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Slighting Downhill

From highbrow to lowbrow, in black tie.

Jan 20, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 18 • By PETER TONGUETTE
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The opening montage seemed to demonstrate this as well. It was always one of my favorite parts of the show, and in later years it became the uncontested high point. Set to a rousing theme, shots of honorees from shows past (such as Gene Kelly giving a thumbs-up) were intercut with moments from their tributes (the University of Nebraska Marching Band putting in an appearance for Johnny Carson) as well as clips of them doing what they did best (Fred Astaire dancing). It did not consist entirely of celebrities, however: In 1996, for example, the year Albee was honored, the montage included a shot of Helen Hayes, clasping her hands and smiling warmly. Hayes was once known as “the first lady of the American theater,” but her likeness would not have been known by sight to most viewers during the Clinton presidency. No matter: Those sufficiently intrigued would figure out who she was and come to know about one of the country’s great actors. 

But the opening montage, like the rest of the show, has devolved. At some point, the shot of Helen Hayes was cut while shots of more recent, popular honorees have crept in. In 2003, the longtime master of ceremonies, Walter Cronkite, was succeeded by Caroline Kennedy, whose bored, uninflected delivery was a far cry from Cronkite’s famously sonorous intonations. In fairness to Kennedy—who missed this year’s show because of her new ambassadorship in Tokyo—she has been asked to recite lines that sound surreal in light of the show’s pleasingly pompous past. Rock stars are now regularly storming the gates of the Opera House: Tina Turner (2005), Brian Wilson (2007), Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey (2008), and—God help us—Led Zeppelin (2012). Indeed, of Led Zeppelin, Kennedy was impelled to read the following: 

With primal sounds at once beautiful and dangerous, these English lads built a band that gave a new dimension to rock, and that earned from an admiring world a whole lotta love.

It got worse. Later that evening, a bedraggled Jack Black lumbered onstage and hollered “Led Zeppelin!” at the top of his lungs to kick off the tribute. We are a long way from Larry Hagman introducing singing midshipmen for Mary Martin. 

Whenever I am tempted to lose heart, however, I call to mind the charm the Honors used to have: Joanne Woodward introducing honoree Edward Villella in 1997 by talking about her daughter’s girlhood crush on the New York City Ballet icon after seeing him in Balanchine’s Jewels (“I loved the boy in the red velvet,” she told her mother); or, that same year, Brian d’Arcy James singing “More I Cannot Wish You” from Guys and Dolls as part of the tribute to Charlton Heston. It was, Walter Cronkite informed us, a favorite tune of Heston and his wife, who were celebrating their 53rd year of marriage. As James sang, shots of Heston’s pensive expression and furrowed brow revealed how deeply affected he was by the gesture—and by the lyrics, too. 

Both moments, in a way, encapsulated what was best about the Kennedy Center Honors: the conveyance of genuine feeling through the magic of the performing arts. And, as we have learned in the fullness of time, this is not the easiest sentiment to put across by having Tina Fey lionize David Letterman.

Peter Tonguette is at work on a book about Peter Bogdanovich. 

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