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Kennedy Center Honors Ends the Year Beautifully – As Always
December 30, 2014  | By David Bianculli

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, on television, is a vast wasteland, with one glorious exception. And, once again, the Kennedy Center Honors delivers the goods. And the greats…

This is the 37th annual presentation of the august awards, which are handed out with the President and First Lady in attendance, and with the honorees neither required nor allowed the opportunity to say thanks or give speeches. All they do is sit in the guest of honor balcony box and bask in the glory, as peers and younger performers inspired by them salute their career achievements.

George Stevens Jr. has produced these specials since the beginning, and has been as consistently entertaining and inspiring as those being honored. Reportedly, tonight’s CBS program (9 p.m. ET) is his final outing. I’ve seen all 37 shows, and have felt enriched by them all – and I fervently hope whoever succeeds him operates by the same playbook.

The Kennedy Center Honors is like a grander, classier version of The Ed Sullivan Show, where TV audiences were rewarded for staying tuned, and being tolerant and curious about artists they didn’t yet know. In the case of this long-running series of specials, if you come across a name you don’t know, just keep watching. The presenters and performers will explain it all for you – and the selected clips will bring it home.

For this 2014 installment, the Kennedy Centers honorees, in order of presentation, are singer Al Green, ballerina Patricia McBride, actor Tom Hanks, actress and comic Lily Tomlin, and singer-composer Sting. I’m almost ashamed to admit that McBride, for me, was the unknown element – but only until I watched her performance clips, and heard Christine Baranski’s awe-stricken introduction.

Stephen Colbert is the host of the show, and gets a huge laugh without saying a word when he comes out unannounced during the tribute to Hanks. David Letterman comes out to give the introduction, and Colbert – slated to replace Letterman as Late Show host next year – walks out seconds later and shadows him.

“Not yet,” Letterman says, to knowing laughter from the black-tie crowd.

I don’t want to reveal too many surprises or treats from the two-hour telecast, because those are part of the fun. But I will point out two moments in particular:

As part of the Hanks tribute, Steven Spielberg, who directed Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, gives his star actor a tribute so direct, and so touching, that it makes Hanks cry. And as part of the tribute to Sting, though it’s not even the closing part of the segment, Bruce Springsteen stops the show with a performance of Sting’s “I Hung My Head.” Watch Sting watching Springsteen singing that number, and you’ll understand why everyone involved with Kennedy Center Honors has the right to be excited, and proud, to take part.

I feel a little proud just watching – because I know this is two hours of TV time very well spent…

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