A movie star, a rock star, a prima ballerina, a TV-stage-film comedian and a soul legend who has been serenaded by President Obama make up the Kennedy Center Honors’ Class of 2014, the center announced this morning.
“I guess we made it!” soul singer Al Green said from Memphis.
Green will be joined by Hollywood everyman Tom Hanks, singer and songwriter Sting, George Balanchine muse Patricia McBride and the singular Lily Tomlin.
“It was a huge surprise, bigger than huge,” Tomlin said from Los Angeles, where she is shooting the coming Netflix comedy series “Grace and Frankie” with Jane Fonda, Tomlin’s co-star (with Dolly Parton) in the 1980 hit movie “9 to 5.”
Tomlin didn’t open the letter from the Kennedy Center right away because she is on the Honors nominating committee. “I thought it was just inviting me to attend,” she said of the 37th Honors ceremony, scheduled for Dec. 7 in the Opera House and for telecast Dec. 30 on CBS. “It probably lay there for a week.”
“I never anticipated being in Washington, D.C., with the president of the United States giving me an award,” said Sting, who will make his Broadway debut as a composer this month with “The Last Ship,” drawn from his album “The Soul Cages” and his childhood in an English shipbuilding town. “It’s not something that’s even likely. But I did dream a life where I was singing my songs for lots of people. I dreamed that very hard.”
“I think this is an especially fine group,” said Honors co-founder and co-producer George Stevens Jr. by phone from New York, noting that the event is a significant fundraiser for the center. (Last year, it raised $6.3 million.) “But I probably say that every year.”
In recent years, the Honors were dogged by controversy amid charges that they consistently overlooked Latin artists. The selection process was revised, and soprano Martina Arroyo and rock guitarist Carlos Santana were among the 2013 recipients. No Hispanics were named this year.
Felix R. Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, was in the middle of the campaign for changes after a heated 2012 phone call with Michael Kaiser, then the Kennedy Center president. (Kaiser stepped down at the end of last month. President Deborah F. Rutter is in her first week on the job.) On Thursday morning, Sanchez reacted negatively to this year’s slate.
“I think that it’s incomprehensible that after the discussions we had in 2012 and the changes that were supposed to be in place in 2013 that we have the same result in 2014,” Sanchez said. “It shatters the trust in the promises that were made and in the structural changes that were supposed to prevent this kind of outcome.”
Asked if Latino artists should expect to be named every year, Sanchez said, “There is a threedecade backlog of not acknowledging Latino artists.” He said he will press for a meeting with the center’s Latino advisory committee “posthaste.”
In a statement, Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein said, “We were proud to Honor two Latinos last year and expect to honor more in the years to come.”
Green, 68, became a million-selling recording artist in the early 1970s with smooth, radio-friendly songs that remain instantly recognized: “Let’s Stay Together,” “I’m Still in Love With You,” “Tired of Being Alone,” the much-covered “Take Me to the River” and more. His last recording was “Lay It Down,” in 2008, produced by Questlove of the Roots and featuring guest appearances by John Legend and Corrine Bailey Rae.
Green recalled his frustration during early sessions when a producer kept asking for retakes. “He said: ‘I’m trying to get a range on the voice of Al Green. I don’t want you to sing like Wilson Pickett, Sam Cook or James Brown. How do YOU sing? You’re Al Green, you ought to know.’ ”
Obama crooned a line of “Let’s Stay Together” to Green in 2012. “I was humbled by that,” Green said. “I was — I don’t know — blushy.”
Green, who is in the gospel and rock halls of fame, became a pastor in 1976.
“I’m a pastor every day,” he said. “That’s the type of stuff that keeps me grounded. It’s just that some things are good for you, and if you stick with it, it will help you.”
