Last night, for the thousandth time in Oprah knows how many years, the Kennedy Center Honors award show--in which a lame cultural center with Presidential branding puts living celebrities in royal wax to be lovingly caressed forever--aired on national television. I'd love to see the ratings, given how the strike's certainly hurting TV. This year CBS won the gig. And who can blame them for going after it? It's easier than picking off with a .22 Starbucks-deprived writers in organized lines to buy their family's one meal of the day outside a Studio City taco stand. Or something.
The Kennedy Center clearly seems like the Smithsonian of the performing arts to too many people. But in typical Shallotosian fashion, I'm here to dispel that myth. Not only does the Kennedy Center present merely decent--and some great--concerts and shows in an ever-inventive cultural world (i.e. the National Symphony is no LA Phil, and I'd sooner hit up any house in NYC for something truly worthy than jet down to Foggy Bottom for some stuffy Washington run of whatever). The KC presents this work with a semantic tie to the government. Whether it's because it receives so much national funding or simply because of its name and location, many Americans consider the Kennedy Center the definitive word on what's what in the performing arts (and they've probably never been there.). Hey, George Bush is in the audience! (And it's not a tractor-pull.)
This year, to be fair, the teary eyed tributes went to some well-deserved culture-makers. Scorcese--say what you will about how he can't end a movie: the guy pretty much exemplifies the American dream, and he can do just about anything with a scene. (Although, it's always much better when DeNiro, Keitel, and some of his other super-talented friends get to liven up his frame. Let's just say, for the record, that Matt Damon and Marky Mark don't really substitute into that equation too well despite all The Departed's "acclaim," such as it was at the moment of the film's release.) But at least Scorcese is a scholar of his trade and something of an original. And at least Bob DeNiro made every audience member swoon with his small gestures of man-love, sending deep appreciation through the air with wireless precision in every micromove of his hard-won Downtown NYC mouth-wrinkles.
The question with this segment of the show is why the cognitively delayed Cameron Diaz opened the Marty-love session and continued to narrate his life-montage. Cameron Diaz? For one role in Gangs of New York? If you're trying to make a statement about how the younger generation cares for Marty, get Leo. Get him! Go! I know he's probably holed up with some coked-out model halfway across the world shooting someone else's movie about organized crime in a green world--but Something About Mary's JT-loving Goofball doesn't deserve the gig just because she looks OK in a party dress. But again: The Kennedy Center knows very little about which it speaks, and they probably just thought: This is TV! Let's get us a Big Star! You know, A Blonde Charlie's Angel! That she really had nothing to do with Scorcese's career clearly wasn't an issue.
What? No Keitel? Pesci? Bob Dylan? No Spielberg, Jack, or Daniel Day Lewis? (Assuming they would even come if asked--and sure, they probably were.) Coppola was fine, but he recently told a major magazine something sorta not so nice about Marty. Awkward. Plus, he really didn't seem like he wanted to be there. A private island, winery, or plate of bucatini was calling. But then you remember: Francis finally has a new "independent" movie coming out. Better make nice with the Amirricans. There's no way in hell that he really thinks Goodfellas is better than the Godfather.
Then, in proper Kennedy Center fashion, a lot of time went to a comedian. Granted, the comedian--Steve Martin--deserved an entire two-hour show devoted to his oeuvre. But the KC always loves it some comedy and then short-ends the director or composer on the bill. In this case, the KC programmer-on-crack really disappointed with Steve Carell and his try-too-hard facetiae winning the chance to intro Martin. I'm sorry: He was funny in the 40 Yr Old Virgin, but this Office crap--to say nothing of his "I"m a comically awkward leading man in rom-coms who looks like the male version of Ellen Degeneres" thing--hardly qualifies him to speak about arguably the most original humorist of the past 35 years. But let's face it: Who wants to fly out from LA to DC for a night? Marty Short made a brief appearance in a terrible tribute to Martin's trash-SoCal vaudevillian history--but he should have been the one speaking. Or how about Carl Reiner--director of The Jerk? Where was Victoria Tennant? Goldie Hawn? Billy Crystal? Danny Ackroyd? Where was David Remnick from the New Yorker reading from Martin's new memoir? Instead, the KC just put on a "so bad it's highbrow" interpretative dance with long-legged Rockette-types to symbolize Martin's achievements. I dug the Scrugs banjo bit. But there should have been someone up there with some conceptual-humorist weight on that stage. Someone with some literary acumen. Again, KC, why can't you do this right? You're on network TV now!
