For all the ideological warfare and finger-pointing that often goes on between Washington and Hollywood, there is one evening a year during which politics and popular culture come together to celebrate much of what is best about this nation. That annual event is the Kennedy Center Honors.
As those who have been lucky enough to be inside the Kennedy Center for the gala know, it is a dazzling and unforgettable evening of performances by great artists. But, thanks to television, the rest of us also have been able to share this splendid experience. Tonight's 27th Annual Kennedy Center Honors on CBS continues that tradition.
Caroline Kennedy serves as host for a two-hour program that salutes soprano Joan Sutherland, composer John Williams, singer and composer Elton John, actor and director Warren Beatty, and husband-and-wife actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Oscar, Emmy and Tony telecasts notwithstanding, this is the best variety-show program of the television year.
By now, the formula is well-known. Each honoree is featured in a segment that starts with opening remarks by a celebrity friend or friends, a brief biographical film, and then performances given in tribute.
Here's actor Jack Nicholson warming the house in his opening remarks for Beatty: "For years, Warren has dreamed of attending these awards. Unfortunately, not exactly as a Kennedy Center honoree, but as president of the United States."
Nicholson closes by introducing singer Renee Fleming as "an even bigger diva than Warren."
Fleming sings "Over the Rainbow" with such beauty that it overcomes the limited audio of television to offer a glimmer of transcendence.
Violinist Itzhak Perlman offers more than a glimmer of such perfectly distilled emotion as he performs the cosmically sad theme from Schindler's List as part of the salute to Hollywood composer-conductor Williams.
Equally stirring is Audra McDonald's rendition of "Let Us Break Bread Together" sung in honor of Dee and Davis. She is backed by the Howard University Choir, which appears on stage just as actor Brian Stokes Mitchell finishes explaining why the slave song was chosen. Davis, while a student at Howard, heard Marian Anderson sing it in her famous 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, and says the moment "focused his life."
Under the guidance of producer George Stevens Jr., the filmed life histories are worthy of documentarian Ken Burns. The writing is superb.
"With $10 pinned inside his pocket, he hitchhiked to his future: a scholarship at Howard University," narrator Sean Combs says while viewers see images of the sleepy, rural South that Davis left behind.
Marilyn Horne is given equally poetic narration for the film on Sutherland: "She tossed off high notes like a bird in spring - just as careless and happy."
Kennedy Center Honors is not two hours of perfection, mind you. Faye Dunaway is way over the top in her remarks on Beatty - looking a little sad as she tries to grab the spotlight instead of shining it on him. Robert Downey Jr. just plain fails in his attempt to explain how much Elton John has meant to his life.
As for Billy Joel closing his musical salute to John with "The Bitch Is Back," what can one say about the unpredictable Joel? The lack of cutaway camera shots to President George W. Bush, his wife, Laura, and other high-ranking political couples during the song is quite noticeable, and one suspects the hall is not exactly rocking.
But even here, a case can be made that rock 'n' roll should be a bit in the face of the establishment. And, besides, American popular culture (not to mention some American presidents like Andrew Jackson and Lyndon Johnson) has often included a bit of vulgarity. It is a reflection of our national character, and to its credit, Kennedy Center Honors includes that, too.
What: The 27th Annual Kennedy Center Honors
Where: WJZ (Channel 13)
When: Tonight at 9
In brief: TV takes us inside the Kennedy Center for an evening of fine entertainment.