WASHINGTON – You know you've made a cultural impact when Henry Kissinger quotes your own joke back to you. That's what happened to Billy Crystal, one of five iconic artists selected for this year's Kennedy Center Honors.
The others selected for the lifetime artistic achievement award are rapper and actor Queen Latifah, opera singer Renée Fleming, 1970s music icon Barry Gibb and prolific hitmaker Dionne Warwick. All will be honored with the traditional gala celebration at Washington's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 3.
Kennedy Center president Deborah F. Rutter called this year's crop of inductees “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 massive hits like “When Harry Met Sally... ,” “The Princess Bride” and “City Slickers.”
But the character he says seems to most resonate with fans is "SNL" talk show host Fernando Lamas.
“After all these years, I still get ‘You look marvelous’ the most,” Crystal told The Associated Press, citing the character's catchphrase. “I sat next to Henry Kissinger on a plane one time, and even he said it to me.”
Crystal, who also received the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for lifetime achievement in comedy in 2007, joins an elite group of comedians to earn both the Twain prize and the Kennedy Center Honor: David Letterman, Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett and Neil Simon. Bill Cosby also received both honors, but they were rescinded in 2018 following his sexual assault conviction, which later was overturned.
Warwick shot to stardom in the 1960s as the muse for the superstar songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. She said her pride at receiving the honor will be mixed with “a bit of sadness because Burt and Hal won’t be there.” Bacharach died in February, and David died in 2012.
Warwick's 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.”
At age 82, Warwick also cheerfully disregards a bit of Kennedy Center tradition: acting humble and shocked at receiving the honor. In an interview with the AP, Warwick said she absolutely deserved it and had wondered at times what was taking so long.
“As my son said the other day, ‘Congratulations, and it’s about time,'” Warwick said. “I told him everything happens when it's supposed to happen.”
Fleming, 64, is one of the prominent sopranos of her generation, with a string of accolades that includes a National Medal of Arts bestowed by then-President Barack Obama, a Cross of the Order of Merit from the German government and honorary membership in England's Royal Academy of Music. Kennedy Center Honors recipients receive personalized tributes and performances from their peers, and Fleming has performed at previous ceremonies honoring jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Van Cliburn.
“There's nothing else like this in the U.S.,” she said of the Kennedy Center Honor. “I really was hoping one day to get one.”
Fleming is also part of an obscure bit of Kennedy Center Honors trivia, having performed along with fellow 2023 honoree Queen Latifah at the 2014 Super Bowl. Fleming sang the national anthem while Latifah performed “America the Beautiful.”
Latifah 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 musical film “Chicago.”
She also became an iconic presence for gay women of color, despite refusing to publicly comment on her sexuality or personal life for decades. But in 2021, while accepting a lifetime achievement award at the BET Awards, she acknowledged her partner, Eboni Nichols, and their son, Rebel, and ended her speech with the declaration, “Happy Pride!”
Latifah, 53, received the news of her honor while on the set of her TV show “The Equalizer” and said she appreciates the Kennedy Center's efforts to embrace hip-hop. The cultural center has established its own division of hip-hop culture and made LL Cool J a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 2017.
“It's important because hip-hop is a uniquely American artform,” she said, “just like jazz, just like blues, just like rock and roll.”
Gibb, 76, shot to 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've thought about it from time to time,” Gibb said of the Kennedy Center Honor. “But it would have been arrogance to expect it. ... I do wish my brothers were here for this, too.”
Somewhat obscured at the time by the hairy chests and falsettos of their disco peak was the enduring brilliance of Gibb's songwriting. He said he's deeply gratified to find his songs living on in multiple covers by modern artists including Alison Krauss, Keith Urban and Jason Isbell.