On Saturday, June 5, the 43rd Kennedy Center Honors will be held in Washington, D.C. This annual event follows a tradition of honoring five individuals or entities within the performing arts, with commendations given to icons from the worlds of film and television, theater, popular music, classical music and opera, and dance
Traditionally, the Kennedy Center Honors have focused on lifetime achievements – an exception was made in 2018 when the award went to the creators of the Broadway show “Hamilton.” Also, for years it was an unspoken tradition to present four of the awards to white artists and one to a token minority – it wasn’t until 2013 that the majority of honorees were nonwhites. And while the Kennedy Center Honors was initially designed to celebrate American talent, over the years the prize has gone to British and Japanese artists.
There is one big catch to getting the award – you have to be present at the ceremony in Washington, which is telecast on CBS. The ceremony is usually preceded by a function at the White House, but that was disrupted during the Trump years when neither the president nor the honorees were eager to be in each other’s company.
Not being able to be present has disqualified several highly deserving individuals from being honored, most notably Doris Day who declined the prize by claiming she preferred not to fly from Los Angeles to Washington. Katharine Hepburn initially rejected making an appearance, but changed her mind for the 1990 event.
But despite these considerable caveats, there has still been an extraordinary number of film giants whose career achievements have been overlooked by the Kennedy Center Honors since the first award gala in 1978. For your consideration, here are 10 cinema legends that should have been feted by the Kennedy Center Honors but were, for whatever reason, ignored.
John Cassavetes (1929 – 1989). One of the most influential figures in independent filmmaking, Cassavetes wrote and directed seminal works including “Shadows” (1960), “Faces” (1968), “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974) and “Gloria” (1980). He was also a memorable on-camera presence in diverse works including “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and his production “Husbands” (1970). How the Kennedy Center forgot to honor him is a mystery.
Roger Corman (1926 – ). Among the most influential filmmakers, Corman generated a canon of memorable productions, gave big breaks to diverse talents including Francis Ford Coppola and Jack Nicholson and expanded moviegoing experiences through his New World Pictures distribution company. None of this is worthy of the Kennedy Center Honors?
Jackie Gleason (1916-1987). Between “The Honeymooners” on television and diverse film roles including his Oscar-nominated “The Hustler” (1961) and the “Smokey and the Bandit” franchise, one would assume The Great One’s C.V. would have qualified him for award consideration.
Eartha Kitt (1927 – 2008). The sultry singer-actress invigorated Broadway, Hollywood and the cabaret stages of the world and also redefined the notion of the performing artist as a political activist. At the very least, the Kennedy Center Honors would have been a long-overdue apology from Washington from the treatment she received courtesy of the Johnson White House and Hoover FBI.
Jerry Lewis (1926 – 2017). Okay, can the obvious jokes that he’s more deserving of the Légion d’honneur – Lewis’s output on both sides of the camera, coupled with decades of humanitarian work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, should have made him a shoo-in for this tribute.
Dean Martin (1917 – 1995). Also absent from the Kennedy Center Honors roll call is Lewis’ one-time partner. Oddly, Martin’s fellow Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. were feted, but Martin’s success in films, television, recordings and concerts was not considered worthy.
Mickey Rooney (1920 – 2014). With more than 300 films spanning cinema history from the silent movies to the digital age, Rooney’s omission is utterly mystifying.
Barbara Stanwyck (1907 – 1990). If real life imitated a Barbara Stanwyck movie, the chieftains who decide which star gets the Kennedy Center Honors would be on the receiving end of Stanwyck’s wrath. As with Rooney, the omission is astonishing.
Melvin Van Peebles (1932 – ). Actor, writer, filmmaker, composer and visual artist, Van Peebles redefined African American cinema with his 1971 masterwork “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Even if his diverse career was limited to that one film, that alone would warrant his award.
Orson Welles (1915 – 1985). Yes, even Welles was snubbed by the Kennedy Center Honors. And you can’t blame that on the Hearst newspapers!