“The Kennedy Center Honors” is always a joyous and classy affair, and this year’s telecast gets a modest upgrade — airing on a Sunday night, albeit still in the arid window between Christmas and New Year’s. Yet the 36th edition of this annual celebration of the arts features some truly out-of-the-box choices, with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly among the presenters. As usual, there are genuinely heartwarming moments — such as opera singer Martina Arroyo singing along to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” — but this might be the least memorable edition of the Honors in the last several years.
That may be in part because of the relatively narrow — if invariably eclectic — field of honorees, with four of the five coming from different disciplines of music, leaving Shirley MacLaine as the lone representative from the cinematic arts. In addition, Glenn Close subs in as mistress of ceremonies for Caroline Kennedy, recently named ambassador to Japan. While Kennedy was always a little stiff in her hosting capacity, the connection to her father traditionally added a compensating element of nostalgia to the proceedings. (In the night’s best line, Close introduces MacLaine as having lived “a life too big for just one lifetime.”)
The Kennedy Center draws its strength, in part, from seeing these esteemed artists clearly having a ball, along with the mix of political heavyweights and who’s who of celebrities filling the hall. It always looks like a dinner party that would be a blast to attend.
That said, the frequently arbitrary nature of the presenters and performers feels especially strained this year, from Snoop Dogg participating in the Herbie Hancock tribute (and trying to get the whole crowd to yell “Ho!”) to the introductions by Sotomayor, O’Reilly and Tony Bennett for, in sequence, Arroyo, Hancock and Billy Joel.
Not surprisingly, the Joel tribute is saved for last, and it’s a pull-out-the-stops affair, with Vietnam veterans coming onstage during Garth Brooks’ performance of “Goodnight Saigon,” and a choir — as well as most of the audience — helping Rufus Wainwright bang out “Piano Man.” Even that finishing kick, however, doesn’t rival the show-stopping highlights of past ceremonies.
Granted, there are other mild pleasures to be savored, from watching first lady Michelle Obama groove to the music to the annual guessing game of seeing at what point the camera will conspicuously find CBS CEO Leslie Moonves and his wife, Julie Chen.
Then again, if that nod to the network is all that’s required to keep “The Kennedy Center Honors” on broadcast TV — despite a demographic skew that’s probably older than even O’Reilly’s audience — then so be it. And if this year’s edition seemed slightly pallid compared to previous ones, it’s still a perfectly fine way to spent an evening basking in the glory of five lifetimes (and thanks to MacLaine, perhaps a few more) extremely well spent.