In the first five minutes of Sunday’s Academy Awards, host Billy Crystal parodied a year’s worth of movies, including The Descendants, Moneyball and The Help. But perhaps most memorable was the comedian’s take on Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which began with a joke by teen heartthrob Justin Bieber (“I’m here to get you the 18-to-24 demographic,” the 18-year-old cracked in his cameo) and ended with the Oscar MC in black makeup as Sammy Davis Jr. asking himself, “Billy, is Biebs the young Sinatra, or am I nuts?”
Plenty of people found the bit uncomfortable, as Twitter reflected almost immediately, but one person who didn’t take offense was Tracey Davis, the late singer’s daughter with his second wife, actress May Britt. “I am 100 percent certain that my father is smiling,” Davis tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that it wasn’t Crystal’s first time paying homage to the Rat Packer, who died in 1990. In fact, the iconic crooner was among Crystal’s most popular impersonations during the 1980s (see a clip from a 1986 HBO special below). “Billy previously played my father when he was alive, and my father gave Billy his full blessing,” she continues, noting that Saturday Night Live gave the imitation “legendary status.”
But Davis, 50, does take issue with using the word “blackface,” attributing the term born in the 1800s to describe white actors in makeup playing black characters to early film stars like Al Jolson, not Crystal, per se.
The ensuing debate, sparked in part because of last year’s controversy involving a gay slur uttered by Oscar producer Brett Ratner (he later resigned), has many asking why, 25 years after Crystal first satirized Davis Jr.’s look and mannerisms scandal-free, audiences are taking offense now.
For her part, Davis’ daughter is sending nothing but love to Crystal. “I know the mutual love, respect and admiration that you had for each other and for his kids, Jeff, Mark and I,” she says. “Thank you.”
As for Bieber, Davis views the pop phenom as her father saw a young Michael Jackson. “Michael would spend hours watching my father perform, and then sit in my father’s dressing room asking him for advice and guidance,” she adds. “Dad would have dug hanging with Justin.”