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The Sweetness and Bittersweetness of the 2023 Kennedy Center Honors


When Missy Elliott saluted Queen Latifah at this year’s Kennedy Center Honors, she broke it down the way only a fellow hip-hop queen could. Recalling the first time she saw the “Ladies First” music video on MTV, the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee praised Queen Latifah and explained the meaning behind that regal title at the front of her name.

“I won’t set the bar, I am the bar — let it marinade,” said Elliott, dressed in a matching black bucket hat and suit with so much sparkle that, under the stage lights, she looked like a constellation. “She can’t be boxed in because there are too many levels to what she do, she’s taking the lid off of it — let it marinade. She is the queen, but she is a mutha with an A. I know y’all like, “What? With an A?”Yes. Mutha with an A.

This year’s Kennedy Center Honorees — the 46th class: Queen Latifah, Dionne Warwick, Billy Crystal, Barry Gibb, and Renée Fleming —are a collection of legendary muthas in their own right. Queen Latifah, a gifted actor and the first female hip-hop artist to become a Kennedy Center Honoree. Warwick, legendary recording artist and Twitter royalty. Crystal, a consummate New Yorker who has conquered every platform imaginable — movie screens, the Broadway stage, television, and for a brief moment in 2008, the baseball diamond. Gibb, a Bee Gee and a songwriter responsible for some of the most beloved pop songs of all time — “Islands in the Stream,” by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers; “Heartbreaker,” by Warwick; “I Just Want to Be Your Everything,” by his brother Andy. Fleming, a singer whose operatic range spans multiple octaves and genres.

The three-hour-plus ceremony, a celebration that will be edited down to a two-hour special and broadcast December 27 on CBS, also conjured the spirits of people who could not be present to witness this milestone.

“I’m missing my friend Robin tonight very much because of all that we did together,” Crystal said on the red carpet Sunday night, referring to the late Robin Williams, who, along with Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, hosted the annual Comic Relief fundraiser to raise money for the unhoused and people living in poverty. “I know he would be here. And he is.”

Goldberg expressed similar sentiments during her onstage tribute to Crystal. “I want to acknowledge that the person who also should be standing here with me is our brother Robin,” she said, gesturing to the empty space beside her. Crystal, sitting in a box up in the balcony of the Kennedy Center Opera House alongside his fellow honorees, as well as President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, appeared to be holding back tears.

That slightly melancholy thread ran through several of the presentations. The Gibb salute, naturally, involved the two other Bee Gees: Barry’s brothers, the late Maurice and Robin. “Sadly, with the loss of his brothers, my uncles, we realized that life would never be the same,” said Stephen Gibb, a musician and Barry Gibb’s son, who feted the pop titan along with Michael Bublé, country band Little Big Town, Ben Platt, and in a splashy Saturday Night Fever medley that closed out the night, Ariana DeBose and Chloe Flower. “But the songs are forever.”

When Clive Davis spoke about Warwick’s accomplishments and Chlöe, dressed in a voluminous pink gown that made her look like Cinderella, performed “Walk on By,” one of Warwick’s earlier hits, it was impossible not to be reminded of the singer’s partnership with songwriter Burt Bacharach, who died earlier this year. During previously recorded interviews with family members of Queen Latifah as well as Elliott’s speech, the memory of the hip-hop pioneer’s mother, Rita Owens, who died in 2018, was extremely present too. “We know that your mother has gained her wings, but her spirit is in this room,” Elliott said. “She is proud of you because you have mirrored her.”

Even during the When Harry Met Sally … portion of Crystal’s celebration, which brought director Rob Reiner, co-star Meg Ryan, and composer Marc Shaiman onto a set designed to replicate Katz’s Deli, where Sally famously fakes an orgasm, one was reminded that so many of the key players in that quintessential rom-com — Nora Ephron, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby — are no longer with us. Lifetime achievement awards, by design, bring up feelings of mortality. Mortality is why places like the Kennedy Center hand them out every year: to let gifted people know how much we appreciate them while they’re still on earth to hear it.

Ryan was certainly not shy about expressing her affection for Crystal. “That scene came really naturally to me and I really have Billy to thank for that,” Ryan said, referring to her delicatessen moaning that leads to one of the most satisfying one-liners in cinema history. “I’ve actually never been around anyone who made faking an orgasm easier.”

Robert De Niro, Crystal’s co-star in Analyze This and Analyze That, got big laughs while praising his onscreen therapist. “Tonight the Kennedy Center honors the OG Billy Crystal, on this, the 50th anniversary of hip-hop,” the star of Killers of the Flower Moon said in the straightest, most deadpan tone imaginable.

“I had no idea you’ve done so much, and you’ve done it all in such a relatively short amount of time,” he said later. “You’re only 75. That means you’re just about six years away from being the perfect age to be elected president.”

Practically everyone in the Opera House erupted in laughter, then rose to their feet to applaud President Biden, who seemed to appreciate the joke at his expense. De Niro capped off his comments by launching into a performance of When Harry Met Sally’s signature song, “It Had to Be You” with, um, modified lyrics — “I’m fucking it up, but it’s okay, because nobody is like you.” Let’s hear it for Robert De Niro, a man who has been keeping the 2023–24 awards season interesting for at least a week so far.

The D.C. audience was in an appreciative mood Sunday night, too, giving standing ovations to several performances, including Cynthia Errivo’s roof-ripping rendition of Warwick’s “Alfie”; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s version of a Billy Crystal Academy Awards medley — “Making us laugh on that show with three letters / Courting Meg Ryan in cable-knit sweaters / Hosting the Oscars, we said, ‘Oh, he sings’/ These are a few of our favorite things”; and a dazzling take on “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the musical Carousel, in which Renée Fleming starred, sung by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, Christine Baranski, and Titus Burgess.

When the gospel group the Clark Sisters joined Reverend Stef and Jubilation, a choir that once counted Queen Latifah’s mother as a member, came onstage, the Queen herself looked surprised and delighted. (The honorees generally do not know who will be speaking or performing ahead of time.) The spirit of her mother, as Elliott mentioned, was very much in the room.

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Jen Chaney , 2023-12-04 21:19:56

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