Every year, the Kennedy Center Honors show takes place early in December, as part of the big wind-up to the holiday season. Then the televised version is broadcast during the week between Christmas and New Year's. There are solid reasons behind the timing. For one thing, it gives viewers a chance to reflect on the ways that the heroes of the performing arts have enriched our entire culture and our own lives, during the quiet few days that fall between noisy holidays, a time that's ideal for reflection and reappraisal. For another, it gives me a pretty good shot, with four days left to go and practically no competition, to write the single least-noticed TV Club review of this calendar year. The winner gets a chocolate bunny.
This has been going on since 1978. For most of its existence, the show has been hosted by Walter Cronkite, "the most trusted man in America" and the last TV news anchor to possess an aura of straight-talking, grandfatherly sagacity, which made him a good man to have at your disposal if you needed to convince a nationwide audience that Perry Como was a national treasure. Back in the 'oughts, Cronkite stepped aside to make room for Caroline Kennedy, whose presence on this stage automatically puts viewers in a wistful, nostalgic mood as they remember a lost and magical time when members of her family knew how to dress. Kennedy was never a natural at playing emcee, and after several years in the job, she seems to have given up any mad dreams she ever had of getting better at it. She just rushes through her introductory remarks with a polite, dazed smile, while you think, "She's probably very nice. It's not as if she's hurting anybody." Very quickly, she finishes speaking and steps aside until it's time for her to return at the end to say goodbye. Most of what comes between her two appearances is designed to make you holler, "Bring back Caroline!"
This year's show began with the tribute to the Master Thespian who's stuffed in the honorees' box, along with the President and the First Lady, the mythic jazz man (Sonny Rollins), the Broadway songbird (Barbara Cook), the pop idol (Neil Diamond), and the classical master with the populist air (Yo-Yo Ma), as well as all their various plus-ones. This is a horrible way to start a show, but the only clear alternative would be to not honor any thespians at all, which would put a heavy dent in the show's star power. With musicians and composers and choreographers and directors of Broadway musicals, a tribute can consist of bringing people on to perform songs and numbers that have been associated with the honoree in the past. With actors and movie directors, there's not much you can do except bring on their old co-stars and other associates to gas on about how wonderful they are. It only takes a few minutes of this stuff before the honoree starts to look like Tom Sawyer enjoying his own funeral service.
I don't know what actor might be ideally suited to getting through something like this. (Maybe Charlton Heston, who received the honor in 1997, at a point in his life when he might have looked out of place doing anything but sitting high above a stage gazing down at the puny humans swearing their eternal fealty. Plus there was the added thrill of seeing him sitting up there with fellow honoree Bob Dylan.) With Streep, the eternal grade-A student and class valedictorian of the American stage and screen, it plays into everything that's been a little off-putting about her and her critical reputation ever since her valkyrie's profile started jutting out from the cover of newsmagazines. The broadcast was frequently interrupted by commercials for her new movie, in which, to judge from her makeup, she plays Edith Bunker during that stretch when Edith was Prime Minister of England, The commercials promised that she delivers "the performance event of the year", and as intelligent and gifted as Streep is, many of her biggest movies have seemed like delivery systems for what did indeed feel like a "performance event"—a bloodless demonstration of perfect technique intended to bypass audience interest completely and proceed directly from the director calling "That's a wrap!" to Stanley Tucci on an awards stage opening an envelope and announcing, "The winner is…" The specific praises lavished on Streep from the Kennedy Center stage tended to focus on things like her precision and detail, which made her sound like one of those portrait painters from a long-dead century whose styles suddenly became obsolete when photography was invented.
Or maybe that's just the grumpiness talking. It's hard not to feel grumpy when you're listening to people say things like, "By disappearing into her roles, Meryl Streep has made the world visible to us," or watching a cross section of former Streep co-stars—Tucci, Kevin Kline, Emily Blunt, Anne Hathaway—do their little tributes mingled with prepared "comedy" material that would get a writer for the Oscars show horse-whipped in the parking lot, culminating in Hathaway doing a clumsy version of "He's Me Pal", a song that Streep sang the bejesus out of in Ironweed, as a special consolation prize for those valiant few who hadn't walked out of the movie by that point. The real keynote address was delivered by Tracey Ullman, who, by way of praising Streep's modesty, said that the only thing she isn't brilliant at is listening to people talk about her greatness; however, Ullman said, Streep is so sensational an actress that she'd be able to sit there the whole night playing the part of someone who was having the time of her life.
This joke had an unintended effect; Streep, alone of the all the honorees, did manage to look absolutely enthralled every single minute the camera was on her, which had the effect of making her look as if, yep, she was acting the whole time. By comparison, Barbara Cook, who brightened up as soon as the musical tributes started, sat through the entire section devoted to Streep looking as if she'd forgotten to bring her hemorrhoid donut. There are few things more irresistible than seeing someone at the center of a big, boring event look even more bored than you are; by the time Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick came on to introduce the tribute to Cook herself, I had gone from never having thought much about Barbara Cook to wanting to take a bullet for her.
