‘You’re only 75’: Billy Crystal receives Kennedy Center honor amid Biden age jokes

<span>Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP</span>
Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

White-haired Robert De Niro, 80, looked up at white-haired Billy Crystal in the balcony. “You’re only 75,” he said mischievously. “That means you’re just about six years away from being the perfect age to be elected president.”

Joe Biden, 81, sitting a few seats away from Crystal, grinned and jokingly wagged his finger at De Niro. The audience at the 46th annual Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday night roared, rose to its feet, turned to look at the US president and applauded and whooped for a full 30 seconds.

It was a reassuring show of solidarity from America’s arts community at a time when Biden is facing doubts not only over his age – he is the oldest president in history – but his handling of the Israel-Hamas war as he seeks re-election next year.

Related: ‘People are being penalised’: Hollywood divided over Israel-Hamas conflict

The Washington ceremony offers a unique coming together of actors and ambassadors, comedians and congressmen and women, sopranos and supreme court justices. Notably the supreme court justice Sonia Sotomayor drew a much bigger cheer than the chief justice, John Roberts.

Those honoured were the actor and comedian Crystal, the singer Dionne Warwick, the British singer and songwriter Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, the rapper and actor Queen Latifah and the opera star Renée Fleming.

Biden, who unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump, has attended the event every year, lauded the work of the five performers during a pre-show reception at the White House. “The performing arts are more than just sound and scene,” he remarked. “They reflect who we are as Americans and as human beings.”

Biden said he had rewatched Crystal’s 1991 comedy western City Slickers earlier in the day and described him as “the American showman with a heart of gold”. The president, who is struggling in opinion polls, added: “He promised me he’s not going to primary me. He could win.”

For Crystal, who has hosted the Oscars nine times, this was a rare night when he was off stage, sitting in the balcony as others paid tribute. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical Hamilton, performed a parody of his Oscars act, admitting: “I’ve been dreaming of doing a Billy Crystal-style Oscars medley since I was 10 years old.”

Whoopi Goldberg said Crystal should win an honorary Oscar for his service as the longtime host of the show. The homage also included an on-stage replica of the diner from the celebrated scene in the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally when he watches as Meg Ryan’s character fakes a loud orgasm.

Ryan, 62, appeared on stage on Sunday and recalled: “The scene came really natural to me and I really have Billy to thank for that. I’ve actually never been around anyone who made faking an organism easier.”

Rob Reiner, the film’s director, noted that it was Crystal who had written the scene’s now immortal punchline. “Not only was he great as Harry Burns but Bill wrote what I believe is maybe the funniest line in all of movie history: ‘I’ll have what she’s having’.”

Earlier, on the red carpet, Reiner quipped: “I hope this doesn’t give him a big head, because honestly his head’s already big.”

Crystal told the Guardian he had never met Biden before. “He was hilarious and great. He said, not kidding, ‘I just watched City Slickers’, and he starts doing lines from it and then how much fun it was. He was so lovely and charming and we were able to spend time together with Dr Biden. He was absolutely great.”

Asked if Biden could win re-election, Crystal replied: “I sure hope so because the alternative is a little scary.”

The show kicked off with a tribute to Warwick, 82, a pop music star since the 1960s who has sold more than 100m records and is known for hits such as I’ll Never Love This Way Again and That’s What Friends Are For, a 1985 song she recorded with Gladys Knight, Elton John and Stevie Wonder to raise awareness about Aids.

The record producer Clive Davis said: “There simply is no song that Dionne Warwick cannot sing.” The singer Cynthia Erivo performed a stirring version of Warwick’s song Alfie.

Queen Latifah, 53, a musician and actor known for films including Chicago and Bringing Down the House, told reporters: “I feel very blessed. I feel very honoured.” The actor Kerry Washington said her friend was one of the “best rappers of all time”.

Singers Tituss Burgess, Christine Baranski and Susan Graham performed a rousing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone in tribute to Fleming, 64, an acclaimed soprano who has performed at opera houses around the world. She received testimonials from actors and friends Christine Baranski and Sigourney Weaver.

The show concluded with a celebration of Gibb, 77, who performed with his brothers Robin and Maurice in the Bee Gees, a group that sold more than 220m records. He has won nine Grammy awards and, as part of the trio, is known for songs such as Stayin’ Alive and How Deep Is Your Love.

He said on the red carpet that he felt the presence of his brothers, neither of whom is still alive. “It’s very emotional,” he said. “What we all did together – when we were good, when we were on – that was something to be proud of.”

The country group Little Big Town performed Gibb’s song Lonely Days, Michael Bublé sang How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, and the Broadway star Ben Platt gave a rendition of Nights on Broadway. The show closed with a greatest hits medley by the Oscar-winning singer and actor Ariana DeBose.

Showbusiness stars mingled with guests including the second gentleman, Doug Emhoff, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, the former House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and the president’s granddaughter Naomi Biden. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, told reporters it was his first Kennedy Center Honors and he most wanted to see fellow New Yorker Billy Crystal.

Deborah Rutter, the president of the Kennedy Center, said the honors had always managed to navigate Washington’s choppy political waters successfully. “I have a very large number of board members who are appointed by President Trump. I have a bunch of appointees from President Biden as well. I have performers, I have donors and they are absolutely representing the full spectrum of the political world, not just here in DC but across the country, and they are all thrilled to be here together in recognition of these artists.

“They all care about the arts. [Republican] Mike Huckabee is a member of my board and he could not be a stronger advocate for arts education and a great partner in that work together with my artists whose political leanings I don’t really know at all. I think that this is a safe, beautiful evening and, if you go back and look at the archives, every year there’s somebody who says it feels so lucky that we can be here and it not be political.”

The show, which was recorded, will be broadcast by CBS on 27 December.