Kennedy Honors fete Davis, Dee, Sutherland

WASHINGTON — It was largely a Hollywood affair as six titans of the performing arts received the Kennedy Center Honors here Sunday with a celebration fit for royalty.

Actor Warren Beatty, writers and producers Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, singer-composer Elton John, soprano Joan Sutherland and composer-conductor John Williams were accorded the customary treatment of dinners, a White House reception and an extravagant gala attended by President Bush and other dignitaries from the worlds of politics and showbiz.

Highlight is a two-hour variety show produced by George Stevens Jr. that will air on CBS Dec. 21. It was emceed by Caroline Kennedy, who was handed the reins by a gracious Walter Cronkite. Performers Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway and director Steven Spielberg were among those on hand to praise the honorees.

Dunaway reminisced about her audition for pic “Bonnie and Clyde,” when she was selected by Beatty to play Bonnie Parker. “You gave me my career,” she said tearfully.

Spielberg sang the praises of composer Williams, who scored countless films including his “Jaws.” Spielberg lauded Williams’ ability to “reinterpret films with a musical narrative” and thanked the composer for being “the best thing that happened to my career.”

Rock singer John was introduced by actor Robert Downey Jr., who offered some political comments of dubious taste. Referring to himself as “a recovering liberal-holic” after the recent election, Downey invited Sen. John Kerry, seated in the aud, to join him backstage for treatment. Many members of the bipartisan audience were not amused. Downey also referred to singer John as “the other first lady,” but then acquitted himself by singing a lively version of “Levon.” Billy Joel and Kid Rock were among other entertainers who joined in a medley of John’s hits.

Sean Combs offered a heartfelt tribute to Davis and Dee, while Marilyn Horne told of soprano Sutherland’s achievements.

Clearly the evening’s biggest winner is the Kennedy Center itself. Its staff has leveraged the prestigious gala into a lucrative fund-raiser that earns more than $5 million for the center’s national education and community outreach programs. The event, in its 27th year, is a must-attend for well-heeled Washingtonians and corporate kingpins who rub elbows with political powerbrokers here.

Much credit for the Honors’ success goes to George Stevens Jr., who conceived the idea and has produced the variety show ever since, first with the late Nick Vanoff and later with Don Mischer. Over the years, Stevens has parlayed his connections in Washington and Hollywood to ensure participation by prominent entertainers, as when the persistent Stevens lured a reluctant Katharine Hepburn into accepting an honor. To have omitted her name from the list of recipients would have been unthinkable, he said.

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