WASHINGTON (AFP) – Hollywood’s finest joined politicos including United States (US) President Joe Biden for a rare night of Washington glitz on Sunday, celebrating the newest Kennedy Center honourees, including George Clooney and U2.
Soul legend Gladys Knight, along with Cuban-born American composer Tania Leon and pop artist Amy Grant rounded out the 45th annual class receiving the highest US arts honour, after the elite group of stars enjoyed a special weekend in the American capital honouring their illustrious careers.
During the glamorous main event at the Kennedy Center – Washington’s performing arts complex that serves as a living monument to slain president John F Kennedy – the inductees were honoured with seats in the opera house’s presidential box.
They joined the president and First Lady as well as the vice president and second gentleman, along with other politicians including Nancy Pelosi and her husband, who was making a public appearance weeks after he was violently attacked and hospitalised when an intruder looking for the congresswoman broke into their California home.
Clooney – accompanied by his human rights lawyer wife Amal Clooney, who stunned in a glittering silver gown – told journalists on the red carpet that the event, which he had grown up watching on television in small-town Kentucky, was “exciting”.
Speaking at the traditional State Department dinner one night prior, Clooney, 61, joked that during his extensive travel, both as an artist and as a humanitarian, he was told one universal truth: “You sucked at Batman”.
The self-deprecating celebrity has an impressive list of films to his name, as an actor and as director and producer – Michael Clayton, Syriana and Ocean’s Eleven among them.
“You must be someone pretty special in the arts, Mr Clooney,” joked Sesame Street children’s TV icon Big Bird, a fellow Kennedy Center inductee.
Julia Roberts donned a ballroom gown adorned with images of Clooney, her longtime friend and frequent collaborator, whom she called “the best combination of a gentleman and playmate”.
“Not only is he handsome, and talented in all mediums he chooses to tackle, he is profoundly present and attentive to the world around him,” Roberts said of the actor.
Roberts, along with Matt Damon, Richard Kind and Don Cheadle both razzed and praised Clooney before the beloved actor’s father Nick delivered a touching speech of his own.
Eddie Vedder of rock band Pearl Jam led a rollicking tribute to U2’s vast songbook, singing the hit Elevation in his signature power warble, later bringing down the house with the ballad One.
And Ukrainian singer Jamala joined Brandi Carlile and Hozier for a rendition of the U2 track Walk On, in support of Ukraine’s fight.
Actor Sean Penn also praised bandmembers Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr, calling them “great musical poets for the ages” who manage to stay “consistently relevant” despite nearly half-a-century in the industry.
And Sacha Baron Cohen – in character as his darkly humorous Borat – delivered a comedic tribute to the band that drew laughs, raised eyebrows and had actor Roberts cracking up as he twistedly speared Kanye West’s recent outbursts and pretended to mistake Biden to ex-president Donald Trump.
“Your pretty orange skin has become pale,” he said to Biden, as First Lady Jill burst into laughter.
Empress of Soul Knight earned heartfelt accolades including from LL Cool J, who praised her as foundational across genres including gospel, country, rock and hip hop.
Singers Ariana DeBose, Mickey Guyton and Garth Brooks delivered heart-pounding versions of some of her most beloved songs, including the standard Midnight Train to Georgia.
Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy-award winning Leon, 79, has already won numerous recognitions for her pioneering, sweeping compositions and chamber works that followed her immigration to the US from Cuba as a refugee at age 24.
The moving programme honouring her life’s work brought the artist – herself a regular performer at the Kennedy Center – to tears.
Speaking prior to the show on the red carpet, Leon told AFP she was pleased the Kennedy Center was recognising types of classical music outside the Western-oriented understanding of the genre.
“There’s many, many classical pieces in the world, of different nations or difficult cultural backgrounds,” she said.
She voiced delight at having visited the White House, describing to journalists an endearing anecdote of the president showing her the woodwork on his enormous desk.
And stars including Sheryl Crow and the country supergroup the Highwomen – comprised of Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires – turned out to honour Grant.