Artists With An Imprint On Our Lives

James Earl Jones and his wife, Celia (left), and Chita Rivera (right) show off their best formal wear as they prepare to meet President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.
It's a perk of the presidency and President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush seemed to enjoy themselves Sunday as they handed out the Kennedy Center honors to five artists chosen because of their lifetime contributions in the field of the performing arts.

This year's honorees are Academy Award-winning actress Elizabeth Taylor, Grammy-honored singer Paul Simon, actor James Earl Jones, actress-singer-dancer Chita Rivera and Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine.

Among the toasters: R&B singer Alicia Keyes, who performed a jazz arrangement of Simon's hit "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani joined opera singers Placido Domingo and Frederica von Stade in singing a salute to Levine.

"There are people who come along in life and art who can captivate your attention and hold it - James Earl Jones is one of those people," said actor Sidney Poiter.

Earlier in the evening President Bush toasted the honorees for their contributions to the arts.

"This year we've brought together in one room a legend of Broadway, the conductor of the Met, the composer of 'Mrs. Robinson,' the face of Cleopatra and the voice of Darth Vader," said Bush, addressing the honorees at a White House reception. "Each one of you is known to the American people in a way that runs deeper than fame."

President Bush hailed Simon for writing "some of the most memorable songs of our times," Levine for his "understated style" and "precise interpretations," Rivera for setting standards on Broadway that "few have ever reached" and Taylor for being the "very definition of acting talent and movie stardom."

And he said that Jones' voice was as familiar as his own.

"People say that the voice of the president is the most easily recognized voice in America. Well, I'm not going to make that claim in the presence of James Earl Jones," said Mr. Bush.

Following the reception, Mr. Bush and the first lady were among the many celebrities, politicians and others who attended the 25th annual program where the careers of this year's honorees were being celebrated.

Here's a rundown on this year's winners:

  • Taylor, 70, who became a child star with "National Velvet" in 1944 and later won Oscars for "Butterfield 8" in 1960 and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" in 1966.

    The Kennedy Center's chairman, James A. Johnson, called Taylor "a luminous film actress who for nearly 60 years has been a Hollywood icon treasured by millions throughout the world."

    More recently, she has helped raise millions of dollars to fight AIDS.

  • Simon, 61, was added to the lineup in August when, a few weeks after the official announcement, former Beatle Paul McCartney withdrew because of a personal obligation. The Kennedy Center said McCartney would be on the 2003 list and that Simon would have been honored in the future.

    Simon first became known as part of a duo with Art Garfunkel. "Sound of Silence" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" were among their most popular numbers. The songwriter helped shape several generations of young Americans, Johnson said. "More recently, his work has encompassed an awareness of and concern for international art and artists," he said.

  • Levine, 59, longtime musical director of the Metropolitan Opera and now leader of the Boston Symphony Orchestra - the first American to assume the position in 120 years. He was credited with bringing "one of the world's foremost opera companies to unsurpassed artistic excellence."
  • Rivera, 69, "a musical theater star of the highest magnitude." She is a two-time Tony Award winner and created the role of Anita in the original production of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story."
  • Jones, 71, "an actor whose extraordinary range and power have made him an American institution." The voice of the evil Darth Vader in "Star Wars," his long and varied career has produced two Tonys and four Emmys.

    The first Kennedy Center honors in 1978 named singer Marian Anderson, actor and dancer Fred Astaire, choreographer George Balanchine, composer Richard Rodgers and pianist Arthur Rubinstein.

    The program airs Dec. 27 on CBS.

    By Vanessa Palo