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Kennedy Center Honors unite D.C. for a night

Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro, Mel Brooks, Grace Bumbry and Dave Brubeck are extolled at gala.

December 07, 2009|By Faye Fiore

Reporting from Washington — The Boss, a GoodFella and the king of irreverent comedy were among five performing artists to receive lifetime achievement awards Sunday in a glittery event that's as close as Washington comes to the Oscars.

This year's recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, an annual black-tie gala that recognizes performers who transformed the arts in America, were Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro, Mel Brooks, opera singer Grace Bumbry and jazz legend Dave Brubeck.

Sunday's elaborately staged show at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, traditionally attended by the president and first lady, was the 32nd of its kind and the first for Barack Obama.

"On a day like this remember, I'm the president, but he's the Boss," Obama said in an East Room reception before the show where he and his wife, Michelle, in a purple strapless gown, watched with the winners from a balcony bedecked with the presidential seal.

Gone was the unspoken tension between a liberal-leaning arts community and President George W. Bush, who seemed more suited to the Oak Ridge Boys than E Street. (If W. had to share a box with Elton John after the singer called him the worst thing that ever happened to America, Obama shared his with Springsteen and De Niro, who campaigned for him.)

Cynics have mocked the Kennedy honors as a poor excuse for a fundraiser that hands out awards to people with a garage full of them (Springsteen has 19 Grammys and an Oscar, for starters).

But the air of celebration in the red-walled Opera House on Sunday night -- Brubeck's 89th birthday -- seemed a welcome pause in the Beltway brawling over war and healthcare.

The audience included actors Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Frank Langella and Harvey Keitel, R&B legend Aretha Franklin and, from Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former senator Tom Daschle.

De Niro was lauded as an actor with a legendary talent for transforming into his character -- he ground his teeth for "Cape Fear," mastered Italian for "The Godfather Part II," learned the saxophone for "New York, New York" and put on 60 pounds for "Raging Bull."

"Bob has earned the respect he enjoys around the world in the thousands of little bitty details," Meryl Streep said in one of several gushing tributes by friends and costars that seemed to make the actor almost squirm in his chair.

The show, produced by George Stevens and taped for broadcast on CBS on Dec. 29, was marked by turns of sentiment and comedy.

Jazz musicians assembled on stage for a medley of Brubeck's pioneering work. Obama recalled in the East Room reception that one of the few times he spent with the father who abandoned him growing up included a Brubeck jazz concert in Hawaii in 1971.

"The world he opened up to a 10-year-old boy was spectacular," Obama said.

Jazz legend Herbie Hancock, who introduced a film tribute to Brubeck, grew up with his influence and recalled, "If you were playing Dave's music on your stereo you were cool."

Bumbry, not unlike the president in attendance in her honor, was recognized for smashing racial barriers, in her case, as an African American soprano and mezzo-soprano with astonishing range. She debuted at the Paris Opera House and performed at the White House at Jacqueline Kennedy's request before she was 25.

The tribute to Brooks kicked off with a spontaneous and hilarious bit by comedian Carl Reiner, who summed up his friend as "gifted with a genius brain and a brilliantly uncensorable tongue."

Choreographed scenes from Brooks' work included Jack Black in a chorus line of men in green tights ("We may look like sisssssies . . .") and a strutting Adolf Hitler from "The Producers" ("We're marching to a faster pace; look out here comes the master race").

The finale was devoted to Springsteen, the working man's poet laureate, who has made a career immortalizing an underclass not usually found in rooms like this.

Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show" and a fellow New Jerseyite, stole the show with his homage to his hero. "I can tell you what I believe, and what I believe is this: I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby. . . . And they abandoned this child on the side of the road between the exit interchanges of 8A and 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike, where this child was found and raised by a pack of feral vaudevillians and troubadours. That child is Bruce Springsteen."

The winners are selected by the center's trustees and by past honorees for their contribution to American culture in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures or television.

faye.fiore@latimes.com

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