WASHINGTON – Elton John (search) called his Kennedy Center Honor "icing on the cake," but actor Robert Downey Jr. got a frosty reception when he introduced the rock legend as "the other first lady."
John, opera diva Joan Sutherland, conductor John Williams (search) and actors Warren Beatty (search), Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were honored Sunday with a star-studded tribute at The Kennedy Center. The six recipients of the 27th annual Kennedy Center Honors were saluted for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts.
But Downey stole the show with his rambling tribute to John. The actor said he — like losing presidential candidate John Kerry — was suffering "from acute symptoms of another dual-diagnosis disease of mine: the ADD, of course, the altruistic Democrat disorder."
That drew nervous laughter from the audience, which included Sen. Kerry as well as President and Mrs. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, Secretary of State Colin Powell and the woman nominated to replace him, Condoleezza Rice.
John, 57, has sold more than 60 million albums in three decades with hits such as "Rocket Man" and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Downey said three phrases came to mind when he thought of John: "genius, life saver, the other first lady."
At a reception at the White House Sunday afternoon, John said winning the honor "is about the icing on the cake. ... It's incredible for someone who's British to be given such an accolade from America, which has given me so much already in my career."
Beatty, 67, is an actor, writer, producer and director. He has been nominated for Academy Awards 15 times, and won an Oscar in 1982 as best director for "Reds." Jack Nicholson, Beatty's neighbor and a previous honoree, said: "For years, Warren has dreamed of attending these awards. Unfortunately, not as a Kennedy honoree but as president of the United States."
Australian-born soprano Sutherland, 78, was saluted by fellow opera singers Sherrill Milnes and Marilyn Horne, a previous honoree. Milnes called Sutherland "an avalanche of sound. She's become the standard by which all others are measured."
Composer and conductor Williams, 72, has won five Academy Awards, 17 Grammys and two Emmys and is best known for his film scores for "Star Wars," "Jaws," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "E.T." Director Steven Spielberg called him "a national treasure, as American as apple pie and President Bush's mom," and noted, "John Williams' scores are guaranteed to make you use a whole box of Kleenex."
Husband-and-wife acting team Davis, 86, and Dee, 80, were feted for their long careers on stage and screen as well as their political activism. Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, who appeared in a recent Broadway revival of "A Raisin in the Sun," said he was inspired by Dee, who starred in the original production. "Ruby wanted me to understand how high the stakes were, that failure was not an option," Combs said.