The Sonny Rollins tribute was introduced by Bill Cosby, who looked a little out of breath but managed to get through his monologue—a story whose point was that Sonny Rollins is universally beloved and that his name is internationally recognized short-hand for musical bliss—without turning into a Bill Cosby imitator more than once, when he babbled, "I want to see the thing, with the hole in it! Narrating the short film about Rollins' life and career, Cosby was required to say something about "the dark side of the night life, and the drugs came easy," while a picture of Riker's Island appeared on the screen. Except for Yo-Yo Ma, whose image is so squeaky clean that one of the speakers paying tribute to him was Elmo, and Streep, whose greatest personal tragedy and career setback was agreeing to be in She-Devil, all the profiles struck this ritual note of pain and difficulty; when you're in front of the TV, hearing about the lives of the great while lounging around in your underwear eating cheese doodles, it's always reassuring to hear that they had to crash and burn before rising, like the phoenix, to fulfill their destinies.
In order to get the desired effect, the narration made it sound as if the slow start Neil Diamond had to endure before his songwriting career took off was about on a par with Rollins' and Cook's struggles with drugs and alcohol and depression and the law. In keeping with the general theme that Neil Diamond could give even Meryl Streep a run for her money in a humility contest, we got to hear a snippet of Diamond talking about how hard it was for him to, reluctantly, step out from the privacy of the song-writers' room and become a performer himself, in an era when the true heights of success belonged to the singer-songwriters. This led directly into a clip from the 1980 The Jazz Singer movie. I'm thinking that a man who arranged to star in a major-studio picture in which he shared the screen with Laurence Olivier must have pretty thoroughly gotten over his reluctance to be the one at center stage with his name up in lights
Most of the people who've been named Kennedy Center Honorees and run this gauntlet these past thirty-three years have been richly deserving.It's nice that they get a pat on the back. But it's weird that, in a country that puts such a high priority on being entertained, ideally every waking second, a show that's always as ramshackle-tacky, and at the same time so self-congratulatory and vainglorious, is the highest annual celebration of our greatest performers. In a way, having John Lithgow read some drivel about your struggle to the top and being serenaded by Anne Hathaway is the closest an American performer can come to being knighted. The whole format is kind of screwy, because of its assumption that the best way to pay tribute to people like Sonny Rollins and Barbara Cook and Yo-Yo Ma, and to entertain the people who'd enjoy seeing them celebrated, is to have them watch other people do their material. These people do their thing right now as well as they ever have, and I'm not sure that even Neil Diamond is doing this thing that much worse than he used to; they all do what they do because they love it, and the best possible tribute might be to pack the house, stick the President in his box, and let the honorees themselves show off their chops, to rapturous applause. But that would be a show for people who really care about the performing arts, instead of people whose idea of a really classy pedestal is This Is Your Life.
- As musical entertainment goes, the Rollins set, which included performances by Christian McBride, Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, Roy Hargrove, Benny Golson, Jim Hall, Herbie Hancock, and other worthies, was the high point. In a show like this, jazz has an automatic advantage over pop or show tunes, because they actually have to hire some people who can play it, whereas anybody with a SAG card thinks they can sing the Beatles or Stephen Sondheim. It also doesn't scare the producers as badly as classical music, which is why the Yo-Yo Ma set, which climaxed with a performance by Elmo, James Taylor, and some Red Sox fans, featured only the barest hints that the honoree was best known as a classical musician.
- The Barbara Cook tribute featured an escalating procession of divas, Patti LuPone, Sutton Foster, and Glenn Close among them. The presence of Close, singing to Barbara Cook while Meryl Streep was up there next to her, made for uncomfortable viewing, given that, back in the 1980s, Close often seemed to be Streep's understudy, and now she's basically the Streep who had to shift from movies to TV to get decent roles. She kept her composure—all those years she spent with Up With People have served her well—but the title of her song, "Losing My Mind", was a little too apropos for comfort.
- Introducing the tribute to Neil Diamond, John Lithgow went for a laugh by delivering a pompous, ham-actor reading of the "Da-da-da's" that open a Diamond song. This is exactly the kind of thing that comedians like Steve Allen did in the '50s, when they wanted to make the point that rock lyrics are infantile, meaningless, and stupid as hell. Does Lithgow even know that? From the rest of his speech, you couldn't be sure that he understood that what he'd done could be taken as a put-down of the idea that Neil Diamond is any kind of artist at all, but you could tell from the expression on Diamond's face that this was not lost on the sensitive honoree himself.
- The Neil Diamond set nicely illustrated the clean divide between his two personas as a songwriter, the agreeable confectioneer of upbeat, catchy ditties and the pompous, "authentically" self-baring jackass. It began with a phenomenal performance of "Cherry, Cherry" by an incandescent Raphael Saadiq and ended with a pleasant reading of "Sweet Caroline" by Smokey Robinson. In between, Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland did that horrible thing that goes, "Hello, my friend, hello", and Lionel Ritchie executed an SCTV-worthy Method version of that horrible thing that goes, "I am, I cried!" Presumably, Will Ferrell had a prior engagement.
- Every time they cut to Anne Hathaway in the audience, she was tearing up. For her sake, I'm hoping that she was in unbearable pain from having ruptured something doing a split during the Streep tribute.
- You know that Travelers insurance-company commercial featuring the dog who can't stop thinking up doomsday scenarios regarding the fate of his bone until he's gotten it properly insured, and how it's the most awesome, endlessly re-watchable commercial since somebody bought the kids in the Gap commercials a Louis Prima record? They've got a new one with a dog who's being pursued by all the other dogs in the neighborhood for his bone, until they learn that… I don't want to spoil it. It's not that other commercial, but it's still pretty sweet.