WASHINGTON — I’ve always admired the fortitude of those brave folks who produce award shows. In dispensing honors to artists who are already smothered in public adulation, they learn to cope with voracious star handlers and posses, wobbly ratings, snarky critics, celeb-hungry sponsors and, of course, superstar egos.
George Stevens Jr. could teach a master class in kudo shows. Over three decades he has presided over the classiest award show, “The Kennedy Center Honors,” held tonight, and has thereby raised tens of millions of dollars for the arts. In so doing, he also stages a cool event each year that other kudocasts, including the Oscars, would do well to emulate.
Aglow in the Kennedy Center aura this year are a diverse and distinguished lot — Steven Spielberg, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Dolly Parton, Smokey Robinson and Zubin Mehta.
In years past, to be sure, the Honors have been disdained by a small circle including Vladimir Horowitz (he wanted to be the sole honoree), Katharine Hepburn (she said awards went against her Yankee fiber) and Paul Newman (he didn’t want to be in the same room with the president). Over time, Hepburn and Newman relented, but not Horowitz.
In any case, most of the stars show up on time, and so do the various presidents, though some seem bewildered to be sharing the spotlight with mere artists and thespians. Indeed, President Bush, newly returned from an ineptly staged performance in the Middle East, arguably has been the most distanced from any form of pop culture. Last year he blew his lines when he introduced Robert Redford — he said Redford had won his Oscar for acting when, in fact, he earned it for directing.
Whatever the hiccups, Stevens’ shows, like this year’s, have consistently been entertaining and, occasionally, quite moving. In panning across the shimmering audience, with its exotic blend of political and showbiz egomania, the camera reinforces the ineluctable links between pop culture and government. The Bush-and-Cheney regime, though oblivious to the arts, nonetheless understands Hollywood’s pervasive clout on cultures worldwide.
The Kennedy weekend embraces not only the big show, but also a cavalcade of dinners and receptions at the White House and State Department. Hence, the likes of Pinchas Zukerman, Willie Nelson and Tina Turner have been seen wandering the halls of power, stirring a degree of culture shock.
George Stevens Jr., who created the show with the late Nick Vanoff, oversees these rituals with the forbearance of a 74-year-old Medici.
“I am each year at once proud and terrified,” he acknowledges. “It’s like a three-dimensional chess game. The toughest element is that it’s all in Washington, but that’s also the best part.”
In handing off some of the responsibilities to his son, Michael, Stevens has sustained a formidable showbiz dynasty. His grandparents were actors and his father, George Stevens, belongs to the pantheon of Hollywood greats (“Shane” and “Giant”). Forty years ago, George Jr. became the first director of the American Film Institute, and since has brought forth superb books and documentaries about Hollywood’s great filmmakers.
The Kennedy Honors show has received consistent support from CBS — Les Moonves annually shows up in the network box, as did William Paley years before. Tickets are expensive, and it’s a pricey club to belong to: While orchestra seats go for as much as $3,500 each, additional contributions of $100,000 are part of the bargain, the money going to the Center’s program of symphony, opera and theater.
Government subsidies to the arts have been steadily diminishing in this country at a time when nations big and small around the world are lavishing funds to build new inner cities along with cultural monuments. Since Washington has made it clear it is in the war business, not the culture business, the symbolic importance of the Kennedy Center weekend carries an even more important subtext.