They’re legendary talents from different disciplines. And they’re all ending the year with the same, very important date.
Musicians, a singular ballerina, an iconic actor and an after-hours television fixture are in the presidential box for the 35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. Taped at the start of the month in Washington, D.C., the ever-classy ceremony will have its yearly CBS telecast at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
As she has since 2003, Caroline Kennedy presides over the event. Performers ranging from Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin to Bonnie Raitt, Kid Rock, Foo Fighters and Heart turn out to salute the honorees.
And just why are they the honorees this year? Here’s our take on the reasons each is being presented with the medal generally considered the highest entertainment award America has to give.
Dustin Hoffman: It could have been Robert Redford – later Hoffman’s fellow star in “All the President’s Men” – as Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate.” That had been a very real casting thought, but instead, New York stage actor Hoffman was propelled to a screen stardom that has yielded other all-time-classic performances and movies – “Midnight Cowboy,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Tootsie” and “Rain Man,” to name a mere handful.
Famously challenging and massively committed as a collaborator, the two-time Oscar winner has started a new chapter by turning movie director for the first time with the current drama “Quartet.” (Jay Bobbin)
Led Zeppelin: Any music fan old enough to remember will tell you Led Zeppelin was the pre-eminent hard rock band of the 1970s. Concerts routinely sold out in hours, LPs went gold in days, and one album, 1975’s “Physical Graffiti,” went platinum on preorders alone.
Like any great band, Zeppelin had its own distinctive sound, a fusion of rock and blues. And of course, there were Robert Plant’s howling vocals and Jimmy Page’s searing guitar licks. But Zeppelin also had a virtuoso drummer in John Bonham, whose syncopated style gave the band its unmistakable backbone. When he died of alcohol-related asphyxiation at age 32 in 1980, Zeppelin’s surviving members elected not to carry on.
These days, there are box sets and the occasional Page/Plant appearance to remind of Zeppelin’s greatness. But otherwise, to coin an old cliché, they don’t make music like that anymore. (George Dickie)
David Letterman: First on NBC and since on CBS, Letterman long has been a caustically comedic barometer of what’s happening in the world, but he’s also intuitive enough to turn more serious when warranted (his occasional personal troubles, the immediate aftermath of 9/11, etc.). There’s a certain delicious anticipation in how uncomfortable he’s likely to look while sitting wordlessly, being feted by others. (J.B.)
Natalia Makarova: Against a black stage, Makarova enters in white to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Anyone who enjoys ballet has seen this, rigorous for the prima ballerina dancing both roles. But Makarova’s was different. It was, as expected of anyone who could perform this, technically perfect. Yet hers was more. A petite dancer, she commanded the world’s largest stages. Thousands of hours went into each arabesque, though she made it look effortless. (Jacqueline Cutler)
Buddy Guy: When it comes to blues guitar, Buddy Guy is the man. The Louisiana native moved to Chicago in the 1950s and turned that city’s blues sound into his own unique style.
Guy’s also an inductee in the Rock and Roll and Louisiana Music Halls of Fame, has won 23 W.C. Handy Awards (the most of any artist) and six Grammys, and has received the National Medal of Arts and Billboard magazine’s Century Award. (Beverly L. Seinberg)