Five artistic legends sat alongside President Bush in Washington’s top theater on Sunday night, and were starry-eyed themselves as political and Hollywood heavyweights paid tribute to their glittering careers.
Actress Julie Andrews, pianist Van Cliburn, music maestro Quincy Jones, actor Jack Nicholson and opera singer Luciano Pavarotti received the Kennedy Center Honors for their contributions to American culture.
“The recipients for 2001 make quite a collection…. As one newspaper put it in the headline, this year’s honorees can carry a tune and then there’s Jack,” Bush told them at a White House reception before the gala.
“Perhaps it’s a nice change that none of you will be called on to perform. This is an evening for appreciation, for looking back at all you’ve achieved and for the part you continue to play in our national life,” he added.
A galaxy of stars, from Annette Bening to Jeremy Irons shouldered the performing burden in the red, chandelier-strung theater at the riverside Kennedy Center – the finale of a two-day honors extravaganza.
JUST A HIGH
Jones, who played trumpet with the Dizzy Gillespie Band and produced Michael Jackson’s chart-topping album “Thriller,” was clearly relishing the weekend.
“My God – it’s just a high. It’s a profound, profound experience… the crowning moment. I’ve enjoyed every step of the way though, even the rough ones because they help prepare you for the good ones,” Jones told Reuters at one of the weekend’s parties.
And seeing Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles jamming on stage was too much for the 68-year-old to bear – tears ran freely down his crinkled cheeks.
Nicholson was on hand to lend Andrews a handkerchief after a Broadway medley of her songs from the musicals she made her own including “My Fair Lady” and “Mary Poppins.”
Andrews, who despite her wide-ranging repertoire is still best known for her mountaintop warbling in “The Sound of Music,” said receiving a U.S. honor had taken her breath away.
“It means the most wonderful personal warm feeling. I think of myself as mid-Atlantic,” the British-born actress said at a State Department dinner on Saturday night.
The five artists, the 24th group to receive the annual Honors, are judged to have had an undeniable cultural impact on America, even if they were born elsewhere.
Fellow actor Warren Beatty threatened to spill the secrets of Hollywood bad boy Nicholson – one of the true red-white-and-blue honorees and winner of three Best Actor Oscars for his portrayals in “As Good As It Gets,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Terms of Endearment.”
“He cannot say anything. He’s got no microphone. He’s fun to watch,” Beatty said as Nicholson mimed a grimace.
Nearly three months after the hijack attacks of Sept. 11, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney appeared in the same room under tight security.
“These are probably all of the people with metal in their pockets,” host Walter Cronkite joked as latecomers returned to their seats after the intermission.
Politics and performance cross-pollinated throughout the evening – with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice applauding pianist Cliburn.
She congratulated the Texan for his success in piercing through diplomatic barriers by winning the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War.
And U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised Italian tenor Pavarotti for his charity work as well as his musical prowess.
“He has shown you that his heart is even bigger than his voice,” Annan said.
Pavarotti, who turned the world into an opera house with his park and rock stadium recitals, summed up the weekend: “At the moment we try to show everybody life is going on.”