Sally Field, Linda Ronstadt
, Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael Tilson Thomas and Sesame Street
were honored Sunday night at the Kennedy Center Honors
, but what was all the more apparent was the tone of the show: A holiday season respite at one of D.C.’s most polarized moments.
As the impeachment of President Donald Trump
moves forward, among those attending were some of its most visible figures, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose decision to open an inquiry led to this moment, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is among the administration figures defying congressional subpoenas. Also present: Chief Justice John Roberts, who would preside over a Senate trial.
A couple of times during the ceremony, host LL Cool J made oblique references to political divisions. He told the crowd of lawmakers, Trump administration cabinet secretaries, Hollywood figures and D.C. lobbyists that the honorees use their artistic talents to remind us “as a nation, we have to stick together.” Other references to the political atmosphere were not so subtle: Kennedy Center Board Chairman David Rubinstein introduced an array of politicos from both parties, but it was Pelosi who got a standing ovation.
On Saturday, at a pre-Honors ceremony at the State Department, Ronstadt made headlines for what she said to Pompeo. Per Variety, Pompeo quoted from Ronstadt’s “When Will I Be Loved,” and told those gathered, “As I travel the world, I wonder when I will be loved.” When she got up to receive her honor, Ronstadt said, “I’d like to say to Mr. Pompeo, who wonders when he’ll be loved, it’s when he stops enabling Donald Trump.” Some of the clips of the Saturday ceremony were featured in Sunday night’s event, but that comment was left out.
“It was brave of her,” Field told Deadline of Ronstadt’s remarks. “She doesn’t speak very well. She doesn’t talk very well, and she said specifically what came out of her mouth and, bravo!”
Ronstadt’s tribute brought some of the most emotional moments of the evening, as performers celebrated the diversity of her career. Ronstadt retired in 2009 after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but she has remained outspoken.
Don Henley recalled going to an early Ronstadt gig at the Troubadour, and nearly getting in a fight with a drunk patron who was being too loud. Glenn Frey broke it up when he told Henley, “You got to put him down, man. He’s in the Eagles. We hadn’t made the record yet.”
He said that Ronstadt’s recording of “Desperado” popularized the sing and “helped save the Eagles from our sophomore slump.”
“Linda owned each and every genre she explored,” he said.
Carrie Underwood sang “Blue Bayou” and “When Will I Be Loved,” while others performing included Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood and Aaron Neville.
Field, in her clip from Saturday’s ceremony, recalled starting her career on a cold beach in Malibu, when she was the title character on the series Gidget. “I don’t know how I got here, except for by the seat of my pants.”
Steven Spielberg recalled his reluctance in casting Field as Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln, and telling her about his hesitation. “Steven, you’re wrong,” she told him.
“I don’t hear this very often,” Spielberg deadpanned.
In the end, she was perfect for the part. “I have never been so proud to have been proven so wrong,” he said.
Also honoring Field were Pierce Brosnan and Maura Tierney, as well as Tom Hanks, who came to the stage, looked at Field and said, “Hi Mom.”
Sesame Street drew tributes from Lucy Liu, Cedric the Entertainer and Joseph Gordon Levitt, while Big Bird attempted to claim Hanks’ seat. The avian even gave the actor a new nickname: “Thanks.” The crowd then joined in a rendition of “Sing a Song.”
Thomas cited the work of American classical composers, like Aaron Copland, John Adams and Leonard Bernstein, who “have a natural ability to make people believe in the common thread that they have together as Americans. And there are other composers who show us other aspects of America, perhaps sometimes a lonely or more abstract feeling in America. So we’re very lucky to have all these composers and performers who are able to share this with people. We just have to keep giving people the opportunity to be able to experience it.”
By the end of the ceremony, much of the crowd was standing for the tribute to Earth, Wind & Fire, which included Ne Yo, the Jonas Brothers and John Legend.
Not at the event: Trump himself. For the third year in a row, he skipped the ceremony, bucking a longtime tradition but also relieving some of the pressure on the Kennedy Center Honors to remain apolitical. Field told reporters that she wouldn’t be at the gala if he attended, while Hanks noted a long tradition of Democratic and Republican presidents attending without incident.
“We were celebrating literally the arts in America,” Hanks told reporters. “I think it’s unfortunate that the circumstances are that some people don’t want to do that on a night like this.”