Luminaries from the worlds of music and film were feted by President Barack Obama and a black-tie audience of artists and political heavyweights on Sunday at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors.
Actor Robert DeNiro, rock songsmith Bruce Springsteen, comic writer/producer Mel Brooks, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and opera star Grace Bumbry were this year's honorees at the annual awards for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.
At a White House reception attended by the political elite, including Vice President Joe Biden and former President John F. Kennedy's daughter Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Obama said the five were a living reminder that the arts are not somehow apart from our national life.
The arts are at the heart of our national life, Obama said in remarks aired later at the gala. These five remarkable performers have helped us sustain and strengthen our nation.
The president drew his biggest laughs when he praised funnyman Brooks, saying the trials of Jews throughout history were leavened by men like him. For every ten Jews, God designed one to be crazy and amuse the others, he said, attributing the remark to the Jewish entertainer.
I was telling him that I went to see 'Blazing Saddles' -- when I was 10. And he pointed out that I think, according to the ratings, I should not have been allowed in the theater. I think that's true. I got a fake ID, Obama said to laughter. I think the statute of limitations has passed.
Obama noted Sunday was Brubeck's 89th birthday and said his own first jazz concert was a performance by Brubeck's band in Honolulu, during a rare visit from his often absent father in 1971. And I've been a jazz fan ever since.
The president said Brubeck told him his service in World War II had forced him to work the war out of his system by playing some pretty vicious piano.
Brubeck was introduced by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, who joined other A-list musicians onstage, including Brubeck's four sons, in a musical tribute to his long career.
DEFINITION OF A DIVA
Bumbry, Obama said, was the definition of a diva in the classical sense, a divine voice worthy of the heavens.
Of Springsteen, Obama said it's no wonder that his tours are not so much concerts but communions. There's a place for everybody -- the sense that no matter who you are or what you do, everyone deserves their shot at the American Dream.
He called Springsteen the quiet kid from New Jersey who grew up to become the rock 'n' roll laureate of a generation.
On a day like today I remember, I'm the president but he's the boss, Obama quipped, evoking Springsteen's stage persona.
The president praised DeNiro for his versatility and his legendary method not only of portraying characters, but becoming them emotionally and physically.
Introducing DeNiro, actress Meryl Streep praised him as a great actor and a fine man.
Bob changed everything for a generation of actors, Streep said. His character in life, she said, was big-hearted, loyal to his friends, his family, his city, his country.
He finds the humanity in people who at first glance seem totally inhuman, Director Martin Scorsese said of DeNiro.
The living memorial to President Kennedy is Obama's first big public outing since Virginia socialites Tareq and Michaele Salahi crashed his first state dinner at the White House on November 24, raising national security concerns and leading to a review of the security cordon around the president.
On Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted the honorees at a dinner at the State Department.
They were joined by a host of Hollywood glitterati and presenters at Sunday's honors, including Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Martin Short, Sharon Stone, Alan Alda, Sting, Harvey Keitel and Chita Rivera.
The Kennedy Center Honors, which also attracted entertainment industry luminaries Mikhail Baryshnikov, Carol Burnett and Jon Stewart, will air as a two-hour prime-time special on CBS Television on December 29.