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Analysis: Influential Kennedy honorees

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Sept. 16, 2004 at 5:58 PM
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 16 (UPI) -- Kennedy Center honorees are always, by definition, leading artists in their field, but this year's class may be a more influential group than most.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will honor filmmaker Warren Beatty, the husband-and-wife theater team of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, singer-composer Elton John, soprano Joan Sutherland and composer-conductor John Williams at a State Department dinner on Dec. 4, with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell as host. The six honorees will be celebrated the following night at a gala performance in the Kennedy Center's Opera House, to be attended by President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush.

"This year the Kennedy Center honors not the usual five but six extraordinary individuals whose unique and abundant artistry has contributed significantly to the cultural life of our nation and the world," said Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman.

Honors recipients are chosen for their contributions to American culture through the performing arts. The Kennedy Center's primary criterion is excellence. For the most part, this year's honorees also have the distinction of being either trailblazers or exemplars in their respective disciplines.

Beatty, for example, was among the first of Hollywood's new generation of 1960s stars to produce his own projects.

Five years after the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave Beatty its Most Promising Newcomer Award in 1962, he made his producing debut with "Bonnie and Clyde." The Depression-era drama earned 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor, for Beatty.

He went on to produce such hits as "Shampoo," "Heaven Can Wait," "Bugsy" and "Reds" -- earning Oscar nominations for writing on all four, and best picture nominations for all but "Shampoo." He also earned directing nominations for ""Heaven Can Wait" and "Reds" -- winning the directing Oscar for "Reds."

Following Beatty's success as a director, other actors went on to produce and direct their own projects. Some -- such as Robert Redford ("Ordinary People"), Kevin Costner ("Dances with Wolves") and Mel Gibson ("Braveheart") -- took home directing and Best Picture Oscars of their own.

Today it is commonplace in Hollywood for stars to produce and direct their own projects.

When the Screen Actors Guild honored Davis and Dee in 2001 with its Life Achievement Award, then-SAG President William Daniels said, "For more than half a century, they have enriched and transformed American life as brilliant actors, writers, directors, producers and passionate advocates for social justice, human dignity and creative excellence."

Dee may be best known for her performance on Broadway in "A Raisin in the Sun," a role she reprised in the 1961 film adaptation of the play. She received an Obie for her off-Broadway performance in South African playwright Athol Fugard's "Boesman and Lena," and an Emmy for NBC's "Decoration Day." In groundbreaking performances, Dee played Mary Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey into Night," Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew" and Cordelia in "King Lear" -- roles not traditionally given to black actresses.

Davis was writing and directing films in the 1970s ("Cotton Comes to Harlem"). In 1961 he wrote and directed "Purlie Victorious," a then-controversial play that examined segregation. He is also a Jane Addam's Children's Book Award winner for "Escape to Freedom: A Play About Young Frederick Douglass."

Davis and Dee have been honored with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle Award, induction into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, and the United States National Medal of Arts.

John has been credited with helping to put the piano on an equal footing with the guitar in rock 'n' roll, beginning with his breakthrough 1970 self-titled album. Since then he has sold an estimated 60 million albums -- and also become one of the entertainment industry's most tireless philanthropic activists, particularly through the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

In 1994 he shared an Oscar with Tim Rice for "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" from "The Lion King."

Sutherland -- the daughter of a mezzo-soprano -- began her singing career by winning a competition in 1950. With her husband, pianist Richard Bonynge, she has staged revivals of forgotten works of opera including "Beatrice di Tenda" and "Rodelinda" -- and acquired a reputation for bringing the unconventional to the opera state. Sutherland retired from opera in 1990.

In a career that dates to the earliest days of TV, Williams has become arguably the most successful composer in film history. His scores for the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" movies and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" -- among other Hollywood hits -- are instantly recognizable around the world.

He has earned five Academy Awards -- and an astounding 42 Oscar nominations -- as well as 17 Grammys, three Golden Globes and two Emmys. Williams also served as principal conductor -- and is now laureate conductor -- of the Boston Pops Orchestra, and his music has been performed in concerts by the world's leading orchestras and soloists.

Beatty, Davis, Dee, John, Sutherland and Williams, join a list of Kennedy Center honorees that includes Chuck Berry, Bill Cosby, Bob Dylan, Clint Eastwood, Quincy Jones, Willie Nelson, Jack Nicholson, Paul Simon, Elizabeth Taylor and Stevie Wonder. In 2003 the Kennedy Center honored James Brown, Carol Burnett, Loretta Lynn, Mike Nichols and Itzhak Perlman.

The Honors Gala will be taped for broadcast later in December on CBS for the 27th consecutive year as a two-hour prime-time special.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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