2011 Kennedy Center Honors

December 28, 2011 by staff 

2011 Kennedy Center Honors2011 Kennedy Center Honors, 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…”

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