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Film: Allen, Fonda and Lee deserve Kennedy Center Honors

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The recipients of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors won’t be announced until later this summer or early fall — indeed, the deliberations for who will be named are still ongoing. With that in mind, our critics weigh in with their own recommendations for who they think are most deserving of this prestigious acknowledgment of artistic achievement in the performing arts.

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It’s difficult to quibble with the filmmakers who have received the Kennedy Center Honors in recent years: Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford — eminently deserving, all of them. But there have been one or two curious omissions along the way. Herewith, a reminder that the honors should be about the artists’ work, not a referendum on their lives. (Plus one prediction of who might be wearing that rainbow ribbon soon.)

WOODY ALLEN

It’s shocking that an honor meant to recognize a lifetime’s contribution to American culture hasn’t gone to Allen, who at 75 just directed his 42nd movie and is busy making his 43rd. What, “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” weren’t perfect enough? “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?,” “Bananas” and “Sleeper” didn’t deconstruct cinematic genre with enough zany brio? He only managed to introduce one word to the country’s vernacular? We can thank Allen for giving us the term “Zelig,” but for so much more as well. When you make movies for nearly half a century, surely you’ll come out with some duds. (We’ll choose to forget that “Whatever Works” didn’t work. At all.) But rare is the filmmaker who, even working at Allen’s prodigious pace, manages to become as accomplished a realist, in this case bringing the lost tribes of upper-class Manhattan to the rest of us with anthropological accuracy and, at his best, compassion.

Jane Fonda

Presumably, the Kennedy Center has ignored Allen because of his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, daughter of his former companion, Mia Farrow. Off-screen controversy might also be the problem with Fonda, who nearly 40 years after visiting enemy territory during the Vietnam War still inspires equal measures of praise and invective (QVC just kicked her off the air, Fonda herself reported last week, due to pressure predicated on her antiwar activities in the 1970s). Activism aside, Fonda has nonetheless proven to be every bit as enduring, versatile and iconic as other actors who have received the Honors — including her father, who was a recipient during the awards’ first year. From ingenue to sex bomb to serious actress with two Oscars under her workout-tight belt, Fonda has proven reliably adroit and expressive in films as diverse as “Klute,” “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and “Fun With Dick and Jane” (talk about prescient) and “Coming Home,” “Nine to Five” and “Julia.” Throughout the most tumultuous chapters of her lifetime, Fonda has changed right along with the culture, providing us with a much better-looking mirror to the country’s hopes, anxieties and abiding passion for self-invention.

Spike Lee

Admittedly, Lee is young — at 54 he’s two years younger than Bob Dylan was when he received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1997 — but if not this year, he’ll deserve the recognition eventually. He revolutionized American independent cinema in 1986 with the release of his audacious ode to female sexuality and selfhood, “She’s Gotta Have It.” Since then, he’s been one of the most protean figures in Hollywood, diving into musicals (“School Daze,” “Mo’ Better Blues”) and romance (“Jungle Fever”) with the enthusiasm he’s given historical biopics (“Malcolm X”) and searing urban dramas (“25th Hour”). Perhaps most influentially, he sparked a refreshingly candid dialogue about race with his germinal 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” And don’t overlook what’s perhaps his finest work, in documentaries: The magnificent nonfiction films “4 Little Girls,” “When the Levees Broke” and “Passing Strange” have helped tell us who we are, at our best and worst.

hornadaya@washpost.com

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