"Over all these decades, you have shared with us, as moviegoers, this insatiable hunger for life," the former president said during Thursday night's ceremony at the Kodak Theatre. "That's what I think about when I think of you."
Stars such as Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Diane Keaton, Quentin Tarantino and Halle Berry were on hand for the celebration marking Beatty's 47-year career as an actor, writer, director and producer, as were George McGovern, Gary Hart and Jerry Brown.
Hart called the 71-year-old filmmaker "as true and loyal a friend as I have ever had in this life." McGovern thanked Beatty for throwing a fundraising concert in 1972 that he said helped win him the Democratic presidential nomination that year.
Hoffman noted Beatty's numerous awards and called his friend of 40 years "a very human human being: a political activist of no short order, a proven artist of Herculean proportions, the husband of Annette Bening, the father of Kathlyn, Benjamin, Isabel and Ella, and the best friend of Jack Nicholson."
Hoffman joked about Nicholson's absence - presumably due to the Lakers-Celtics championship game a few miles away at the Staples Center.
"Rumor has it that he was going to try to combine the two," Hoffman said. "Rumor also has it that he might have been sitting courtside in a tuxedo."
Nicholson showed up later, speaking in a hoarse voice and wearing his trademark shades. He said Beatty "has received eight times as many awards as he's made pictures."
"You get all these honors because of your passion and your dedication to excellence," said Nicholson, who presented Beatty with the Irving G. Thalberg Award at the 2000 Academy Awards. "This is why I'm crazy about your work."
Beatty, who won a directing Oscar for 1981's "Reds," said his "big sister Shirley MacLaine" had led him into the movie business. His films also include "Heaven Can Wait," "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Bugsy."
He thanked the film industry for leading him to Bening, "who has given me the most important thing of all, which is her love."
Beatty said he was "particularly humbled by the presence" of McGovern, Hart, Brown and Clinton, and he described himself as "an old-time, unrepentant, unreconstructed, tax-and-spend, bleeding-heart, die-hard liberal Democrat."
"The 36th Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to Warren Beatty" is scheduled to air June 25 on the USA Network.
By Sandy Cohen