What’s otherwise one of TV’s classiest and most understated annual events takes on a little extra pizzazz this year. After all, the 31st Kennedy Center Honors are spiced by the possibility that host Caroline Kennedy will be named to replace New York Sen. Hillary Clinton — and famously liberal honoree Barbara Streisand reportedly even shared a friendly peck with (gasp) President Bush. Such distractions aside, the show itself remains a delightfully mixed bag, from rock to country to dance. There are surely worse ways to spend two hours between Christmas and New Year’s.
In addition to Streisand, this year’s eclectic lineup includes Morgan Freeman, country crooner George Jones, choreographer Twyla Tharp and the Who’s Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. That last duo provide a constant source of joy throughout the telecast inasmuch as they both look they’re having an absolute ball, even during the other folks’ tributes. (By contrast, Tharp sat absolutely stoic, even appearing a trifle pained.)
The Kennedy Center Honors are unabashed in their exaltation of the arts, and recent editions have also provided at least one sublimely awkward President Bush reaction shot — in this case, his strained smile/sneer when Townshend extends a hand his way. The president is seen clapping and singing along enthusiastically during the country portion when his wife Laura introduces Jones, but one suspects he understands this isn’t really his room.
As always, the presenter lineup yields a few head-scratching moments. While it’s grand to see Denzel Washington and Clint Eastwood wax eloquent about their colleague Freeman, was Jack Black (who even raises the question himself) the most appropriate person to rhapsodize about the Who? He’s amusing in his, er, enthusiastic tenacity, but his appearance feels like a pandering nod to the MTV Video Awards.
Nevertheless, the show produces a few show-stopping moments, highlighted by Bettye Lavette’s soulful rendition of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” and a closing bow to Streisand featuring performances by Idina Menzel and Beyonce, who belts out “The Way We Were.” For all the talk about healing the ailing award-show genre, here’s an observation: Producers never go wrong by adding Beyonce to their talent roster.
CBS carries the Kennedy Center telecast almost as a public service at this point, but with the new gang sweeping into Washington, next year’s event could have a decidedly different feel. As is, it’s always healthy to see rock and pop strut their stuff alongside dance, film and country, proving that for one night, anyway, all our entertainment genres can get along.