Actor George Clooney, singer-songwriter Amy Grant, singer Gladys Knight, composer Tania León and rock group U2 were celebrated on Sunday for their contributions to the arts at a White House reception and at the Kennedy Center Honors show.
The Kennedy Center event, now in its 45th year, recognizes stars from music, stage and screen for their contributions to American culture.
At a reception for the five honorees at the White House beforehand, President Joe Biden addressed each personally, praising their individual talents and saying they embodied the spirit of the country.
“To see each other, to see ourselves in one another, to unite in common cause – tonight we celebrate a truly exceptional … group of artists,” Biden said.
The room was packed with celebrities, the White House’s second star-studded event in recent days.
Actors Julia Roberts and Matt Damon were seated next to each other, in front of journalist Katie Couric. Former Washington, D.C. police officer Michael Fanone, who was beaten defending the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was seated next to singer Eddie Vedder in the front row.
Inside the Kennedy Center opera house where the show was later held, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her husband, Paul, who has been recovering after he was attacked in October in their San Francisco home, got a standing ovation when the appeared on a balcony.
The show highlighted the five artists’s work, and represented a return to the times before the coronavirus pandemic began; on Sunday night, there was no requirement for testing or masking to attend although hundreds died of the disease in the United States last week.
Clooney, an actor and filmmaker who played a doctor on the popular NBC television show “ER” before launching a movie career that earned him two Academy Awards, said becoming a Kennedy Center honoree was a little daunting.
“I grew up in a little town in Kentucky and I watched it on TV,” Clooney told reporters about the Kennedy Center Honors, referencing previous winners Jimmy Stewart and Robert Redford. “That’s an exciting fraternity to be a part of.”
Roberts and Clooney’s father, Nick, along with actors Damon, Don Cheadle and Richard Kind appeared on the Kennedy Center stage to honor the filmmaker. “George’s best and most important work is still ahead of him,” his father said.
Roberts, who has co-starred in multiple films with Clooney, wore a floor-length gown to the awards with framed images of him on it.
Grant rose to prominence as a contemporary Christian music singer who later crossed over to pop stardom, amassing six Grammy Awards.
“I feel giddy,” she said on the red carpet at the Kennedy Center before the show. “Mostly I feel a debt of gratitude,” for all the people who have worked with her for four decades, she said. “Everything takes a village.”
Singers Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile, CeCe Winans and BeBe Winans were among the artists who celebrated Grant with a selection of her songs.
Knight, who has won seven Grammy Awards, is famous for hit songs including “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Midnight Train to Georgia” as the lead singer of The Pips, which became Gladys Knight & The Pips in 1962.
“She connects with you on a deeper, spiritual level,” said actor LL Cool J, speaking onstage about Knight. Singers including Garth Brooks and Patti LaBelle performed some of Knight’s songs.
Cuban-born León is a conductor as well as a composer, whose orchestral piece “Stride” won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
Irish band U2, with members Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr., has won 22 Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.