Abuse of power, abuse of position, disrespect, unfairness and old-fashioned pettiness—these are just some of the ethics fouls the Kennedy Center’s George Stevens, Jr. committed during the 37th Kennedy Center Honors program last night in Washington, D.C.
“Take this job and shove it” is a pleasing anthem of the abused and disaffected in the workforce, but acting on the sentiment is usually a bad idea, and in some cases, like this one, a terrible idea. The Kennedy Center Honors program was Stevens’ baby from its inception nearly two decades ago, a gala honoring the greats of American culture with a star-studded stage show attended by the glitterati of Washington and Hollywood. Through his skill and showmanship—it runs in his family: he is the son of the great Hollywood director George Stevens, who directed “Shane,” among other classics–he had made the annual event an institution. The awards were considered the official confirmation of icon status, and the program was one of the few culture-related presentations remaining that was deemed worthy of a yearly network telecast. Apparently, Stevens felt that he made the Honors what they were, so he had the right to warp it to his own selfish ends.
Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein thanked the audience for its support, and then, in a gesture unchanged from past years, thanked producers George Stevens Jr. This time, however, instead of waving from the audience as in past years, Stevens came on stage and announced that Rubenstein was forcing him out as producer after 37 years. “We accept that this will be our last Honors,” Stevens said. “This is our good night.” It was hardly a spontaneous show of pique, for he had programmed his comments into the teleprompter.
The sour note interrupted the flow of the evening, and cast a pall over the tributes to honorees Lily Tomlin and Sting, which had not yet begun. (The celebrations of the careers of Tom Hanks, ballerina Patricia McBride and soul singer Al Green had been completed.)
Stevens had been engaged in contentious talks with Kennedy Center management, which wanted to move the Honors show in a new direction and sought a fresh creative vision. In a messy split redolent of Jerry Lewis’s divorce from the Annual MS Labor Day Telethon, an aging creator of a cherished tradition was being retired against his will, and felt betrayed.
Jerry Lewis, however, did not crash the telethon to announce his departure.
This kind of petulant and vindictive exit may feel good in the doing, but is always destructive. The victims included the honorees, the audience, and Steven’s own good will and reputation, as well the event itself. Can this be justified by the momentary satisfaction of telling his foes at the Kennedy Center off, and holding them up for brief, unwanted criticism? Of course not. All this act accomplishes is to make it clear why the leadership of the Kennedy Center concluded that it was time for Stevens to go. This was not the act of a professional nor the act of a gentlemen. It is the act of an egotist, or perhaps that of someone who has stayed too long and through age or complacency forgotten that maxim of both the theater and life, that you always want to leave your audience wanting more.