Joe Biden Helps Kennedy Center Honors Return To Tradition During A Weekend Of Politicos, Performers And Proof Of Vaccination

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UPDATED, with additional quotes: David Letterman opened Sunday night’s Kennedy Center Honors by telling the audience in the Opera House, “Tonight, it is quite nice, very nice, to see the presidential box once again being occupied.”

The crowd cheered and then gave President Joe Biden a standing ovation, after which Letterman quipped, “The same with the Oval Office.”

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2021 Kennedy Center honorees, from left, Justino Díaz, Lorne Michaels, Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler, and Berry Gordy pose following the Medallion Ceremony for the 44th annual Kennedy Center Honors on Saturday. - Credit: (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
2021 Kennedy Center honorees, from left, Justino Díaz, Lorne Michaels, Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler, and Berry Gordy pose following the Medallion Ceremony for the 44th annual Kennedy Center Honors on Saturday. - Credit: (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

(AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

The ceremony marked a return to the large-scale, lavish gala of tradition, as Covid-19 forced last year’s ceremony to be postponed and later scaled back. But it also was the return of the presidential seal of approval, after four years in which President Donald Trump did not attend or host a pre-ceremony reception at the White House.

Instead, Biden and First Lady Jill Biden hosted honorees Justino Diaz, Berry Gordy, Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler and Lorne Michaels for an event in the East Room before the ceremony. The president gave Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live, a little ribbing, “He’s trying out seven guys to play me.”

He added, “If you can’t laugh at yourself, we’re in real trouble. And you make me laugh at myself a lot.” (Trump, by contrast, railed on Twitter over Alec Baldwin’s portrayal).

Then Biden introduced Steve Martin, sitting in the crowd, who quipped, “Do you want me to play you?”

“Steve, I’m afraid that you understand me too well,” Biden said.

The ceremony itself, to be broadcast later this month on CBS, again featured moving tributes to the honorees from friends and admirers, but also one of the plum see-and-be-seen A-list social events of the year for D.C. Things weren’t entirely normal, as most attendees were vigilant about wearing a mask and other requirements.

David Rubenstein, the chairman of the Kennedy Center, drew cheers when he said on stage to the audience, “How does it feel to be in a room where everyone is vaccinated and tested?”

Sitting near the Bidens were Vice President Kamala Harris and First Gentleman Doug Emhoff, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Chief Justice John Roberts and Secretary of State Tony Blinken. Shari Redstone was spotted during the National Anthem between Emhoff and Pelosi, and nearby were other figures like Bob Bakish and Steve Schwartzman. Joe Manchin, who was a visible presence in the scaled back Kennedy Center Honors last spring, made a return visit, along with a slew of other Democrats. There was a sprinkling of Republicans — including Newt and Callista Gingrich, former Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) — but Letterman perhaps said it best when he told the crowd, “This night is about the honorees whose unique gifts cross all boundaries and represent all parties from the left to the far left.”

President Joe Biden looks at actor Steve Martin, standing right, a he speaks during the Kennedy Center Honorees Reception at the White House. - Credit: (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Joe Biden looks at actor Steve Martin, standing right, a he speaks during the Kennedy Center Honorees Reception at the White House. - Credit: (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The ceremony has shades of the Grammys, the Tonys, the Oscars, The Emmys and This Is Your Life.

Chita Rivera honored Diaz and noted that the opera legend has “a secret fondness for singing disco.” Grace Brumbry said that Diaz “was that rare combination of an opera singer who is also an extraordinary actor.” Christian Van Horn, Denyce Graves, Ariana Wehr, Hannah Shea, Ana Maria Martinez and Matthew Polenzani performed selections from some of Diaz’s best known performances.

For the tribute to Mitchell, Norah Jones performed A Case of You and other works, Ellie Goulding sang Big Yellow Taxi and Brandi Carlile performed River, and Brittany Howard finished up the set with Both Sides Now accompanied by Herbie Hancock.

