The Kennedy Center awards were presented Saturday night at a State Department dinner. Rice addressed each honoree, beginning with Freeman, who once played the president in the movie “Deep Impact.”
“I know that when you played the African-American president of the United States, most people thought that would happen when a comet hit,” Rice said, drawing laughs and cheers. “But wonder of wonders, fiction has become true.”
Freeman, 71, who starred this year in “The Dark Knight,” also made headlines after suffering broken bones in a Mississippi car crash in August. The Oscar-winning actor said he was still recovering from nerve damage in his left hand and wore a glove to control the swelling.
Denzel Washington and Clint Eastwood testified to their success working with Freeman.
“You’re a great good luck charm,” said Eastwood, a 2000 honoree. “Everything you touch is fine by me.”
For Tharp’s presentation, actress Lily Tomlin said Tharp sees dance everywhere she looks: “This is a woman who saw the Beach Boys and made a ballet.”
Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, who worked with Tharp at the American Ballet Theater, said Tharp taught him “the difference between making a ballet and making art.” Barbra Streisand got an awkward kiss on the cheek from the president, and yes, she gave him a smooch back.
Streisand, a vocal critic of President George W. Bush, was a guest Sunday at the White House just before one of Washington’s few A-list events: the Kennedy Center Honors.
“Art transcends politics this weekend,” the longtime Democrat said beforehand. Still, she said it would have been “lovely” if she could have received the award while President-elect Barack Obama was in office.
The singer and actress was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, along with actor Morgan Freeman, country singer George Jones, dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp and musicians Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who.
The honors recognize individuals who helped define American culture through the performing arts, part of the living memorial to President John F. Kennedy.
The hug and kiss between Bush and Babs – who has previously said Bush’s election wins in 2000 and 2004 were stolen – was replayed later on video at a Kennedy Center gala. The crowd couldn’t help but laugh.
Queen Latifah opened the tribute to Streisand, saying she “threw out the rule book” to chart her own career. “She took to the stage like butter on a bagel,” Latifah added in a video tribute.
Idina Menzel from Broadway’s “Rent” and “Wicked” sang “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from Streisand’s 1964 musical “Funny Girl.” She mixed in some new lyrics – “Hey there, Ms. Streisand, I am your biggest fan.”
Beyonce Knowles rose from the stage floor to sing “The Way We Were.” And the young musical star Ne-Yo grooved to Streisand’s 1965 hit “Lover, Come Back to Me,” with four male dancers.
“Barbra Streisand is the epitome of emotion in music,” Ne-Yo said. “You feel every word, that’s something that artists in my day and age don’t really pay attention to.”
Earlier, another set of stars paid tribute to The Who in front of a neon-lit backdrop of the Union Jack, in honor of the British band.
“The full impact of it is still sinking in,” Townshend said of the honor. “It feels a bit iconic.”
Rock singer Rob Thomas sang “Baba O’Riley,” and the British flag pulled away to reveal a choir of 150 New York policemen and firefighters singing the “teenage wasteland” chorus with Thomas under an American flag. They were thanking The Who for being the first musical group to sign on for an emotional Radio City Music Hall benefit concert after 9/11.
Jones, who earned the nickname “No Show Jones” for performances he missed during his wild drinking days, promised to show up this time. The 77-year-old said “I’m in a daze” about being an honoree.
First lady Laura Bush took the stage to salute Jones, saying “there’s no getting tired of a singer like him.” Jones is a favorite on the president’s iPod, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Garth Brooks, Randy Travis and Alan Jackson gave Jones a tip of the hat with performances of the country legend’s work. And fellow country singer Shelby Lynne sang “Amazing Grace.”
Tickets to the gala sell for as much as $4,000. Last year, the event raised $5 million to support Kennedy Center programs. The show will air Dec. 30 on CBS.