Every year around this time, television earns itself a little class by airing the Kennedy Center Honors, a tribute to the best performing arts talent this country has to offer. This year's edition, set for tonight on CBS, gets the class stuff right but, for the most part, lacks the poignancy and emotion needed to make the evening something special.
In fact, the tributes to Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, Charlton Heston, Jessye Norman and Edward Villella seem almost rushed, as though the show's producers have to get somewhere. As it turns out, they do: a self-tribute to the awards' 20th anniversary that finally brings on the grandeur that's been missing, thanks to clips featuring past honorees and a stage that slowly fills with the hundreds of people responsible for putting the annual show together.
It's a stirring segment, ending with the introduction of some past honorees -- including Gregory Peck, the Nicholas Brothers, Leontyne Price, Sidney Poitier and Joanne Woodward -- and music from an impressive collection of choirs, bands and choruses.
But it also overshadows the three men and two women the evening is supposed to be honoring; you wish the Kennedy Center staff had been able to save a little of that grandeur for the individual tributes.
The evening, which was recorded Dec. 7, opens with a tribute to Lauren Bacall, an actress whose work with soon-to-be husband Humphrey Bogart turned seduction into an art form (and whose presence here should ease the pain of last year's Oscar loss). Actor Sam Waterston gets to the crux of the matter, noting how she could "take over a stage or a screen just by walking across it," as well as "utter a profanity and make it sound like she's reading from a menu in an expensive restaurant."
A filmed ode to dancer Edward Villella, 61, tells how he revolutionized the art form during his years with the New York City Ballet, with a style that was equal parts "old elegance and new exuberance." Wisely, however, Villella's tribute comes not in the form of a performance by some other big-name dancer, but rather one from the Miami City Ballet, where he's served as artistic director since 1986.
Opera diva Jessye Norman, certainly one of the world's most joyous performers, seems to be having a blast during her tribute, especially when the Howard University Choir urges her join in as they perform her signature song, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."
And Charlton Heston, who rose to fame through starring roles in such Biblical epics as "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur," is brought to tears when stage actor Brian D'Arcy James ("Titanic") is joined by the Alexandria Harmonizers in singing "More I Cannot Wish You," from "Guys and Dolls." Of course, tears are not the sort of thing you expect from Moses, but hey -- the guy is human.
The individual tributes end with Bob Dylan, whose presence here suggests rock and roll can finally be considered an art form with a capital A (if the center's trustees are smart, they'll honor Chuck Berry next year). However, performances of Dylan songs by Bruce Springsteen ("The Times They Are a-Changin' "), David Ball ("Don't Think Twice, It's All Right") and Shirley Caesar ("Gotta Serve Somebody") offer convincing proof that his work really knows no genre; his songs lend themselves to country and soul just as well as rock.
Kennedy Center Honors
What: "The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts"
When: 9 p.m.-11 p.m. today