- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 1, 2011

It’s Washington’s answer to the Oscars, the closest thing to American pop-culture knighthood. At a star-studded gala Sunday, singer Neil Diamond, actress Meryl Streep and three other entertainers — Broadway star Barbara Cook, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins — will be saluted with the Kennedy Center Honors, recognizing their luminous lifetime contributions to the performing arts.

As the glowing words and heartfelt encomiums flow from the Kennedy Opera House stage, no one will mention that Mr. Diamond was the first man to win a Golden Raspberry Award for worst actor, courtesy of his star-destroying turn in 1980’s “The Jazz Singer.”

Nor will anyone note that Miss Streep co-starred in 1989’s “She-Devil” alongside fellow master thespian Roseanne Barr.

Or that Miss Cook briefly headlined an ill-fated musical version of “Carrie,” based on the horror novel by Stephen King.

Or that Mr. Ma lent his considerable talents to the soundtracks of 1997’s “Seven Years in Tibet” and 2005’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” a high-class pair of turgid cinematic turkeys to rival anything roasted on Thanksgiving.

Or that Mr. Rollins … well, you catch our drift.

A wise man — possibly the Apostle Paul, probably Osgood Fielding III from “Some Like It Hot” — once noted, “Nobody’s perfect.” In the cases of Mr. Diamond, Miss Streep and the rest of this year’s honorees, that maxim is worth remembering. Otherwise, their formidably accomplished, mostly spotless resumes would be unbearable.

With that in mind, we present our first-ever Kennedy Center Dis-Honors, kidding only because we love.

Neil Diamond

The good stuff: Five decades in show business, more than 115 million records sold worldwide, eight No. 1 singles. Oh, and before he became a famous voice, the 70-year-old Mr. Diamond was a skilled swordsman, earning a fencing scholarship to New York University. No kidding.

Career lowlight (I): As previously mentioned, Mr. Diamond won the first-ever worst-actor Razzie for “The Jazz Singer.” The good news? He also earned a Golden Globe nomination for the same role. The really good news? Making “The Jazz Singer” shelved Mr. Diamond’s plans to star in a film version of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” with Barbra Streisand.

Career lowlight (II): Mr. Diamond’s tune “America” was the theme song for Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential bid. Nothing against rousing, slightly cornpone immigrant-themed show-tune anthems; it’s just that any connection to one of the feeblest political campaigns of the modern era — M1A1 Abrams battle tank photo-op, anyone? — is a clear-cut case of guilt by association.

Career lowlight (III): In the 1960s — a time frame that likely explains much — Mr. Diamond recorded “The Pot Smoker’s Song,” a bizarre ditty that contains jarring, William Shatner-esque spoken-word interludes about shooting drugs into one’s spine and a peppy “Sesame Street”-style chorus of “la la la/pot, pot/gimmie some pot/forget what you are/you can be what you’re not.” With all due respect, no amount of psychedelic assistance is enough to unhear this tune.

Relevant statistic: A Google search of “Neil Diamond worst song lyrics of all time” yields just 463,000 results.

Quotable: In the 1991 film “What About Bob?” Bill Murray’s character notes, “There are two types of people in the world — those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.” Regarding both Mr. Diamond’s mammoth musical oeuvre and his habit of performing in colorful sequined shirts, truer words never have been uttered.

Meryl Streep

The good stuff: Two Oscars, seven Golden Globes, 41 GG nods combined nominations for those two awards — more than any other actor, ever — and just for the heck of it, two Emmys. Plus universal Tinseltown respect and seeming blood- and/or pact-with-Mephistopheles-based immunity from ever giving a truly bad performance — a record made all the more impressive by the 62-year-old actress’s penchant for risky, eminently mockable character vocal accents.

Career lowlight (I): She shared a marquee with Miss Barr in the box-office flop “She-Devil.” Naturally, Miss Streep was solid in her comic role as cheese-ball romance novelist — film critic Vincent Canby wrote that she made viewers believe that “this thimble-sized comedy is an Olympic-sized swimming pool of wit” — but agreeing to team up with the former Mrs. Tom Arnold showed a regrettable lack of judgment.

Career lowlight (II): Miss Streep squandered a Golden Globe-nominated performance on 1994’s “The River Wild,” a paint-by-the-numbers thriller most notable for (a) extensive white-water rafting; (b) her co-starring with Kevin Bacon, thereby reducing her Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon number to one. Also, Miss Streep did most of her own stunt work for the film — of course she did — and at one point nearly drowned.

Career lowlight (III): Released in 2007, the George W. Bush-era agitprop films “Rendition” (war on terrorism) and “Lions for Lambs” (war in Afghanistan) weren’t box-office duds because they had a liberal slant — they were duds because they were deadly dull.

