Where else could Ray Romano tell a cheeky joke about President Obama—to the President’s face? Where else could a red-carpet snafu involve House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accidentally stepping on the train of Naomi Watts’ dress? (Yes, that happened.) Few places but Washington D.C. on the night of the Kennedy Centers Honors, an annual celebration of the arts. This year’s honorees, celebrated Sunday night, were Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, Buddy Guy, Natalia Makarova and Led Zeppelin.
The Kennedy Center Honors, in their 35th year, are lifetime achievement awards for those who have upended or embodied culture as we know it. The ceremony, hosted by Caroline Kennedy at her father’s memorial center, has become a star itself, winning the “Outstanding Variety Special” Emmy four years running (thanks to the work of producers George Stevens and Michael Stevens). Past honorees range from Fred Astaire to Johnny Cash to Yo-Yo Ma. This year’s pack of legends was an especially eclectic group of upending types who took expectations and spectacularly showed them the door.
There was the unconventional leading man.
Robert De Niro introduced actor and director Dustin Hoffman as a “world class, spectacular, colossal … pain in the ass” who makes cohorts strive to meet his meticulousness. The 2,000 attendees watched a montage which featured some of Hoffman’s famous roles—from an aimless seductee in The Graduate (1967) to a cross-dressing soap star in Tootsie (1982) and an autistic savant in Rain Man (1991). “He just thinks at a different velocity,” actor Liev Schreiber told reporters on the red carpet. “He burns at a brighter intensity.” Alec Baldwin called Hoffman the embodiment of cinema’s “anti-heroic period.” The anti-hero himself, who has racked up seven Academy Award nominations and two wins, was fatalistic when asked about his legacy: “It’s like signing your name on a cake of ice on a hot July day.”
(PHOTOS: Dustin Hoffman, An Actor on the Rise)
There was the ballerina who defected to the West so she could explore her dance in unsanctioned ways.
If you’re a ballet fan, the name of this prima ballerina should be as familiar as pirouettes. Natalia Makarova, renowned for her work as the lead in Giselle, became a star dancing with the Kirov Ballet in the 1950s and 1960s. While performing abroad in 1970, she sought asylum. After years of toeing her way across American and European stages (and winning a Tony award along the way), she returned to the Soviet Union and danced again with the Kirov Ballet as the Berlin Wall was crumbling. On Sunday, ballerinas and ballerinos paid homage to her with arabesques rather than words, tacitly reminding the audience of all the skill ballet requires: there is, of course, the muscular perfectionism and athletic spinning, but there is also the acting and grace.
There was the bluesman who proved that Grammy Awards aren’t just for your first rise to the top.
Buddy Guy, the son of a Southern share-cropping family, has won six Grammys—for rock as well as traditional and contemporary blues—taking one home as recently as 2010. He’s also been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though his crowning achievement may be coaxing President Obama into singing Guy’s signature tune—“Sweet Home Chicago”—during a jam at the White House earlier this year. “If he hadn’t sung his song, I was going to be the most embarrassed blues player that was ever to be,” Guy told reporters before the show. The tribute put together by the Kennedy Center was suitably grand: Jimmy Vaughn, Tracy Chapman, Jeff Beck and Bonnie Raitt all picked away and belted out in his honor. “With Buddy Guy, it’s not just the blues,” Morgan Freeman said by way of introduction. “It is the blues.”
(MORE: Watch Obama Sing the Blues)
There was the talk show host who brought weird and wacky to the masses.
David Letterman has been on TV since before Justin Bieber’s mom was born, and he’s been hosting the Late Show on CBS for nearly 20 years. When reporters asked what he hopes people will remember about his long late-night run, he humbly cited his attendance record. Showing up is certainly important, but Letterman was largely extolled for his unending embrace of the unconventional. “He changed comedy by breaking all rules of status for himself or for his guests,” faux-conservative newsman Stephen Colbert told TIME. “He had respect for that which he respected but no respect for respectability itself, especially his own.”
The comedians who took the stage in his honor made a point of undermining respectability. Romano spoke of how simply the dream of being on Letterman’s show kept him going after he lost a job early in his career. “Do you quit when you’re down one game to nothing? No!” Romano said. He then looked up to the box where President Obama sat with a radiant First Lady and the honorees. “Do you quit when you’re down one-nothing in debates?” he asked. “No! You become the President.” Romano, Baldwin, Tina Fey and Jimmy Kimmel also showcased the art of delivering a line. “Was he a brilliant, subtle, passive-aggressive parody of a talk show host?” Fey asked, describing the beginning of Letterman’s career. “Or just some Midwestern goon who was a little bit off? Well, here we are, 32 years later, and time has proven that there’s really just no way of knowing.”
Last and loudest, there was the band that blended delicate acoustic melodies and window-smashing rock.
British powerhouse Led Zeppelin broke attendance records and sales records in the 1970s, releasing songs that millions of people still rock to today. Comedian and musician Jack Black introduced the three remaining members—Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page—lauding the “tender ferocity” they trail-blazed with drummer John Bonham, whose death in 1980 led to the band’s long hiatus. Black decreed that Zeppelin jams are second to none. “Just ask anyone—from Oliver Stone to Paul Ryan, and everyone in between,” Black said. And he accused them of selling their souls to Satan in order to get your musical abilities. “Come on guys,” he said, “you know you did!” The Foo Fighters, Kid Rock and Lenny Kravitz all performed iconic Zeppelin songs before Heart’s Nancy Wilson and Ann Wilson took the stage and brought the buttoned-up audience to their feet with “Stairway to Heaven.”
Romano had kindly foreshadowed the finale with a joke earlier in the evening. “I lost my virginity to the first two minutes of ‘Stairway to Heaven,” he said. “I apologized for the next 11. That’s a long song.”
The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 26.