Goldie Hawn, Scarlett Johansson, Melissa Manchester and the cast of Hello, Dolly! paid tribute to Midler, with Beanie Feldstein, Kate Baldwin and Taylor Trensch performing Friends and Kelli O’Hara singing Wind Beneath My Wings. Billy Porter got an ovation for a medley of Midler’s hits, finishing with From a Distance. Barbara Hershey said that she became lifelong friends with Midler when they made Beaches. She said that when they get together they are recognized and she has to tell people, “Yes, it’s us. Yes, we are actually friends. Yes, I’m still alive.”

Michaels’ tribute was highlighted by Paul Simon singing America, and by three different on-stage versions of Weekend Update: first one anchored by Kevin Nealon, followed by Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers, and then Colin Jost and Michael Che. One of the clip packages was devoted to the political figures spoofed on the show, although left out Baldwin and his spoof of Trump. There weren’t any mentions of the 45th president, for that matter.

Others giving testimonials for Michaels: Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, Kenan Thompson and Jimmy Fallon.

The tributes turned into a roast at points, from cast members past and present, along with multiple host Martin, who said, “Even after 45 years of producing the show, Lorne still has a dream about Saturday Night Live. That is to get two laughs in a row.”

The tribute to Motown founder Gordy featured Smokey Robinson, Andra Day and the cast of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life And Times of the Temptations. Although Stevie Wonder, with the finale, called a brief halt to reset the production (he even sang words of assurance, “We’re getting this right,” as the audience waited). The delay was worth it: Superstition, followed by the capper, Higher Ground.

The Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss production will at at 9 PM ET on CBS.

On the red carpet, Midler told reporters that her cream-colored dress was “federal,” in honor of the nation’s capital. Asked what she thought of her White House experience, she said, “Very clean. Lovely. Great staff. The food was excellent. The wine was a little sweet.” Then she got a tad more serious. She described Biden as “so kind and so generous. He was obviously so happy to be there. The vice president and her husband were there, and that was very moving, although with masks I couldn’t tell you who was who.”

Diaz, wearing an inverness cape, explained to Midler that Leonard Bernstein “had one just like it.” He then gave Midler and kiss and said, “I love you.” Diaz performed Ginastera’s Beatrix Cenci at the Kennedy Center in its inaugural year.

Gordy may have been the most ebullient of the honorees who walked the carpet, as he was joined by Robinson, a longtime friend. “It’s like a fairly tale, you know? All of the stuff I wished for as a kid.” Asked how he went from a boxer to a music career, he said, “I wanted to be like Sugar Ray Robinson. I wanted to be a great fighter. He was so good because I wanted to hit and not be hit. But music took over … and music won out.”

The Kennedy Center Honors is officially apolitical, but when the first set of honorees were announced during Trump’s term, in 2017, Norman Lear and others announced that they would not attend the White House ceremony. Trump then announced that he would not go to the ceremony at all, and he never did.

Saturday Night Live member Colin Jost, right, and Scarlett Johansson pose on the red carpet at the 44th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. - Credit: (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
Saturday Night Live member Colin Jost, right, and Scarlett Johansson pose on the red carpet at the 44th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. - Credit: (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

(AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

Still, on Sunday night, some attendees didn’t shy from the political fray. Robinson, who once said that Republicans needed to stand up to Trump, said that hasn’t happened. Judy Collins lamented the potential demise of the Supreme Court’s Roe Vs. Wade decision.

As Biden ribbed Michaels over the show’s portrayal of him, a number of the politicos also were queried about their SNL characterizations. That made this ceremony a bit more unique than others, what with the interaction of real life vs. satire.

As Davidson put it during the ceremony, “Basically if you are in politics and you have screwed up, we’ve got someone who looks and sounds like you and you are going to be on the show. And if you screwed up and we don’t have someone who looks or sounds just like you, I get to play you.”

Manchin told Deadline that he wasn’t a fan of Aidy Bryant’s take on him in a skit earlier this season. Asked about the show’s portrayals of her, Pelosi said, “Just as long as it’s funny. If it’s not funny, well…”

Asked what the night meant given that Trump avoided the ceremony for four years, Pelosi told Deadline, “Let’s not worry about that. Let’s move forward in a center named for a great president, in a theater in here named for President Eisenhower, and tonight we will be honored by the presidency of Joe Biden.”

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