With so many performers on hand, it's no surprise that "The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Arts" has a showman's sense of saving the best for last. Unfortunately, tonight's telecast (9 p.m. CBS) saves the worst for first.
To be sure, the honors are a distinguished celebration of performing artists' achievements. This, the 24th annual presentation, recognizes Jack Nicholson, Van Cliburn, Julie Andrews, Luciano Pavarotti and Quincy Jones. The gala, a fund-raising benefit hosted by Walter Cronkite, was taped Dec. 2 before an audience that included the president and first lady.
But this affair, the hoitiest of the toitiest, leads off with a tribute to Nicholson that, if you take away the star power, might as well have been done by a high school audiovisual club. It begins with some laudatory words from Warren Beatty, followed by a short taped biography and a few film clips.
Then, more back-slapping from three other stars: All Nicholson can do is sit quietly and have the adulation heaped upon him.
Mercifully, the remaining tributes are less cloying. This is largely because they feature performers paying homage to the honorees through song rather than mere exaltation. Much of the music is classical or opera, as befits Cliburn and Pavarotti. For Andrews, we get show tunes, sung by Jeremy Irons and Robert Goulet, among others.
But on a night of seemingly endless standing ovations, the only tribute that really gets everyone from Laura Bush to Secretary of State Colin Powell moving in their seats is the last, for Jones.
The segment, featuring Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, not only affirms Jones' influence on pop music but also something about the arts: that there is more joy in the doing than the congratulating.