Friday, September 13, 2013

Kennedy Center Honors 2013: Some Thoughts

Last year, I boycotted The Kennedy Center Honors because I was displeased that this prestigious award for contribution to the arts was being given to misogynist sexual harasser David Letterman (who hasn't been funny since Larry 'Bud' Melman died), and of all things, Led Zeppelin (seriously, when did the Kennedy Center Honors turn into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame).  I hold that the selection of these two in particular was A.) a terrible mistake, and B.) a shameless grab for ratings that still flopped.

Last year there was also the controversy over the Center's lack of Hispanic honorees.  Since their inception in 1979 there have been only two Hispanics honored: Placido Domingo in 2000 and Chita Rivera in 2002.  When objections were raised, Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser replied that those complaining should go "**** themselves".  Not exactly productive.  The ensuing outrage over both the Center's arrogance at being questioned and the negative publicity forced long-needed changes.  The selection committee was expanded and for the first time, the Center opened up suggestions to the public.  I'm sure rather idiotic suggestions were submitted (I read somewhere that people wanted the band Rush to be honored, and as much as we all love Tom Sawyer...) it was long overdue that those who actually care about this awards have a say.

I signed a couple of petitions myself: for Carol Channing and Nancy Wilson.

Well, this year, after the debacle of the Led/Letterman brouhaha, the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors has made positive strides to restore its reputation.  This year's honorees are:

Opera Diva Martina Arroyo
Jazz legend Herbie Hancock
Pop/Rock musician Billy Joel
Actress Shirley MacLaine
Guitarist Carlos Santana

Four out of five honorees were previous recommendations.  I will grant you that Arroyo is the only person I was unaware of, but having heard some of her recordings (thanks, YouTube), she is certainly worthy of the honor.  I'm not an opera expert, but I'm not ignorant either.  I know Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jesse Norman, Kiri Te Kanawa, Joan Sutherland, so I know some of the greats of opera. 

What surprised me was how dominant music was this year.  Of the five honorees, only MacLaine is not involved in music.  Her selection is the only one I would quibble with, not so much for her being worthy of it, but given their ages I think 91-year-old The Betty White and 92-year-old Carol Channing should have been given precedence over 79-year-old MacLaine.  Either that, or we could have had six honorees: three men, three women.  Seems fair to me. 

The great scandal of last year over the lack of diversity has been rectified somewhat with two Hispanic honorees (Arroyo, who is half Puerto Rican/half African-American, and the Mexican-born Santana).  This disproves the idea that the Kennedy Center could never come up with Latin legends to which salute.  I know there will be voices saying that this is quota-filling; many ugly comments were hurled about how 'them Mexicans' were just whining, but there really isn't a case that I know of that can be said against either Arroyo or Santana.  The former is a highly respected opera performer and teacher, the latter a legendary and influential guitarist.  Though its fallen slightly out of favor, I could not attend a wedding without Europa playing as the first dance (particularly at Mexican-American weddings).

In short, this year's honorees (despite the absence of White or Channing) is a massive improvement over last year's disaster.  I will be watching.

We also have recently learned who next year's Honorary Oscar winners will be.   

Steve Martin, Angela Lansbury, and costume designer Piero Tosi will receive Honorary Oscars for their body of work, while Angelina Jolie will receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her work as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, drawing attention and action for various humanitarian crises from Afghanistan to now Syria.

Martin is the only one with which I might quibble with.  Is he a comedic genius?  I'm coming around to saying he is, though I'm not the biggest Steve Martin fan.  Angela Lansbury has never won either an Oscar or an Emmy (a shocking track record given her longevity on screen) and it is indeed an honor long overdue.  Granted I know nothing about Tosi's work but it is good that the Academy recognizes artists whose work isn't as well-known as Costume Design.  It is similar to when cinematographer Jack Cardiff or set designer Robert F. Boyle were so honored.  Recognition for work behind the camera is just as important as recognition for work in front of the camera. 

In regards to Jolie, frankly I cannot find a person more worthy of receiving the Humanitarian Oscar than her.  She is a brilliant actress but she also is an extraordinary humanitarian, devoting so much time and energy to doing real work for those who are caught in warfare's awful crosshairs.  She is not just some person who swoops in, has her picture taken, and swoops away.  She does the grunt work, she studies, she has earned a reputation as a reputable spokesperson and intelligent advocate for refugee and women's rights.  In fact, she is known as much for her humanitarian work as her film work, perhaps more.  It is one of the best decisions the Academy has made.

My only real objection is that once again, Doris Day (89 to 91 years old, age subject of debate) has been overlooked once again.  Perhaps Steve Martin could have been awarded next year.  Given Day's longstanding work for animals, could not a Humanitarian Oscar AND a Lifetime Achievement Oscar both be in her future?

Still, on both the Kennedy Center Honors and the Honorary Oscars, on the whole they are all exceptional and extremely worthy.  Congratulations to them all.

Maybe Next Year, Doris...

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