Icons Celebrating Icons: The 44th Kennedy Center Honors

2021 Kennedy Center Honoree Berry Gordy. Photo by Michael Butcher.

Two mimosas deep into a lazy Sunday afternoon brunch with friends, I received a phone call that in less than four hours, I would be covering the 44th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. In a panicked frenzy, I found myself in the Hall of Nations at 4:15 p.m. with fellow members of the press to check in and subsequently be ushered to get an onsite rapid Covid test — a negative result, proof of vaccination and masks were all required for attendees. Admittedly, I was underdressed in my black cocktail dress, and my hair was not quaffed like some of my more prepared peers, but with my cleared negative Covid test in hand, I was ready to attend my first Kennedy Center Honors.

Suppressing my excitement was out of the question as guests entered and posed on the step and repeat. This year’s five honorees — Motown founder Berry Gordy“Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaelsall-around icon Bette Midlersinger-songwriter Joni Mitchell and legendary opera singer Justino Díaz — brought out some of the biggest power players in entertainment and politics. I started to get celebrity whiplash as I watched generations of SNL stars flow in alongside Motown and Hollywood royalty.

Unlike most award shows, the focus was not on competition, but rather on celebrating the five individuals who revolutionized their art forms and were pivotal in shaping our current cultural landscape. The night’s sentiment, along with being the first guest-attended Honors since the pandemic, cultivated a shared gratitude and energy among the crowd.

In the packed Opera House, David Letterman opened the ceremony with a bold claim that this would be the best show on the planet that evening. What sounded like hyperbole was actually a justified statement: There was an outpour of performances from famed and esteemed talent all wanting to pay their respect to the honorees. While I had a sneak peek of who would potentially grace the stage, the show was full of surprise guests and performances from stars who foregone the red carpet.

A Presidential Welcome

President Biden, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentlemen Douglas Emhoff sat next to the honorees throughout the evening. While a standard tradition since the Honors began, a president had not welcomed the honorees for the last four years prior to the Biden administration. As a result, there were several ovations and shout-outs from presenters throughout the night, acknowledging the President’s box being occupied again.

Berry Gordy, who along with the other honorees went to a press conference at the White House prior to the show, was truly touched, saying, “We all appreciated the time Biden took with us. He was wonderful and so gracious.”

Joni Mitchell’s Tribute Made Us All Appreciate Feeling “Blue”

Dan Levy and director Cameron Crowe shared poignant speeches on how Joni Mitchell’s lyricism and music saturated their childhood memories and influenced their careers. Known for her ethereal voice and emotionally raw lyrics, Mitchell’s tribute included several performances of her most popular songs by Brandi Carlile, Ellie Goulding, Brittany Howard and Norah Jones.

The Loveable Villain

Justino Díaz’s tribute focused on his long career as one of the most influential operatic baritones to grace the stage, including scene performances from “Carmen,” “Faust” and “Othello.” Starring in 38 different roles for 21 seasons, Díaz was often cast in villain roles, but a performance from both his daughters, which moved him to tears, demonstrated how loving and kindhearted Díaz is known to be behind the scenes.

“Weekend Update” Déjà Vu

Lorne Michaels’ tribute included three separate “Weekend Updates” with anchors from different eras taking turns roasting Michaels, including current co-anchors Michael Che and Colin Jost.

As someone who’s rarely missed an episode of SNL over the last 15 years and previously hosted SNL watch parties in the pre-Covid days, experiencing former and current SNL cast members perform live evoked the same joy in me as what I assume Marvel super fans feel after a Comic-Con table reading.

Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers’ co-anchor segment was a particular highlight as Poehler declared Joni Mitchell, not Michaels, as “the best Canadian of all time.”

When asked about SNL’s successful longevity and consistency in characterizing the current zeitgeist, Kevin Nealon responded, “The show’s formula has proven successful. People are used to it, and I don’t think it’s going away.”’

Hello Bette!

Following a short intermission where guests were briefly allowed to remove masks as they sipped on champagne, the star-studded show continued with Goldie Hawn leading the tribute for her former “First Wives Club” costar and longtime friend.

One person who matched my excitement on the red carpet was Tony Award winner Kelli O’Hara, who commented on being part of Bette Midler’s tribute.

“I’ve been a fan of Bette’s and she has been an inspiration my entire life, so I’m very proud to be here,” O’Hara said.

Her appreciation translated to the stage as O’Hara’s rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings” had Hawn wiping away tears when she returned to introduce the next performer.

The most recent “Hello Dolly!” Broadway cast, including rising star Beanie Feldstein, also sang a tribute, and to the audience’s delight, Emmy and Tony winner Billy Porter took the stage to sing a medley of Bette Midler hits.

Long Overdue

The final tribute went to Berry Gordy, with his mentee-turned-best friend Smokey Robinson at the helm. The Grammy Award winner sang a new song he wrote dedicated to his friendship with Gordy, and shared stories of their beginnings together in Detroit in-between performances from the “Ain’t Too Proud” Broadway cast, who sang hits from both The Temptations and The Supremes.

Despite creating a new genre of music and launching hundreds of careers, Gordy remained humble on the red carpet when asked about becoming an honoree.

“This means more than I can express,” Gordy said. “It’s like a fairytale. All the stuff I wished for as a kid — it all came true.”

Robinson, who became a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2006, spoke on Gordy’s historical and international impact.

“Motown was a phenomenon,” Robinson said. “Music is the universal language and Motown connected people and broke racial barriers. [Gordy becoming an honoree] is wonderful and long overdue.”

Closing out Gordy’s tribute and the evening of entertainment titans went, fittingly, to Stevie Wonder, who had the whole theater on their feet.

I often read that celebrities after presenting their segment at awards shows leave early for the after-parties, yet despite the ceremony going an hour over, the theater remained packed. I watched as Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers danced together to “Superstition” until the last note was sung.

Throughout the evening, it dawned on me that my entertainment heroes came to celebrate their heroes, and were just as eager to be in attendance as I was. It was truly a night for us all to remember.

Watch the 44th Kennedy Center Honors on demand through the CBS app and Paramount+.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; kennedy-center.org // @kennedycenter

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