Eminent artists, friends and peers of this year's five honorees converged in Washington, D.C., last night (Dec. 4) to present entertaining and heartfelt tributes at THE 34TH ANNUAL KENNEDY CENTER HONORS, an entertainment special to be broadcast Tuesday, Dec. 27 (9:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network, with Caroline Kennedy as host for the ninth consecutive year
The annual event recognizes recipients for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures and television. Keeping with tradition, the roster of performers and presenters remained secret prior to the gala and a short biographical film was featured during each honoree's tribute.
Performers and presenters included Emily Blunt, Matthew Broderick, Anna Christy, Glenn Close, Stephen Colbert, Ravi Coltrane, Bill Cosby, Robert De Niro, Jack DeJohnette, Billy Drummond, Elmo, Sutton Foster, Benny Golson, Jim Hall, Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove, Anne Hathaway, Jimmy Heath, Kevin Kline, John Lithgow, Joe Lovano, Rebecca Luker, Patti LuPone, Christian McBride, Audra McDonald, Jennifer Nettles, Mike Nichols, Kelli O’Hara, Laura Osnes, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson, Raphael Saadiq, James Taylor, Stanley Tucci, Tracey Ullman and John Williams.
President and Mrs. Barack Obama were seated with the honorees in the Presidential Box of the Opera House at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, after hosting the traditionAl White House reception for the honorees.
Host Caroline Kennedy opened the festivities by quoting her father, President John F. Kennedy, saying, “Forty-nine years ago, my father said, ‘There is little of more importance to the future of our country and of civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist... if art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.’”
She continued, “We are here tonight to give full recognition to artists who have used their freedom to create art that has nourished us. Five visionaries are seated in the place of honor next to the President, and we add their names to our signature wall. There they join the honor roll of great artists who have enriched American culture through the performing arts. Their gifts to us are as varied as their origins: a boy who grew up with the sounds of Sugar Hill in Harlem and used the pearl keys of his tenor sax to secure a place among the legends of American jazz; a stage-struck soprano from Georgia who decade after decade has given us all of the joy and the humanity within the American songbook; a Brooklyn lad with a gift for melody who grew into a solitary man, reaching out, touching me, touching you; Mother Superior, Mother Courage, Mamma Mia – and dozens of other indelible characters – earned this New Jersey girl the mantle, ‘actress of her generation’; Paris-born, American bred, this child of the world has expanded our musical universe to become our ‘cellist in chief.’ These are our 2011 Kennedy Center Honorees.”
Emmy Award-winning actress and comedian Tracey Ullman began the tribute to her longtime friend, multiple Academy Award, Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep, stating, “I’m here to talk about my friend Meryl Streep – which is a great honor, but not easy. I was with my daughter Mabel a couple of weeks ago, who has known Meryl all her life, and I asked her what she thought I should say. ‘Hmm,’ she said. ‘It’s getting harder and harder, Mum, I mean, what hasn’t been said?’ And this is true because it’s obvious that Meryl is brilliant, the actress of her generation, the cream of the crop; she’s strong, tenacious, a champion of women worldwide…”
Ullman continued, “I could talk about how brilliant she is as Margaret Thatcher in her latest film, ‘Iron Lady,’ and how amazed I was to see the girl from Jersey becoming the girl from Grantham. I mean, only Meryl could give such a compassionate portrayal of a woman I raged against in the ‘80s… ‘You need an angle, Mum,’ Mabel said. There was a long pause and then she looked at me with a furrowed brow and said, ‘Is there anything Meryl’s bad at?’ Well, we tried to think of something, and we couldn’t! She can sing, dance, cook – cooks like Julia Child, in fact… and if she was bad at something she would practice like crazy in private so that she would be more brilliant at it than anyone else in the world. We even have secret footage of her in bed at 6 in the morning learning to speak Chinese! I’m not saying how we got it... so I am officially in awe of you, dear friend; you try harder, give more and remain as humble as anyone I know. I’m honored to be here tonight to be a part of this prestigious tribute to you.”
