During Billy Crystal’s now customary Academy Awards opening montage, where he is digitally inserted into the year’s nominated films, audiences may have been surprised to see a peculiar image — Crystal in blackface.
In Crystal’s spoof of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the Oscar host appeared in a scene where he greets pop star Justin Bieber in a 1920s-style coach. After cracking a few inside jokes about the time travel-themed comedy, Crystal, in blackface make-up, playing the late Sammy Davis Jr., appeared and joked, “Then we are going to go kill Hitler!”
Besides seeming like an odd and dated comedic choice (with a none-to-subtle reference to Davis’ Jewish faith), it offended some audiences.
“Who thought it was a good idea to put Crystal in blackface?” was the thrust of numerous tweets following the brief scene.
In Crystal’s defense, the Davis impression was a bit he made popular back during his days on Saturday Night Live. His exaggerated portrayal of the latter-day Davis (always performed in blackface) was a regular character, and Crystal even once played him alongside Rev. Jesse Jackson when he hosted SNL in 1984.
Still, in 2012, a year where The Help was poised for Oscar glory, it seemed a little incongruous, to say the least, for Crystal to retread this well-worn routine. Was this choice purely comedic (à la Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder), or was it in bad taste?