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Kennedy Center Honors: the power of art and artists

Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, Merle Haggard, Jerry Herman and Bill T. Jones are feted, recipients of an honor for lifetime contributions to American culture.

December 06, 2010|Melissa Maerz, Los Angeles Times

Who is the most influential world leader alive today? Chris Rock thinks he knows. On Sunday night, before a massive crowd at the Kennedy Center in Washington, the comedian gazed up into the balcony where the president sat with some very special guests.

"It's amazing to look up and see the most powerful person in the world," said Rock, who was all dressed up in his black-tie best. "And she's sitting next to Barack Obama."

Up in the presidential box, Oprah Winfrey gazed down upon her fans, those loyal buyers of Oprah books and heeders of good bra advice, who paid as much as $5,000 per ticket to see her feted at the 33rd annual Kennedy Center Honors.

Following in the tradition of Ella Fitzgerald, Katharine Hepburn and Martin Scorsese, the Divine Miss O was just one of the night's five honorees: She joined Paul McCartney, country singer Merle Haggard, Broadway composer Jerry Herman, and dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones.

Still, watching this glitzy made-for-TV ceremony, which will air on CBS on Dec. 28, it wasn't hard to imagine her as the host of her very own super-fancy episode of "Oprah's Favorite Things." You could almost see her rising from her seat and pointing at the other honorees: "And YOU get an honor! And YOU get an honor. And YOU! And YOU!"

During the ceremony, Barbara Walters said of Oprah, ""She is the best interviewer ever. No one else comes close, not even me. And those of you who know me know how painful it was to say that."

But like they say, with great power comes great backlash. When this year's honorees were announced in September, some readers of The Times' blogs questioned whether Winfrey was worthy. According to the Kennedy Center's website, the honor is "given to those in the performing arts for their lifetime of contributions to American culture." Sure, Winfrey has earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for "The Color Purple." But she's primarily known as a talk show host. Critics wondered: Does that really qualify as art?

If Winfrey is really a "performing artist," she faced some tough competition Sunday night. Live on stage, Jones' dance troupe performed to Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," reimagining the poems as a monologue read from a slave auctioning block. Willie Nelson brought on Jamey Johnson and Kid Rock for a rousing version of Haggard's sow-yer-wild-oats-if-you've-got-'em classic "Ramblin' Fever." Carol Channing paid tribute to Herman with an awesomely wide-mouthed rendition of his song "Hello Dolly," which fought the Beatles for the No. 1 spot on the charts in 1964.

Some wondered why the Kennedy Center Honors chose Sir Paul and not the Beatles as a group. But McCartney tributes from Dave Grohl and Gwen Stefani, among others, squashed that skepticism by demonstrating that he'd clearly revolutionized American rock 'n' roll. The producers saved the finale for him, with a blowout cover of "Hey Jude" that involved Grohl, Stefani, James Taylor, Mavis Staples, Alec Baldwin, an enormous choir and a whole lot of non-flammable lighters waving in the air.

If there was a theme to this year's Honors, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summed it up on the night before the ceremony, when she hosted a dinner for the honorees at the State Department. "This evening is not so much about honoring American artists as it is about honoring artists who have helped to shape America," she said. Noting that the honorees reflected a diverse nation, she teased, "I am writing a cable about it, which I'm sure you're going to see."

The crowd roared, knowing that Clinton had just taken the red-eye back from Bahrain, where she attempted to do some Wikileaks damage control.

"I want to underscore why this event was worth flying very far to get back for," she continued. Insisting that art makes the world more connected, she told a story about a Saudi woman who called Oprah "the only person in the world who knows how I feel."

"When we say that art is a common language," she said, "we aren't just paying lip service to something that sounds good in a speech."

Everyone seemed to speak Oprah's language Saturday night. Many of the guests -- including Julia Roberts, former President Bill Clinton, Laurence Fishburne and Diana Ross – had appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in the past. And when opera singer Jessye Norman introduced the honorees, their stories of triumph over adversity read like selections from Oprah's Book Club. Norman pointed out that Haggard grew up in a house that his railroad-worker father built from a converted boxcar, that Jones was the son of small-town field laborers and lost his partner to AIDS, that Winfrey was born to a teenage mom in Mississippi and taught herself to read by age 3.

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