Robert De Niro opened last night’s Kennedy Center Honors by calling honoree Dustin Hoffman a “colossal pain.”
De Niro joked about his “Wag the Dog” co-star’s penchant for perfectionism while Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts offered more traditional praise.
“I heart Dustin Hoffman,” said Watts, playing off their 2004 collaboration, “I Heart Huckabees.”
Barack and Michelle Obama sat in the presidential box for the 35th annual event, which toasts artists who have made extraordinary contributions in various disciplines. The ceremony will be broadcast Dec. 26 on CBS.
The other honorees were David Letterman, Buddy Guy, Natalia Makarova and Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones.
Bonnie Raitt got the crowd to their feet with “Sweet Home Chicago” in her tribute to bluesman Guy. Actor Morgan Freeman and musician Tracy Chapman expressed their affection for the guitarist and singer.
Judith Jamison, a 1999 honoree, introduced a video about fellow dancer Natalia Makarova. A string of ballerinas from the American Ballet Theatre saluted the Russian prima donna by performing some of her more famous roles.
Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and Jimmy Kimmel lauded Letterman. Referencing his habit of embarrassing the guests on his couch, Fey called Letterman “professor emeritus of the ‘Here’s Some More Rope Institute.”’
The program concluded with Foo Fighters, Lenny Kravitz and Kid Rock belting out Led Zeppelin hits in honor of the British band. Actor Jack Black suggested holding a “Zepathon,” a nonstop playing of all the Led Zeppelin albums in a row. Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart performed the group’s classic “Stairway to Heaven.”
Before the program started, I asked various guests about their favorite honorees. Obama adviser David Axelrod, in a rakish red tie, said he was a fan of Guy, a fellow Chicagoan. Senator Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, said he loved Hoffman’s film “Rain Man” because the film is set in Cincinnati.
Senator Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said she enjoyed Letterman’s late-night laughs.
After the tributes, guests dined in the Grand Foyer where a giant bust of President John F. Kennedy looms.
His daughter, Caroline, wearing her mother’s diamond starburst pin at the waist of her gown, held court nearby welcoming guests.
The dinner consisted of free-range chicken with sweet-potato puree and spinach, served with William Hill Chardonnay 2011.
W. James McNerney, Jr., chief executive of the evening’s underwriter, the Boeing Co., was present, as was Kennedy Center Chairman and Carlyle Group Co-Founder David Rubenstein.
Others in attendance included film director Rob Marshall, actress Glenn Close, Senator Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, and Representative Darrell Issa, California Republican.
(Stephanie Green is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
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