During his opening movie montage, Crystal met up with Justin Bieber a la "Midnight in Paris" as he rolled on up in an antique car. Suddenly, Crystal popped up again in the car's passenger compartment doing his impersonation of Sammy Davis Jr. This led some onlookers to say the comedian/actor was being insensitive during a year when a movie like "The Help" get nominated for Best Picture.
Clearly the critics have forgotten how many times Crystal has performed this impersonation, or lack even the slightest understanding of what "blackface" really is.
Crystal has been doing his Sammy Davis Jr. impersonation ever since his days on "Saturday Night Live," and he has utilized it in past Oscar shows he has hosted. The year "Titanic" was nominated for Best Picture, Crystal unleashed his Sammy bit in a lounge act skit interrupted by that big iceberg the ship crashed into. He brought back this same impersonation during the 72nd Academy Awards (a.k.a. Oscars 2000) during the "West Side Story" clip, where he sang part of "Tonight" as Sammy. No one raised a stink about him doing it then, so why should now be any different?
Now let's talk about "blackface," as it has been erroneously used to describe Crystal's impersonation. It's a form of theatrical makeup used by performers in the past to create a "stereotyped caricature of a black person" in minstrel shows and vaudeville acts. To perfect this look, performers utilized burnt cork, greasepaint, or shoe polish to blacken their skin and "exaggerate their lips."
Looking at that description, it should be completely clear that Crystal was not utilizing this long-obsolete form of makeup to portray Sammy at all. If anything else, the makeup served to make him look as close to Sammy (who coincidentally impersonated many celebrities himself) as possible so you knew who he was impersonating in case his voice wasn't enough.
Plus, those who know Crystal are aware that his impersonations have always been good-natured and done out of respect for those he impersonates. I have no doubt Crystal was and still is a big fan of Davis, who died of cancer in 1990. The only way this impersonation could have become unforgivably offensive is if he really did utilize "blackface" makeup.
In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Crystal went on to describe how the Academy Awards differ from a celebrity roast:
"Do you dislike these people? I have a different bar. If there's a good target and they deserve it, you can kid them in the right way. But it's not the place to go out there and hammer people, because who am I? There's many times we've kicked out jokes because they were too personal."
At this point in his life, Billy Crystal should not have to prove to anyone how good-natured he is when it comes to the Oscars or movies in general. While I'm sure he has his dark side (don't we all?), it certainly wasn't on display during the 84th Academy Awards. If I were you, I'd be wondering how Meryl Streep snagged the Best Actress Oscar away from Viola Davis -- that was the evening's biggest surprise.
Josh Rottenberg, "Making The Oscars Shine Again," Entertainment Weekly Magazine, Issue #1196, March 2, 2012, page 36.
Check out coverage of the 84th Academy Awards on Yahoo! Movies
- Billy Crystal