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39th Annual Kennedy Center Honors Not So Special This Year, but the CBS Partnership Still Is
December 27, 2016  | By Ed Bark  | 11 comments

The lifelong partnership between CBS and the Kennedy Center honors, newly extended through 2025, is hardly an unholy one.

On the contrary, it should be applauded as one of those rare instances in which a broadcast network bows to class rather than big ratings. Even though the ratings have improved in recent years.

That said, the 39th annual edition, airing as usual between Christmas and New Year’s Day (Tuesday, Dec. 27th at 9 p.m., ET), is not one of the stronger ones. It probably falls somewhere in the middle of the pack on a continuum that stretches all the way back to 1978, when CBS and the Kennedy Center got together for the debut ceremony honoring Fred Astaire, Richard Rodgers, Marian Anderson, George Balanchine and Arthur Rubinstein.

The host that year was Leonard Bernstein (right), who was one and done along with Eric Sevareid in 1979 and Beverly Sills in 1980. Then came the Bob Hope of this event -- in the person of Walter Cronkite. He hosted from 1981 to 2002 before yielding to Caroline Kennedy (2003-2012). Glenn Close presided in 2013 and Stephen Colbert has for the past three years.

Taped on Dec. 4th, this year’s ceremony honors James Taylor, Mavis Staples, Al Pacino, The Eagles and pianist Martha Argerich. (Pacino, Argerich, Taylor, top.) It also marks the last time around for President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, who again sit with the medal-wearing winners in what amounts to a sky box.

The performances and tributes on behalf of the honorees are fine without being particularly memorable. In fact, the standout turn of the night is tied to the standard deification of John F. Kennedy, with Cynthia Erivo belting out an outstanding version of “The Impossible Dream.”

Colbert opens with a few jokes, a couple of them well-played. He welcomes the assembled dignitaries, including all the “endangered swamp dwellers.” And he notes that “Fire and Rain,” one of Taylor’s signature songs, “will soon be the only global weather patterns left.” An all too typical joke at President Obama’s expense perhaps should have been saved for a rainy day -- if at all.

Taylor is the first to be feted, with Bill Clinton taking the stage to salute “my friend of many years” with the “sweet and steady voice of our better angels.” Hillary Clinton is nowhere to be seen. The performances are from Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow and Garth Brooks. “You’ve Got A Friend” is left out of the mix, perhaps because it was performed last year on behalf of its writer, honoree Carole King.

Gospel singer extraordinaire and civil rights activist Staples is lauded by Bonnie Raitt, Don Cheadle and Elle King while pianist Argerich gets to bask in the praise of Jeff Goldblum, Ihtzak Perlman, Placido Domingo and current-day concert keyboard whiz Yuja Wang.

Pacino’s primary trumpeter is Chris O’Donnell, who co-starred with him in Scent of a Woman and also happens to co-star in CBS long running NCIS: Los Angeles. Sean Penn likewise offers an obviously heartfelt tribute but Kevin Spacey steals this portion of the festivities with “how to do the perfect Al Pacino impression in three easy steps.” Pacino actually seems highly amused. He’s loosened up considerably over the years. Meryl Streep narrates the biographical film, but does not attend in person.

The Eagles were set to be honored last year, but postponed their induction due to the illness of Glenn Frey, who died on Jan. 18th at the age of 67. His widow joins Don Henley, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmidt in the winners’ box. Some fans of the group also lobbied for original Eagles Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon to be included. Latter day member Don Felder also went uninvited after he got fired from The Eagles in 2001.

Performing Eagles songs onstage are Bob Seger, Vince Gill, Kings of Leon and Steven Vai after Ringo Starr pops in to extoll the group -- and Walsh, his brother-in-law. Linda Ronstadt, who continues to battle Parkinson’s Disease, narrates the biographical film. During her days at L.A.’s famed Troubadour club, members of the future Eagles were her backup band.

No CBS awards show or major sports event would be complete without an obligatory reaction shot from CBS Corporation chairman/CEO Les Moonves, who gets not one, but two of them. No matter. The vast majority of viewers continue to ask themselves, ”Who’s that guy?”

Nothing in this year’s ceremony comes close to last year’s performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin, who’s merely in the audience this time. Honoree King, who co-wrote the song with her late ex-husband Gerry Goffin, could hardly contain herself -- and didn’t.

This year’s somewhat lackluster Kennedy Center ceremony also begs the question of who should be honored -- and still hasn’t been. I’ll again harp on the omission of Jerry Lewis, who’s been a bridge-burner over the years but still is a singular major omission. You have to be among the living to be honored, so the clock is ticking like a time bomb for the likes of Lewis, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Dick Van Dyke and Norman Lear, all of whom have yet to get the Kennedy Center call. Add Neil Young, Liza Minnelli, The Smothers Brothers, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen to the snub list. And really, if Led Zeppelin, Sting, Paul McCartney and the surviving members of The Who were deemed worthy of a Kennedy Center honor, then why haven’t fellow Brits Mike Jagger and The Rolling Stones been anointed?

