The Kennedy Center Honors celebrated its 35th anniversary last weekend with a group of extraordinary and diverse life time achievers in the performing arts. Even President Obama noted that they “have no business being on the same stage.” But the three remaining members of the 70’s band Led Zeppelin – vocalist Robert Plant, bassist John Paul Jones and guitarist Jimmy Page– came together for this annual celebration with actor/director Dustin Hoffman, late night talker David Letterman, bluesman Buddy Guy and dancer Natalia Makarova. The group was honored at the State Department, White House and Kennedy Center with a taped- for- CBS-TV tribute (airs December 26) and late night gala supper.
Washington is known for combining “strange bedfellows.” Kid Rock, a Romney supporter, said he’s waiting for four more years, but “thinking differently is what makes this country great.” Even Naomi Watts stopped short when former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepped on the train of the British actor’s dress on the red carpet. The weekend was filled with glamour. Hillary Clinton and Meryl Streep seemed to be best of pals. Michelle Obama looked elegant in a Michael Kors gold lame chiffon gown which exposed The First Lady’s well-toned triceps. And Caroline Kennedy, the emcee of the show, wore a dramatic chocolate brown gown.
The performance ran long –close to four hours– but not as long as the five hour audition Naomi Watts described with Dustin – and she didn’t get the part. About Hoffman, Liev Schrieber said “he thinks at a different velocity.” Robert DeNiro, a former Kennedy Center honoree himself, carried the ball in saluting Hoffman, calling him “a world class colossal pain in the ass.” He was portrayed as a perfectionist, difficult and demanding as an actor. “He broke the role of the movie star as a handsome leading man,” said DeNiro, who explained that he first met Dustin at a party in 1968. “I was his waiter, and we had an instant connection when he asked, “How’s the flounder?” The Hoffman tribute fell flat when compared to the others. Where was Mrs. Robinson when we needed her?
Judith Jamison gave an eloquent tribute to her colleague, Makarova, who left the Kirov to make a new life in the west. “She is true to her spirit,” said former honoree Jamison. “Natasha turns her body into the soul of the character she becomes.”
Actor Morgan Freeman said Buddy Guy “mastered the soul without the Internet or U tube.” Guy bridged from his roots in Orleans blues to Chicago blues and rock and roll even though “playing the blues is not a great career choice,” said Freeman. Guy built his first guitar with wires from his screen door. Guitarist Jeff Beck dressed in bright red pants and sequined shirt leading a tribute to Guy said, “I’ve played a lot of venues but this [the Kennedy Center Honors] takes the biscuit.”
Although David Letterman looked uncomfortable earlier at The White House reception, Tina Fey wearing a gold color gown had everyone roaring during her clever tribute to the talker. “Some people have said comedy is a boys club. Letterman began his career as a choreographer and black opera singer just so he would qualify.” She credited him with boosting her career. “Mr. Letterman putting off- brand people like Pee Wee Herman on TV made my career dreams possible.” Fey, who has appeared on Letterman 15 times, suggested vivid imagery in her monologue which went from her mother’s deep depression that she couldn’t talk about when Letterman’s morning show got cancelled to his asking Paris Hilton about eating hard boiled eggs in jail. She called Letterman “a professor emeritus at the “Here’s some more rope institute.” Fey described him as “the closest thing we have to Walter Cronkite” as she talked about “our imaginary friendship with him for 33 years.” What did she learn from him? “That she could mercilessly bash NBC on her show without getting fired.”
Alec Baldwin turned the tables on Letterman by mangling his Top 10 List. And Jimmy Kimmel told Letterman, “What Johnny Carson was for you, you are for the rest of us.” Kimmel said everyone here “with the possible exception of the people who came to see the ballerina love Letterman.” Makarova was expressionless.
Jack Black called Led Zeppelin “The greatest rock and roll band of all time — complex, beautiful and dangerous.” He led Zeppathons,” where you sit your ass down and listen to all nine kickass masterpieces in a row.” The loud tribute with flashing lights and an elaborate set felt like a Zeppathon to hungry patrons.
When I asked Zeppelin’s Robert Plant how he felt about GOP VP candidate Paul Ryan listening to Zeppelin on his Ipod, he quipped: “It used to be Lawrence Welk [that candidates listened to] to draw a couple of votes from the old people.”
What did Zeppelin’s Jones and the President have to say to one another? The rocker blurted out, “I think Obama is more into Stevie Wonder.”
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