WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.”
Warwick's tribute kicked off the show with a testimonial by 2021 honoree Debbie Allen, a performance by Cynthia Erivo, and Saturday Night Live cast member Ego Nwodim recounting how scary it was to perform her famous impression of Warwick in front of the diva herself. 2022 Kennedy Center honoree Gladys Knight performed Warwick's signature hit, “I Say a Little Prayer.”
Fleming, 64, is one of the leading sopranos of her era, with a string of accolades that includes a National Medal of Arts bestowed by President Barack Obama, a Cross of the Order of Merit from the German government and honorary membership in England’s Royal Academy of Music.
Although she had participated in five other tribute performances for previous honorees, Fleming said being the focus of attention was a “wild” experience.
“It's a different kind of whirlwind,” she said on the red carpet. “Lots going on, but I don't have to worry about performing tonight.”
Fleming received testimonials from actors and friends Christine Baranski and Sigourney Weaver. A quartet of opera singers performed one of her signature tunes: “Song to the Moon” from Antonín Dvořák’s opera “Rusalka.”
Latifah, 53, has been a star since age 19 when her debut album and hit single “Ladies First” made her the first female crossover rap star. She has gone on to a diverse career that has included seven studio albums, starring roles in multiple television shows and movies and an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress for her role in the movie musical “Chicago.”
Latifah, whose real name is Dana Owens, was honored with performances from prominent female rappers of her generation, including Yo-Yo, MC Lyte and Monie Love. Missy Elliott spoke on the cultural importance of her stage name: Latifah is Arabic meaning “gentle” or “kind” while the queen moniker conveyed respect, dignity and a determination to play a leadership role in the culture.
“She was saying, ‘You WILL respect me. I won't just set the bar. I AM the bar,’ ” Elliott said.
Gibb, 76, achieved global fame as part of one of the most successful bands in the history of modern music, the Bee Gees. Along with his late brothers Robin and Maurice, the trio launched a nearly unmatched string of hits that defined a generation of music.
“I’m proud of what my brothers and myself accomplished,” Gibb said on the red carpet. “When we were good, and when we were on, it was really special.”
His tribute featured performances from country stars Little Big Town, singer Michael Bublé, Broadway star Ben Platt and a show-closing greatest hits medley by Academy Award-winning singer and actor Ariana DeBose.
The 2023 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony will be broadcast on Dec. 27 on CBS.
AP video producer John Carucci contributed to this report.
Ashraf Khalil, The Associated Press