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If you’ve never seen America’s top cultural awards program, dubbed “the Grammys for grownups,” this is the year to tune in: the 44th Kennedy Center Honors held Dec. 5 in D.C. and broadcast on Dec. 22 at 9 p.m. ET on CBS (and streaming live and on demand on Paramount+) boasts one of its most luminous lineups ever: Joni Mitchell (age 78), Lorne Michaels (77), Berry Gordy (92), Bette Midler (76) and opera singer Justino Díaz (81) will be recognized for lifetime achievements that have made a lasting mark on American culture.
And the performances and tributes to their work by a parade of other stars is at least as impressive as the Grammys. The Kennedy Center Honors delight the ears and eyes while plucking your heartstrings like a virtuoso.
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Because the gala is taped in advance (and I was there for it), here are the peak moments and performances you can get excited about for when the show broadcasts this weekend.
Joni Mitchell: The genius of heart and mind
The best stuff: The audience, including President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Chief Justice John Roberts, gave Mitchell a standing ovation, and she reassured us all that she’s much better after a 2015 aneurysm made her temporarily unable to speak. “I’ve had to come back several times from things,” she said, referring to her childhood polio. “And this last one [the aneurysm] was a real whopper. But, you know, I’m hobbling along but I’m doing all right!”
The tributes: In brilliant performances, Norah Jones played Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” and “A Case of You,” Ellie Goulding sang “Big Yellow Taxi,” Brandi Carlile sang “River,” and Brittany Howard and Herbie Hancock did a stylish version of “Both Sides Now.”
Bette Midler: The funniest great singer in America
The best stuff: Midler, who has earned four Grammys, three Emmys, two Oscar nominations and two Tonys, said she was prepared for the Kennedy Center award. "I’m no fool — I brought a hanky ’cause I knew it was going to get very, very emotional.” She gave a moving speech about how she “came from nothing” in remote Hawaii, got inspired by Edith Piaf, “worked like [an] animal,” and found her own creative place in the spotlight.
The tributes: After eloquent tributes from Goldie Hawn, Melissa Manchester and Scarlett Johansson, Kate Baldwin, Taylor Trensch and Beanie Feldstein sang “Friends,” Kelli O’Hara sang “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and Billy Porter roused the crowd with Midler tunes concluding with “From a Distance.”