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At the 2019 Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday in Washington — the annual event that honors the lifetime contributions of artists in the areas of film, television, theater and music — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi received the biggest standing ovation.
While the ceremony is nonpartisan — and while LL Cool J, the evening’s emcee and a 2017 Kennedy Center Honors recipient, had begun the event by collectively thanking this year’s honorees for using their art “to remind us that, as a nation, we need to stick together” — the audience made its preference known.
For the third year in a row, President Donald Trump failed to show up to support the celebration of arts in America — the first sitting president to skip multiple years of the event since its inception in 1978. Members of Trump’s cabinet that did make an appearance received applause, as did the announcement that there were more leaders of government in attendance than ever before. However, when Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein pointed out Pelosi’s presence, the theater rose to its feet for a thunderous and extended applause.
Pelosi’s appearance was the most charged moment in an otherwise non-divisive roster of celebrations. Sally Field was honored not only for her five-decade body of work, but also for her tenacity in the face of those who said she would never evolve beyond the roles of Gidget and The Flying Nun. When friend and collaborator Steven Spielberg took the stage to honor Fields, he admitted to almost passing her over for the role of Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln and humbly acknowledged that he had “never been so proud to have been proven so wrong.”
“It looks as if it were an effortless journey to become the woman who won Oscars, and I know that it was not,” Rita Wilson gushed to The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet about Field. “She kept having to break down preconceived notions of what you could do as a female, as an actor. She is a force of nature. She is tiny, but she’s got a lot of power.”
Wilson’s husband echoed her sentiments: “She has proved everybody wrong,” Forrest Gump co-star Tom Hanks told THR. “When they said she couldn’t be sexy, she couldn’t [play] a character, didn’t have the gravitas, that she couldn’t hold the stage — she has proven everybody wrong. And what’s unfortunate is that she had to prove people wrong. … If anyone wants to emulate the tastes, the choices of an actor, they should choose Sally Field.
Sesame Street — the first television program to receive a Kennedy Center Honor — sent both puppets and puppeteers to accept their award. Lucy Liu, Cedric the Entertainer, Joseph Gordon Levitt and singer Thomas Rhett all paid tribute to the impact the show has had on generations of kids from all walks of life. Even Big Bird wandered down the aisle mid-show, calling out “Thanks! Thanks! Does anyone know where I can find “Thanks?” That’s T. Hanks — it says it right here on my ticket.” Big Bird also awkwardly negotiated with the actor before finally deciding to sit in his lap, much to the delight of the audience.
The award came on the same day that Caroll Spinney, the original voice of both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, died at the age of 85. “Caroll was really important to all of us. He was a mentor to me and to all the performers. We’re really a family. We’re still kind of reeling from it. He was an incredible person and sadly the world has lost a true American icon. He’s with us tonight,” said Elmo puppeteer Ryan Dillon, gesturing to the yellow feathers that the entire Sesame Street entourage, both puppets and people, were wearing on their lapels.
Linda Ronstadt received an award for her lifetime of contributions to all musical genres, with tributes from 2016 Kennedy Center Honors recipient Don Henley as well as Kevin Kline, Emmylou Harris and Carrie Underwood. Musician and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas was also recognized for his impact on a broad array of genres by fans that included Metallica’s Lars Ulrich and Tony-winning songstress Audra McDonald.
The evening ended with a tribute to Earth, Wind and Fire, with renditions of their hits sung by John Legend, Cynthia Erivo, Ne-Yo and Jonas Brothers and a full-cast encore of “September” that, once again, brought the audience to its feet — even Pelosi.
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