But the evening didn't improve with its tribute to pianist Leon Fleisher. A classical kid raised by two New York concert pianists, I always felt like I knew Fleisher. Like he was the powerful alpha force in my family who had taught my Dad how to play Brahms, roar, and eat steak, and I had just yet to meet him. But then I did meet him. In Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, where my parents had fallen in love and I spent some time as a teenage violinist. It was a dark and stormy night. For reals: My friends and I were running home from a concert in a deluge, and Fleisher picked us up in his ratty Subaru for a ride back to the dorms. I felt like I was in a Werner Herzog movie.
Later, at Peabody, as a violinist, some of my best pianist friends studied with the Godfather of the ivories. He was omnipresent if usually invisible on the campus and a best friend of my violin teacher, the estimable if lecherous Berl Senofsky. I attended music theory classes hearing the pounding tenths of his students in the background and returned to my room across the plaza to listen to his recordings of the Brahms D minor. But he never felt to me like he was a part of the real Peabody--the majority of the students were mediocre for conservatory level musicians, and the orchestra never rivaled that of Juilliard or even the Manhattan School, to say nothing of the Curtis Institute, where Fleisher also taught--with, it must be said, performer-pedagogues at a level of achievement that matched his better. Mostly, Peabody was full of so-so brass players, violinists without the star-virtuosity to win major jobs or solo gigs, and lots of really undereducated opera singers along with the occasional star pianist and freak harpist.
That said, the KC decided to honor Fleisher--via a slick Yo-Yo Ma delivered speech--with a (quite condensed) short film about his early success, the loss of his right-hand dexterity (to focal dystonia), his comeback, his Peabody teaching career (one line), and then a performance of perhaps Beethoven's worst work--the Chorale Fantasy--as played by perhaps Fleisher's least emotional student Jonathan Biss (a guy who never attended Peabody). In front of the still-remedial Peabody Orchestra! C'mon. Let it be said here: Peabody is really close to D.C. in a lot of ways. This was political. And convenient. And Biss: Ok, he hits the notes, but when I think of Fleisher I think of masculine power. Brahmsian world-shaking power. There were other pianists for this job. I'm thinking they were just booked. But why mention Peabody and then show Biss as if he attended the school? Bizarre. Tangential but still had to be noted.
It was obvious: So much about this show had to do with availability and bad image-conceptualizing. I won't even get into why Diana Ross--honored much more appropriately by SNL's Maya Rudolph every now and then as we snore--was allowed to share the stage with the aforementioned monuments of the arts. And I'll leave alone Brian Wilson. Ok, I won't: Lyle Lovett singing God Only Knows? Hootie and the Blowfish? Could we find people with less of a right to re-image the Beach Boys? Even Paul McCartney and his little mandolin would have been better. (Though, who can afford him?)
The point of all this rambling is that the KC--and let's not forget that Caroline Kennedy, its gleaming honorary daughter, now introduces this comedy of errors --really needs to step it up if it wants to follow through qualitatively on the notion that it's America's premiere cultural presenter. Many of us know it's not. But fine, keep the charade alive.
Just try harder. Be smart. And for fuck's sake, if you're gonna celebrate someone like Steve Martin, get out of your highbrow box that tells you stiff, leggy dancers loosely interpreting Martin's past might seem like a good idea and put something up there with some substance and wit. Last night's show just phoned it in at a time when live TV programming from the nation's party-town capital really had a chance to beat its competitors during a WGA strike. Maybe it won the numbers--that's not my field. But it sure as hell didn't deserve them.