This year, there were six individuals honored for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts. Among them were such "rebels" as actor, producer, writer and director Warren Beatty; singer and composer Elton John Elton John; and husband-and-wife actors, writers and producers Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.
Opera diva Joan Sutherland and composer-conductor John
Williams also were honored at the star-studded tribute at the Kennedy Center.
Their event began with a presidential salute. "I congratulate each of you and hope you will enjoy this evening of tribute," the president said.
Davis, 86, and Dee, 80, a husband-and-wife acting team, were feted for their long careers on stage and screen as well as their political activism. Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, who appeared in a recent Broadway revival of "A Raisin in the Sun," said he was inspired by Dee, who starred in the original production. "Ruby wanted me to understand how high the stakes were, that failure was not an option," Combs said. "Ruby And Ossie, when I grow up, I want to be just like you."
Both of their careers started in Harlem in the early '40s, but they met in the cast of a Broadway show, and started a partnership that would change the face -and the color- of American show business.
Younger audiences are most familiar with the couple's work in Spike Lee's films like "Do The Right Thing," but for Davis and Dee, their artistry cannot be separated from their activism - eulogizing Malcom X and emceeing the march on Washington, which for Dee, makes the Kennedy Center honor so special.
"It makes me feel something marvelous about the country," she told The Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen, "No matter what what grievances we may have, this is a country that respects its rebels, too."
Another rebel honored Sunday night was screen legend Warren Beatty. About him, actor Jack Nicolson said, "For years, Warren has dreamed of attending these awards not as honoree but as president of the United States. Things didn't turn out that way."
Things have turned out well indeed for Beatty. But even with such critically acclaimed films as "Reds," "Bulworth," and "Bugsy" this father of four can be humbled.
Beatty said to Chen laughing, "One of my kids, last night at dinner, looked at me and said: 'What are your credentials for this?'"
Humility, however, comes naturally for opera singer dame Joan Sutherland.
"I am a very ordinary person," Sutherland told Chen. "Yes, very ordinary person - honestly. After all, I started out as a secretary."
Her voice has brought her to the greatest heights imaginable. The 78-year-old Australian-born soprano was saluted by fellow opera stars Sherrill Milnes and Marilyn Horne, a previous honoree. Milnes called Sutherland "an avalanche of sound. She's become the standard by which all others are measured."
If Sutherland's music can move audiences to tears, John Williams' tunes can move them to fear.
Williams, 72, is best known for his film scores for "Star Wars," "Jaws," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "E.T." Director Steven Spielberg called him "a national treasure, as American as apple pie and President Bush's mom."
Robert Downey Jr. paid tribute to Elton John. He said, "Elton John has never gone out of style because his music isn't seasonal; it is perennial."
John has been a vocal critic of the president. In November, he
told the British magazine "Time Out," "Bush and this administration
are the worst thing that has ever happened to America."
But the rock legend was more diplomatic at a reception at the
White House on Sunday afternoon. John said winning the Kennedy
Center Honor "is about the icing on the cake. ... It's incredible
for someone who's British to be given such an accolade from
America, which has given me so much already in my career."
The political gags were left to Downey, who said he - like
losing presidential candidate John Kerry - was suffering "from
acute symptoms of another dual-diagnosis disease of mine: the ADD,
of course, the altruistic Democrat disorder."
That drew nervous laughter from the audience, which included
Sen. Kerry as well as the president, first lady Laura Bush, Vice
President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, Secretary of State Colin
Powell and the woman nominated to replace him, Condoleezza Rice.
About his achievements John said, "The first major song that we wrote was "Your Song," and it was the first hit we ever had. Probably from a song point of view, it is probably up there with the best songs we've ever written. And I never get tired of singing it."
The first honor of the evening was not for one of the artists, but for the host of so many Kennedy Center Honors past.
"Walter Chronkite you have graced our stage," said Caroline Kennedy. "You have graced our lives you have graced our history. Thank you so much."
The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast on CBS-TV on Dec. 21.