Hanks, at 58 the youngest member of this year’s class, has been in some of Hollywood’s biggest and best known movies since appearing in Ron Howard’s 1984 “Splash.” Hanks’s work with Howard includes “Apollo 13” and two “Da Vinci Code” movies (a third is coming). With Steven Spielberg, he has made “Saving Private Ryan,” “Catch Me if You Can” and “The Terminal”; together they produced the HBO series “Band of Brothers.” Last year, Hanks was on Broadway in “Lucky Guy,” by the late Nora Ephron, screenwriter and director of Hanks’s vehicles “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.”
McBride, 72, joined Balanchine’s school at 14, leapt into the New York City Ballet at 16, was a soloist by 17 and a principal by 18. She danced with the company until she was 46, partnering over the years with Edward Villella, Jacques D’Amboise and Mikhail Baryshnikov. She retired in 1989 after having works created for her by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
“I felt so fortunate to dance in all those ballets and to see the world, dancing,” the ebullient-sounding McBride said from Charlotte, where she is associate artistic director of the Charlotte Ballet. (McBride’s husband, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, who danced with the Paris Opera Ballet and the New York City Ballet, is the artistic director.) She was on tour with Balanchine in Russia during the Cuban missile crisis. “It was such an amazing life! I always felt so lucky because I knew I was in the presence of genius in the studio.”
Tomlin, who became a fixture on TV’s “Laugh-In” in the late 1960s and early 1970s performing indelible characters such as the tart kid Edith Ann and the lemony phone operator Ernestine, got started in character comedy when her intimidating girlfriend said she was going to audition for a college drama. The girlfriend rather insultingly told Tomlin: “You should come along. There are a lot of small parts.”
Tomlin landed a role that required nightly improvisation. “The theater majors would run out and see what I was going to do every day,” she said. “I made a big sensation in that tiny bit part.”
On TV, she has appeared on shows including “Sesame Street,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Murphy Brown,” “The West Wing” and “Damages.” Tomlin, 75, earned an Oscar nomination for her first film performance, in Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” in 1975, a special Tony Award for her 1977 Broadway solo show, “Appearing Nightly,” and a best actress Tony in 1986 for “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.” Both shows were created with her longtime partner and collaborator, Jane Wagner. After four decades together, they recently married.
At 62, Sting can still claim to be a rock star — and isn’t that the best biographical identifier possible?
“Depends,” the 16-time Grammy winner said from Newcastle, England, where he was slated to perform as part of the Great North Run opening ceremony Thursday. “It can be a pejorative in some cases.”
After Sting’s formidable but short-lived three-man band, the Police, left five bracing albums behind and split off for solo careers in the mid-1980s, Sting continued to sell truckloads of CDs (“Ten Summoner’s Tales,” “Mercury Falling,” “Brand New Day”) and stay on the airwaves. The Broadway-bound ‘Last Ship” is “probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever tackled,” he said. “And I also like left turns. I like surprising myself, surprising the public, challenging myself.”
The most surprising thing about his career? “Probably getting this award,” Sting said. “It’s a remarkable thing for me. I had no expectation of it at all.”
The Honors have tilted toward pop culture for some time. Since Andrew Lloyd Webber in 2006, the only career theater artists named have been Jerry Herman (2010) and Barbara Cook (2011). Dance and classical music appear to share a slot, with each getting a slice of the limelight every other year, more or less.
Hollywood, on the other hand, has been amply represented since Stevens — son of a noted Hollywood director — created the event in 1978. Rock crashed the party when Bob Dylan was honored in 1997, and heavyweight recording stars such as Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Diana Ross and groups such as Led Zeppelin have been staples ever since.
Stevens doesn’t dispute the shift. “But I hope over time that the classic genres will continue to be a central part,” Stevens said, “because it is one thing that does distinguish the Kennedy Center Honors, that it embraces all of the arts.”
Another distinguishing feature is that the recipients do not make acceptance speeches. The honorees absorb the celebratory performances and bask in the company of the president and the first lady.
In a statement, Hanks said he was “relieved that I am not required to speak at the ceremony as words escape me.”
“I’ll just look into my soft drink and listen to someone else perorate about me,” Sting said. “I don’t have to do anything. I’ll probably get itchy.”