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'Kennedy Center Honors': A Salute Without the Snap

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 1999; Page C01

This year's "Kennedy Center Honors" show begins by honoring itself. An announcer hails it as "television's most honored program," shameless naked hype lacking the dignity and class that the "Honors" are supposed to embody. Sadly, in its 22nd year, the "Honors" show seems less honorable than it used to.

There's an odd pall over the CBS special--tonight at 9 on Channel 9--and even a pall over the pall. The whole thing's a veritable bearer of pall, even though its five recipients are demonstrably, and fortunately, alive. The gang consists of dancer-choreographer Judith Jamison, actor Jason Robards, comical pianist Victor Borge, composer-singer Stevie Wonder and the very Scottish actor Sean Connery.

Shouldn't the "Honors" show recognize Americans--native or naturalized--who've made notable contributions to the performing arts? Connery is a Scotsman and became world-famous for a series of British-made James Bond pictures. As if to emphasize that rather than play it down, producer George Stevens Jr. fills the aisles of the Kennedy Center Opera House with squawky bagpipers when it's time for Connery's tribute.

Of all the recipients sitting in boxes near President and Mrs. Clinton, Connery appears to take the most pleasure from the praise--pleasure that borders on unseemly, whether puffing out his chest or dancing a jagged jig. So he was the best James Bond, big deal! The rest of his career isn't exactly awe-inspiring. Remember "Zardoz"? No? Oh, rent it sometime. You'll split a gut.

Maybe the "Honors" show just hews too rigidly to its creaky format. Host Walter Cronkite seems not to be wearing his tuxedo so much as to be gripped in its jaws. In narrating the tribute to Jamison, actor Morgan Freeman sounds almost as lifeless as if he were reading an eye chart. Enervation afflicts the production like a flu bug.

Kevin Spacey begins the tribute to Robards and is joined onstage by Alfred Molina, likable Matthew Broderick and Jake Robards, one of the veteran actor's acting sons. It looks as if young Robards is going to get something affectingly emotional going. But nope, instead it's "Another Op'nin,' Another Show," from the current Broadway revival of Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate."

Surely you remember Robards as Kate in that gay Porter romp.

It would have made more sense to sing a few choruses of "Yessir, That's My Baby," as Robards did so shaggily yet endearingly in the charming movie comedy "A Thousand Clowns," reprising a role he'd done on Broadway. Next to his growly triumph in "All the President's Men," that was probably Robards's best screen performance.

The Connery tribute begins with this overly intimidated encomium from actress Catherine Zeta-Jones: "I had the pleasure of traveling to Rome for my first meeting with Sean Connery. As anxious as I was to meet him, I had the fear of hell inside me." Is the woman insane?

Christopher Plummer does a nice job saluting Borge, the great Danish-born prankster-pianist. Clips of Borge include a couple from an early TV special in which he cavorts with opera star and good sport Lauritz Melchior. Strangely, Borge's most famous routine, his "musical punctuation" bit, isn't included.

Later, 26 impressive young musicians, mostly violinists, from a Harlem school of the arts play in salute to Borge, but one of the numbers is the country-western ditty "Orange Blossom Special." Huh? The suspicion lingers that producer Stevens calls upon young musicians from a Harlem school and an army of amateur bagpipers and, on past shows, college glee clubs and the like partly because such groups work cheap, help keep production costs down and are thrilled to be on TV.

Stevens always makes sure to unleash a squadron or two of cute kiddies to make everybody feel warm and cozy inside. He has used the same tricks so often that "Kennedy Center Honors" borders on self-parody. It also more than borders on boredom.

Wonder gets the biggest tribute. Coretta Scott King reads words of praise, and Wonder songs are sung--not very wonderfully--by Smokey Robinson, Diane Schuur and the group Take Six. Quincy Jones conducts a finale of "We Are the World," that cloying fund-raiser from years gone by.

Clinton's his usual telegenic self in reaction shots, one of which finds him bouncing along with the gospel rouser "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham" from the Alvin Ailey dance masterpiece "Revelations." Clinton is, like Ronald Reagan, terrific at appearing to have a good time. This year's "Honors" may be the toughest test that talent has ever been put to.

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© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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