Archive for December, 2013

television: kennedy center honors 2013

30 December 2013
The Kennedy Center Honors are where power briefly pays homage to talent, especially unpolitical, upbeat, pretty talent. Britain has its Queen’s Birthday and New Year honors, Finland has its Independence Day medals and gala, and this what we have. Every year in early December five veterans of the performing arts are garlanded with rainbow striped ribbon and made to sit at the Kennedy Center next to the President watching a variety show about themselves. They don’t get to make an acceptance speech, but can mug and mime from their seats. The 20-minute segment for each laureate consists of an introductory speech by another celebrity; a short documentary film with mellow voiceovers like, “He grew up poor in Chicago,” and “She was chasing the American dream”; and live performances by others of the laureate’s signature works, or if this is impractical, testimonials. Recurring categories include:
  • The national treasure who never left our screens: Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Bruce Springsteen
  • The formerly famous performer of the narrowcast arts who is now nearly forgotten: Sondheim muse Barbara Cook, opera singer Martina Arroyo, Natalia Makarova, exponents of bebop and free jazz
  • The funny person you wish could give an acceptance speech: Neil Simon
  • The person who seems heavily sedated, watching it all from a high altitude, and really ought not to give an acceptance speech: Brian Wilson
  • The adopted American: Sir Paul McCartney, Mikhail Baryshnikov (“He grew up poor in Riga”)
It is a show of performers performing emotion: “I’m so honored by this honor!” “I’m so honored to be here honoring you!” “I’m so moved by your homage!” “America loves you!” “I love America!” “Overcome!” “Humbled!” The politicians act too, laughing at jokes, singing along: “I too am a human being who likes a good show.” Most of the time emotional exchange at this scale is comically rote: Meryl Streep scrunching up her face and inclining her head and making praying-hands gestures. But sometimes you get a moment: Arroyo looked genuinely shocked this year as four of her former students came out to sing.