The newest group of Kennedy Center honorees, including comedian Billy Crystal and rapper and actor Queen Latifah, were feted at a star-studded event commemorating their lifetime achievement in arts and entertainment.
Opera singer Renée Fleming, music star Barry Gibb and prolific hitmaker Dionne Warwick were also honored at the Sunday night black-tie gala. Each received personalized tributes including appearances and performances that are typically kept secret from the honorees themselves.
President Joe Biden welcomed the honorees to the White House before the event, saying the performing arts “reflect who we are as Americans and as human beings.”
The honorees “have helped shape how we see ourselves, how we see each other and how we see our world,” said Biden, who then introduced this year’s class with a set of glowing superlatives about their work.
Biden and first lady Jill Biden then headed to the Kennedy Center to attend the festivities. The ceremony began with 2017 Kennedy Center honoree Gloria Estefan leading a troupe of dancers down the aisle while performing her megahit “Get On Your Feet.”
In announcing the recipients earlier this year, the Kennedy Center’s president, Deborah F. Rutter, called them “an extraordinary mix of individuals who have redefined their art forms.”
Crystal, 75, came to national prominence in the 1970s playing Jodie Dallas, one of the first openly gay characters on American network television, on the sitcom “Soap.” He went on to a brief but memorable one-year stint on “Saturday Night Live” before starring in a string of movies, including hits such as “When Harry Met Sally… ,” “The Princess Bride” and “City Slickers.”
On the red carpet before the show, movie director Rob Reiner — who cast Crystal in multiple iconic roles — poked fun at the honoree. “I hope this doesn’t give him a big head, because honestly his head’s already big,” Reiner said.
Reiner later narrated a large portion of Crystal’s tribute, speaking from a stage made up as a replica of the diner from the famous scene in “When Harry Met Sally … .” Further testimonials came from his “When Harry” costar Meg Ryan, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Costas and 2009 Kennedy Center honoree Robert De Niro. Lin-Manuel Miranda, a 2018 honoree, performed an original song in Crystal’s honor.
Crystal, who also received the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for lifetime achievement in comedy in 2007, joins an elite group of comedians cited for both: David Letterman, Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett and Neil Simon. Bill Cosby received both honors, but they were rescinded in 2018 following his sexual assault conviction, which later was overturned.
Warwick, 82, shot to stardom in the 1960s as the muse for the superstar songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Her discography includes a multidecade string of hits, both with and without Bacharach, that includes “I Say a Little Prayer,” “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” and “That’s What Friends Are For.”