-star in "The Electric Horseman," with not one but two cowboy songs. Melissa Etheridge whipping herself into a froth for Tina Turner with "Nutbush City Limits."

With the Kennedy Center Honors, it's all about celebrating the best of the best, the brightest of the bright, not for the one memorable role that snared an Oscar or for the one spine-tingling ballet, or the one fabulous song that perfectly captured a moment, but for a lifetime's worth of memorable acting and directing and spine-tingling jetes and fabulous singing.

Meritocracy at its egalitarian best, yada yada. But first let's dish, shall we? After all, for the people sitting in the audience, the ones who aren't being honored or doing the official honoring, it's all about the gawk. As in: Yes, that's Joan Rivers in the to-die-for chocolate velvet gown and the embalmed face. Yes, Kid Rock, that is-he-or-isn't-he Republican rapper, really did interpret "black-tie" to mean buckskin fringe and a fedora. Yes, Tina is still, at 66, scarily beautiful (the poster girl for the old expression "black don't crack") , though we're still trying to figure out if it's a wig or a weave. And yes, Oprah's in the house, sitting next to Kevin Spacey and still looking thin, even though she was sporting one enormous red dress.

It's about blow-outs and Botox, designer gowns and trotting out the jewels you normally keep in the vault. Rearranged faces frozen in time, thanks to a little surgical intervention.

The evening's hostess, Caroline Kennedy, gently steered our minds from such petty pursuits and to the matter at hand with a quote from George Bernard Shaw: "You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul."

"The artists we honor this evening," she said, "have indeed touched our souls."

Here, the glitterati toasted those they adored: Glenn Close and Tom Brokaw and Paul Newman saluting Redford, 68, not just for his acting but for his Oscar-winning directing and his work nurturing moviemaking talent with the Sundance Institute. Queen Latifah paying homage to Turner by singing "What's Love Got to Do With It." Ballet stars Jacques d'Amboise and Maria Tallchief and Arthur Mitchell waxing nostalgic on former New York City Ballet prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell for her "long-limbed elegant wildness" and for being, as d'Amboise recalled, "a demon of a dancer," legs flying, arms in danger of punching partners out, a muse always in tune with the music. Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin and Helen Mirren and Mary-Louise Parker paying homage to Julie Harris, a thespian so assured 0f her talents that when she met the Queen of England at a White House state dinner, Harris scoped out the royal and said, "I could play it better."

Which is why she was here last night.

Newman, a onetime honoree himself, strolled onstage in a regular workaday suit, Kennedy Center rainbow draped around his neck, and won his own standing ovation.

"On my 70th birthday," he said, glasses sliding down his nose, "I set fire to my tuxedo."

He held aloft his neckwear: "Black tie."

From there, Newman held court, riffing on Redford's notorious lack of punctuality, claiming that the only reason that he'd even made it into the Opera House on time was because he'd been told that "the thing was happening yesterday."

"Riddle me this," Newman said, "If his timing's so great, why is he always late? Maybe being late is about one-upmanship."

And maybe Newman, with his wisecracking about Redford's grandkids outing him as "Grandpa Bob" and his own impeccable sense of timing for the one-liner, upstaged his buddy, if only for a moment.

After all, this was an evening honoring performance and performers, and when you ask a performer to honor one of his or her own, well, they're going to perform. And perform they do: A white-haired d'Amboise skipped across the stage, jeteing as he recounted what it was like to try to keep up with the fearless Farrell onstage. Glenn Close laid it on with a shovel as she recalled how she tried to turn down Redford and a role in "The Natural" because of a scheduling conflict.

"As soon as he saw me," she said, "he smiled . . . that smile . . . looked into my eyes with that eagle look."

She paused to mold her features into an approximation of Redford's irresistible eagle-look.

"And said, 'I really want you in this movie.' "

Of course she said yes. You would've, too.

Quincy Jones, another previous honoree, talked about how Frank Sinatra deemed Tony Bennett the greatest singer ever. If Bennett had already performed a song, Jones said, then Sinatra knew that it was good enough for him to record. He recounted how Bennett once serenaded Nelson Mandela with an a cappella rendition of "Lost in the Stars." Bennett's real name, Benedetto, means "blessed one," Jones noted.

"His essence is to give," Jones said, "whether it's his music or his painting."

Bennett stood up in his box and beamed, and you saw that yes, he really does have this sort of angelic glow about him.

There was a moody black-and-white video of those honored, interspersed with vivid color snapshots: Farrell dancing like a woman possessed. A baby-faced Bennett crooning "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Redford and Jane Fonda in "Barefoot in the Park." Harris wearing out the stage, all pathos and longing in "The Member of the Wedding."

It was about taking a moment to look back, rather than forward. Sentiment ruled here, and it was hard not to get choked up when Vanessa Williams blew a blushing Bennett a kiss, or when k.d. lang, in tux and tails, crooned "What a Wonderful World." Or when Queen Latifah ordered, "We've got to get a little finger-snap here. This is Tina, baby."

Musical theater's divas -- Michele Lee, Christine Baranski, Karen Ziemba, Tyne Daly and Leslie Uggams -- belted out a brassy "Broadway Baby," altering the lyrics in a tender tribute to one of Broadway's more enduring babies, Harris, now looking frail and tiny at age 80, but very pleased to be the recipient of so much attention.

It was all about the gush.

And Oprah Winfrey's was the biggest gush of them all.

"If there was an award for biggest groupie of Tina Turner," said the talk-show impresario, "I would win." She was once so enthralled with Turner that she went out and bought a wig. Until, she said, Steadman Graham, her perennial significant other, brought her back down to terra firma with a reality check: "You are not Tina Turner and you look ridiculous in that wig."

Melissa Etheridge, on the other side of a bout with breast cancer, prowled the stage, snarling the lyrics to "Nutbush City Limits" and setting the stage afire, and your eye wandered up to the presidential box, where the commander in chief was doing a dignified little head-nod to the beat.

And you wanted to shout, "Dance, Mr. President, dance!" because you and everyone else in the audience were doing the chair-dance thing, but he remained -- mostly -- resistant to the beat.

Until surprise guest Beyonce Knowles came onstage with a tribute to Turner, and even the chief executive had to stand up. It was an interesting juxtaposition, that moment: the president of the United States standing within arm's reach of Tina Turner, looking down on Beyonce, whose crotch-grazing Bob Mackie costume threatened to give the FCC -- the gala will be broadcast Dec. 27 on CBS -- reason to invoke the two-second delay.

Make that two two-second delays.

Staff writer Jose Antonio Vargas contributed to this report.

Robert Redford is surrounded by his family as they arrive at the Kennedy Center. Left, the five honorees pose for the formal group photo: Julie Harris and Suzanne Farrell (seated) and Tony Bennett, Tina Turner and Robert Redford. Caroline Kennedy, below, hosted last night's program in the Opera House.