Kennedy Center Honors 2010: Merle Haggard, Chita Rivera, Paul McCartney honored

Receiving this year's Kennedy Center Honors are television host Oprah Winfrey, musicians Paul McCartney and Merle Haggard, dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones and lyricist Jerry Herman.
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 8:23 AM

The Kennedy Center Honors was telecast last night and Hank Steuver was less than impressed:

But even bookended with star-studded tributes to super-famous Oprah Winfrey and Paul McCartney, this year's show feels too perfunctory. There is nothing wrong with it, really, save for the sense of duty that makes the Kennedy Center Honors somehow so uninteresting to a larger world. Judging from this sluggish telecast, no one seemed to be one bit more thrilled to be there than the minimum gratitude and glee required by Kennedy Center fiat.

Winfrey, who is over-adored at this point, is seen in the box of honor, there with Sir Paul, the president, a fashionably bespectacled first lady and other honorees. Winfrey reaches behind her seat to grip her partner Stedman Graham's hands as Jennifer Hudson launches into a beautiful song from "The Color Purple" musical that Winfrey produced. McCartney succeeds at appearing quite pleased by his musical montage, the show's finale, even as No Doubt, Steven Tyler and others mangle a broad sampling of his solo and Beatles oeuvre.

The highlights, as ever, come with the tributes to slightly less stellar - thus somehow more human - honorees. The Herman montage is the most ebullient by far; the Bill T. Jones dance tribute is naturally the most challenging; and the Merle Haggard montage is deeply moving in a way that best represents the true spirit of the awards. Alas, this great middle part is also where viewers will likely surf away.

Chris Richards profiles Kennedy Center honoree Merle Haggard:

At 73, two years removed from lung surgery and two months from a related chest infection, Merle Haggard should be at home recuperating on his idyllic 189-acre ranch near California's Shasta National Forest.

Instead, he's parked outside a Gulf Coast casino, wondering why the battery on his tour bus keeps conking out.

"It's not much fun," Haggard says of this nomad's life, a career the beleaguered country legend once described as "a 35-year bus ride."

In 2010, the ride is headed into its 49th year and Haggard doesn't know how to get off. "It's got its claws in me from all directions," he says, adjusting a fisherman's cap that covers thinning wisps of silver and white.

Profiles of all the Kennedy Center honorees and full coverage of the awards here.

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