Academy Award and Golden Globe Award-winning actor and 2009 Kennedy Center Honoree Robert De Niro continued Streep’s tribute. “As an actor looking at those moments of Meryl’s life, my first thought is… I was amazing in ‘Deer Hunter,’ wasn’t I? I gave a performance that was strong yet sensitive, fiercely masculine, but with an affecting inner beauty… I was nominated for an Academy Award for ‘The Deer Hunter.’ And so was Meryl. That was her first. She’s up to 16 now. You know what that means? She’s sat through the Academy Awards 16 times! Jesus! Now that’s a record. Coincidentally, Meryl and I have each won two Oscars, but I’ve only been nominated six times, so I actually have a better winning percentage.”
De Niro continued, “One factor keeping Meryl’s average down is that she has to compete with Meryl Streep. In the Golden Globes, where she set records of 25 nominations and seven competitive wins, she’s actually lost twice to herself… including last year, when her performance in ‘Julie and Julia’ beat out her performance in ‘It’s Complicated.’ Meryl was so gracious in losing… In each of those movies and in everything I’ve seen Meryl do, I’m continually struck by how perfectly she inhabits, humanizes, and honestly portrays such a wide range of characters. There’s never a false note, never an overlooked detail. Truly, no one does it better.”
Streep’s friend and director, Academy Award, Golden Globe, Emmy Award, Tony Award and Grammy Award-winning director and 2003 Kennedy Center Honoree Mike Nichols, spoke next. “Meryl becomes a different person in each movie, body, soul and all. She stands alone as an actress. She could handle any part thrown at her except maybe Gidget. She’s the definition of versatility which makes her a nightmare as a dinner partner… the fact is I have no idea how she does it, I only know that watching it is one of the great experiences of my life. Frankly, I’m not sure she knows how she does it. If she does, we’ll never get it out of her. She simplified it for me when she told the only thing I ever heard her say about it: ‘Well, you know. You never know what you’re going to do ‘til you do it.’ Best description of movie acting I ever heard.”
Nichols then introduced a tribute to Streep, beginning with Academy Award and Tony Award-winning actor Kevin Kline, who co-starred with Streep in “Sophie’s Choice.” “Meryl doesn’t take shortcuts. In her work, she insists on going the extra mile. Sometimes literally. We were doing our first dress rehearsal of ‘Mother Courage’ at the Delacourt Theater in Central Park. After 12 grueling hours of rehearsal in the sweltering heat in our winter-weight costumes – Meryl giving 110 percent, perfecting what would become a bravura performance, it’s now midnight, I’m exhausted, we all are. I’m hailing a cab to take me three blocks to my house. And I see Meryl climbing on a bicycle. Now Meryl lives at the other end of Manhattan, about six miles away from Central Park. I tell her she’s crazy as she peddles off into the dark New York streets and she yells over her shoulder, ‘I have to build up my stamina!’” Golden Globe Award-winning actress Emily Blunt, who starred in “The Devil Wears Prada” with Streep, then took the stage, along with Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor Stanley Tucci, who further extrapolated upon Streep’s many virtues. Then, Emmy Award-winning actress Anne Hathaway, who also starred in “A Devil Wears Prada” with Streep, sang “She’s Me Pal,” joined by her fellow actors in honor of their leading lady.
Multiple Emmy Award and Grammy Award-winning actor, author and comedian Bill Cosby, a 1998 Kennedy Center Honoree, paid tribute to Grammy Award-winning jazz musician Sonny Rollins. Cosby recited stories of his travels all over the world, where in each country, everyone knew Rollins’ music. He then shared how he disappointed a gardener at a hotel in the South of France, who kissed him and mistakenly thought he was Rollins. “All over the world, Sonny Rollins. And, Sonny, tonight, welcome home,” said Cosby. Then, he introduced a musical tribute to Rollins that began with “Just in Time,” performed by the Sonny Rollins All-Star Trio: jazz drummer Billy Drummond, Grammy Award-winning jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano, and jazz bassist Christian McBride. They were joined by Ravi Coltrane, jazz saxophonist and son of famed jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane. This was followed by “In a Sentimental Mood,” performed by Academy Award and multiple Grammy Award-winning pianist, bandleader and composer Herbie Hancock, Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove and jazz guitarist Jim Hall. Up next were the Kennedy Center Honors Jazz Masters: jazz saxophonists Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath, with jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette, performing “Sonnymoon for Two.” In closing, the musicians joined together to perform “St. Thomas,” bringing the tribute to its rousing conclusion.