TV preview of the Kennedy Center Honors: Bask in the glow of greatness

TAKING A BOW: Mel Brooks is flanked by fellow honorees Grace Bumbry and Bruce Springsteen. Robert De Niro is pictured at left.
TAKING A BOW: Mel Brooks is flanked by fellow honorees Grace Bumbry and Bruce Springsteen. Robert De Niro is pictured at left. (John Paul Filo - CBS)
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A few weeks after it's over, CBS dumps the Kennedy Center Honors broadcast into a dead zone of intra-holiday prime time as if it's a secret act of Yuletide programming charity instead of a proper tribute to the finest accomplishments in our nation's arts culture. Certainly the Honors broadcast (this year's installment is Tuesday night) is not usually a rollicking two hours for those at home who've misplaced their remote controls and are forced to watch it; adding to its mustiness would be all those commercials for Cadillacs and Plavix prescriptions.

But shame on you if you don't catch this one. "The 32nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors" comes along just when we most need a reminder of what quality, manners and showmanship are supposed to look like. We've got enough junk to chew on the rest of the year, and this year's Honors show provides more than its share of rare and exultant moments.

I'm generally no softy when it comes to ritual ceremony, but I was moved by each presentation and performance -- such as when Dave Brubeck's four sons play along during the U.S. Army Jazz Ambassadors' rendition of "Take Five." There's a lovely moment when the camera catches President Obama and the first lady moving their heads hypnotically to the jazz. Or when Mel Brooks, on the verge of tears, sits in that bright rouge opera box and mouths the words along to his "Springtime for Hitler" (sung by "Glee's" Matthew Morrison) and "The Inquisition" (sung by Richard Kind). The entire Opera House comes to an almost holy hush during the tribute to opera legend Grace Bumbry. Besides Brubeck and Caroline Kennedy, who delivers the perennially stiff opening remarks, Bumbry represents the last thread of connection the Honors crowd has to the actual Kennedy era (she performed at the White House in the Camelot days).

What works this year, obviously, is an increase in contemporary wattage. The more the Honors look to youngish recipients who are still practicing their craft, the better it seems. Meryl Streep and Martin Scorsese are joined by Edward Norton, Sharon Stone and Ben Stiller to share their admiration for Robert De Niro. For the finale, Jon Stewart finds a perfect spot between reverence and giddy hero worship for Bruce Springsteen. ("I can tell you what I believe and what I believe is this: I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby.") Then comes a powerful tribute to the Boss from John Mellencamp, Melissa Etheridge, Sting (heavily bearded, looking like the Miner 49er) and a heavenly choir. Springsteen sits there, stunned silent with humility.

That's what I've always liked about that night: glimpses of these artistic legends, seated next to the president, at once basking and blanching at the white-hot beam of love being shot up at them. Watching them as they watch others perform their oeuvre. You forget the Kennedy Center Honors celebration has this surreal quality to it, almost like a really great funeral for someone who's still around to appreciate it. There is reflection, but also release -- and even revision. To achieve the Bruuuuuce magic, with Bruuuuuce watching but not participating -- this is not easy to do -- and it's fun to watch that sort of pressure culminate in a fitting homage.

With this year's show, you can almost reach out and touch the near future -- when Streep will get hers, when Stewart will get his. It was inevitable; we've moved into another era.

I'm sure the people who put on the Kennedy Center Honors (starting with the show's longtime producer, George Stevens Jr.) can supply you with all sorts of examples of how the event has evolved and improved of late. But really nothing about the show has changed.

I might have once been among those who would have argued for a Kennedy Center Honors overhaul. But watching this year's show, and thinking about all the monumental deaths of famous performers in 2009, I say keep it exactly the way it is, with its aerial shots from the Potomac, Plavix commercials, stuffy nature and all. Too much else has already changed.

The 32nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors

(two hours) airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company