We’ll see what turns up next year. All in all, this year’s show turned out to be so-so.

Read more at unclebarky.com – email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net
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whats taking so long?
The glaring omission is the continued lack of the Kennedy Center, year after year, to award their honors to the incomparable Linda Ronstadt. Given her incredible talent, her unbeatable body of work, her activism, and her success in so many genres, including still having the most popular foreign language album since the 1980s, it’s bafflling that her peers - Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Cher, Diana Ross, LED Zeppelin, The Eagles, Carole King, Neil Young ( the list goes on) have been inducted and she hasn’t. She’s ailing currently due to Parkinson’s so time is of the essence.
Dec 3, 2018   |  Reply
Robert Kittredgre
Jerry Lewis come on.
Aug 1, 2017   |  Reply
If Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino are inducted why not Robert Duvall? Multiple Oscar nominee and winner Robert Duvall is America's Olivier. From cops to attorneys, judges, cowboys etc he has played them all. Classic movies? To Kill A Mockingbird, The Godfather 1 and 2, Apocalypse now, MASH, the Conversation, True Grit, The Great Santini etc. He is our greatest living actor.
Jan 11, 2017   |  Reply
I was moved by Garth Brooks' performance of "Shower the People" and his brief duet with Sheryl Crowe during the Taylor finale left me longing for a full recording between Crowe and Brooks. I was so inspired that when I went to re-watch Brooks' performance this year, I ended up watching Brooks' 2013 performance of Allentown/Goodnight Saigon medley for Billy Joel's Honors.

When Garth Brooks came to prominence, I had no interest in country music. Since seeing Brooks in these performances, I've come to admire him as a performer and appreciate and re-discover the artists who he honors. I hope that my experience of newfound and rediscovered art is shared by other viewers of the Kennedy Center Honors, even on years deemed so-so.
Jan 1, 2017   |  Reply
The last great one was when they honored Springsteen
Dec 31, 2016   |  Reply
Meisner and Leadon should come before Felder. Frey's wife was not in any honorees photographs to represent her husband. Ronstadt left the impression that Walsh and Schmit were part of her original backup band. Why rewrite history just to induct the current members?
Dec 29, 2016   |  Reply
Mark Isenberg
It was a bad produced effort from guys in NYC who know better at White Cherry Entertainment. Jerry Lewis? Sorry but his egomaniac psychosis is not worthy even after all those MD Labor Day telethons. Mary Tyler Moore is very ill so it may be too late,Dick Van Dyke should at least get a Mark Twain award and Bob Newhart,too. Maybe,the Kennedy Center Honors needs new Board members to better select worthier folks or new producers but like the awful Tony Awards broadcasts,nothing changes.
Dec 28, 2016   |  Reply
I understand the resistance to Lewis, and I've witnessed first-hand both the good and bad sides of him. But political correctness or overall comportment should not be the determinant here. He's a genuine pathfinder. And you can be assured that the likes of Jerry Seinfeld would show up to fete him. He's pledged his allegiance to Lewis on previous occasions. All Jerry would have to do is sit in his box & smile benignly. But the clock is ticking. And since you still have to be among the living to receive this honor, time is definitely not on his side. Agree that Liza also should be honored.
Jan 5, 2017
Roger K.
It's a damn shame that Don Felder, the incredible lead guitarist for the Eagles, did not get the Kennedy Center Honors along with the other band members. Whoever gets to choose the honorees screwed up bigtime by omitting Felder.
Dec 28, 2016   |  Reply
I didn't realize that Liza Minnelli hadn't yet been honored. That is a glaring omission. For years I wondered when they would honor the great Eileen Farrell, but then she died and that settled that. Another glaring omission, and it would be extremely disorienting to see her honored during a Trump administration, is Joan Baez.
I think it's also worth noting that some of the omissions may be due to people not accepting the award. Some of the older possibilities just don't want to have to show up for these things any more. That's apparently why Doris Day has never received an honorary Oscar and probably why she's never been honored by the Kennedy Center.
Dec 27, 2016   |  Reply
I used to love this show. The first one I remember was the one honoring Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, Agnes de Mille, Lynn Fontanne, and James Cagney. Wow. I think it was the first time I ever heard the Overture to Candide. The earth moved. Sadly, they don't make legendary artists like they used to—or they do, but they aren't as big a viewer draw for CBS as certain others.

My pick for "what's a legend have to do to get honored around here" is Burt Bacharach.
Dec 27, 2016   |  Reply
Ken R.
Please, PLEASE add Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion to the list of people who should be feted.
Dec 27, 2016   |  Reply
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