Relevant statistic: A Streep-sung version of the ABBA song “Mamma Mia” — from the eponymous hit film, also starring Miss Streep — reached No. 8 on the Portuguese music charts. Frankly, this doesn’t tell us much about Miss Streep. On the other hand, it does confirm that Portuguese taste in vocal pop is no better than the taste of the rest of the world.

Quotable: Sam Leith wrote in the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper: “My heart sinks into my boots when I catch [Miss Streep‘s] name on a poster for a film. … Perhaps it’s just the idea of her I can’t stand: she has become Hollywood’s fixed idea of a Classy Actress, just as Morgan Freeman is Hollywood’s fixed idea of a Dignified Old Black Guy, and the Holocaust is Hollywood’s fixed idea of an Important Subject. [Miss] Streep is the anti-exploding helicopter.” Yep, that’s about the only legit criticism one can level at Miss Streep: She’s never been in a Michael Bay film.

Yo-Yo Ma

The good stuff: Quick — without consulting Siri, name five other world-class cellists. Or anyone else once named People magazine’s Sexiest Classical Musician. Our points exactly.

Career lowlight (I): To the gauche, unwashed Kardashian-watching masses — read: us — the world of high culture can be intimidating and inscrutable. Actually, so can “The Nutcracker.” As such, we wouldn’t dream of slagging the 56-year-old Mr. Ma’s work. Instead, we’ll leave that to Harvard professor Christoph Wolff, a friend and teacher of Mr. Ma‘s. In 1998, Mr. Ma paired his rerecordings of six Bach suites with a series of videos for the multimedia project “Inspired by Bach” — for instance, one video had Mr. Ma playing within computer renderings of 18th century architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s prison engravings; another featured ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. Said Mr. Wolff, summarizing the feelings of a music community that otherwise praised Mr. Ma’s musicianship: “I found a number of things rather embarrassing in those videos.”

Career lowlight (II): Entertainment Weekly magazine gave Mr. Ma’s 1992 album with Bobby McFerrin, “Hush,” a D-plus rating, with reviewer Lisa Sanders calling it “actively painful.”

Career lowlight (III): During President Obama’s inauguration, freezing outdoor temperatures meant that television viewers actually heard prerecorded music from the all-star string quartet that included Mr. Ma — nobody’s fault, really, but still a bit tacky.

Relevant statistic: Last year, 65 percent of voters at the website amiannoying.com voted “yes” for Mr. Ma.

Quotable: Not to keep picking on “Inspired by Bach,” but deceased musical giant Leon Kirchner called Mr. Ma’s accompanying videos “baloney, unworthy of a supreme musician like Yo-Yo. I told him he should have saved a suite for Tiger Woods.”

Barbara Cook

The good stuff: The Financial Times once called Ms. Cook, 84, the “greatest singer in the world” — probably because “greatest singer in the universe” would be rank hyperbole.

Career lowlight (I): From the annals of What Could Possibly Go Wrong? we bring you “Carrie: The Musical.” Staged in 1988 by the Royal Shakespeare Company — no, really — and blessed with an $8 million budget, the show was based on Stephen King’s horror novel about a picked-on, telekinetic teenage girl who showers revenge — and buckets of blood — upon her high school prom. On the show’s opening night in England, Ms. Cook was nearly decapitated by a stage prop, an incident that prompted her to resign, noting that “there isn’t a chance in hell they’ll be able to pull this off.” Smart move: “Carrie‘s” subsequent Broadway run was a legendary failure, later inspiring the title of the 1991 book “Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops.”

Career lowlight (II): Ms. Cook lent her voice to 1994’s “Thumbelina,” a box-office bomb of which film critic Roger Ebert quipped, “It is difficult to imagine anyone over the age of 12 finding much to enjoy in ‘Thumbelina.’ “

Relevant statistic: Twenty one — total number of previews (16) and performances (5) of “Carrie” on Broadway before it closed.

Quotable: The opening line of acerbic critic Frank Rich’s “Carrie” review read, “Those who have the time and money to waste on only one Anglo-American musical wreck on Broadway this year might well choose ‘Carrie.’”

Sonny Rollins

The good stuff: Received National Medal of Honor in 2010; composed a number of jazz standards; won just about every award imaginable, from Grammys to the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art; had an official day named after him in Minneapolis; was honored by “The Simpsons” with a Bleeding Gums Murphy scene; legendary 1956 album titled “The Saxophone Colossus” was proof positive of the adage that it ain’t bragging if you can back it up.

Career lowlight: You know what? We couldn’t find a single disparaging word about the 81-year-old musician.

Quotable: Perhaps Osgood Fielding III had it all wrong.

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