LOS ANGELES (JTA) — It seems as though the Oscars writers think that Hollywood is so liberal that they can get away with making offensive comments because everyone knows they’re “just joking.”
I don’t agree.
Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony featured a not very subtle onslaught of sexist, racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic “jokes.”
At a time when America is facing an epidemic of gun violence and debating how to limit the spread of assault weapons, host Seth MacFarlane thought it would be clever to make a joke about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
“Daniel Day-Lewis is not the first actor to be nominated for playing Lincoln,” MacFarlane said. “Raymond Massey portrayed him in the 1940’s ‘Abe Lincoln in Illinois.’ I would argue, though, the actor who really got inside Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth.”
Perhaps hoping to win an award for “most racially insensitive” comment, MacFarlane joked about Lewis’ habit of staying in character during the filming of Lincoln, even when the cameras were off.
“If you bumped into Don Cheadle in the studio lot,” MacFarlane said, looking at Lewis in the audience, “would you try and free him?”
MacFarlane also made outrageous remarks about Adele’s weight, gays, women, Latinas and Jews.
It would be difficult to pick a winner in the “most sexist comment” category. MacFarlane sang a juvenile song, “We Saw Your Boobs,” about movie scenes in which former Oscar nominees were topless. Referring to the decade-long quest to find Osama bin Laden by Jessica Chastain’s character in “Zero Dark Thirty,” MacFarlane said it was an example of women never being “able to let anything go.”
To those women who lost weight before attending the Oscar ceremony, MacFarlane said, “For all those women who had the ‘flu,’ it paid off. Lookin’ good.”
Referring to Latina actresses Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek — both of whom speak impeccable English — MacFarlane said, “We have no idea what they’re saying, but we don’t care cause they’re so attractive.”
After singing “We Saw Your Boobs” with the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus, MacFarlane made a point of explaining that he wasn’t actually a member of the chorus, as if being gay was something to be ashamed of. MacFarlane also observed that the show’s producers had invited the cast of “Chicago” to perform on the telecast because “the [Oscars] show isn’t gay enough yet.”
Perhaps the most offensive comments were made by “Ted,” the talking stuffed bear who bantered (through MacFarlane’s voice) with actor Mark Wahlberg about Hollywood’s domination by Jews. If putting those words in the mouth of a talking bear is supposed to make the remarks cute and cuddly, it didn’t work with me.
The set-up was Ted’s desire to gain acceptance with the Hollywood “in” crowd, which he said were the Jews, so he could attend a post-Oscars orgy. Ted begged Wahlberg to tell him where the orgy would be held. Wahlberg finally spilled the beans — it would be “at Jack Nicholson’s house.”
It was a not very subtle — and not very funny — reference to a 1977 incident that occurred at Nicholson’s home, where director Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl. Polanski pleaded guilty but fled to Paris before he was sentenced.
Remarking on all the talent assembled at the ceremony, Ted said to Wahlberg, “You know what’s interesting? All those actors I just named are part Jewish,” referring to Joaquin Phoenix (who has a Jewish mother), Daniel Day-Lewis (ditto) and Alan Arkin (both parents were Jewish).
“What about you?” Ted asked Wahlberg. “You’ve got a ‘berg’ on the end of your name. Are you Jewish?”
Wahlberg explained that he is Catholic. Ted responded: “Wrong answer. Try again. Do you want to work in this town or don’t you?”
To gain favor with the Hollywood crowd, Ted claimed that he was Jewish, that he “was born Theodore Shapiro,” and that “I would like to donate money to Israel and continue to work in Hollywood forever.”
When Wahlberg called Ted an idiot, Ted responded, “We’ll see who’s an idiot when they give me my private plane at the next secret synagogue meeting.”
Ted’s (or, in reality, MacFarlane’s) remarks about the “secret” Jewish cabal that controls Hollywood, discriminates against non-Jews and is tied to Israel were not clever and witty. They were anti-Semitic.
I’m certain that many film industry folks sitting in the audience were uncomfortable with the barrage of offensive comments throughout the evening. I’m not a prude and I believe it’s OK to make fun of one’s foibles. But the comments by MacFarlane and Ted comments did not simply poke fun at specific individuals; they targeted entire groups.
Sunday night’s Oscars show crossed the invisible line between satire and bigotry. It was ugly and unfunny.
As a progressive and a Jew, I found the comments outrageous, and I’m confident that many of the millions of Americans watching the show on TV also were offended by the bigoted stereotypes about women, gays, Latinas and Jews.
Of course, there were no hooded sheets, burning crosses, N words, or “fag” jokes. But bigotry comes in various shades.
Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy department at Occidental College. His most recent book is “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame” (Nation Books, 2012).
LOS ANGELES (Jewish Journal) — No one sends out press releases to announce that something is not anti-Semitic. That’s why this morning’s media is full of reports that host Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance last night was just shy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s U.N. speech.
The Anti-Defamation League was first out of the gate, calling MacFarlane “offensive and not remotely funny” — which in and of itself is funny, the idea that the ADL is not just the arbiter of anti-Semitism but of humor.
Then came a press release from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, seeing the ADL’s umbrage and raising it to world historical levels.
“It is unfortunate that at a time when anti-Semitism is so prevalent throughout the world,” said the center, “that Seth MacFarlane used the pulpit of the Oscars, before an audience of more than a billion people. to contribute to the myth that Jews own Hollywood.”
I found these reactions more annoying than MacFarlane’s comments, which varied from the very funny to the remotely funny, but never came close to anti-Semitism.
Seth MacFarlane was joking. He was poking fun. He was mocking the widespread understanding that Jews are disproportionately represented in the entertainment business. This fact comes as a shock to exactly no one, and the idea that joking about it “feeds” anti-Semitism misunderstands both the nature of humor and of anti-Semitism.
One thing humor does well, even better than press releases, is diffuse prejudice. It does that through mockery, exaggeration and sometimes by just bringing prejudice to light. That explains everything from Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator” to Sacha Baron Cohen’s character of Borat, who got dozens of Arizonans at a rodeo to sing the “famous” Kazakhstan folksong “Throw the Jew Down the Well.” Cohen wasn’t out to whip up Jew hatred, he was out to expose human — hmm, what’s the word? — stupidity.
MacFarlane doesn’t really believe you have to change your name or give to Israel to make it in Hollywood, he was riffing on the simplistic belief that that’s all it takes.
Billy Crystal could make a dozen Jewish references at the Oscars and no one would do anything but kvell. Granted, MacFarlane’s humor is more in-your-face — but it goes nowhere that Crystal, or Adam Sandler in his “Chanukah Song,” or Lenny Bruce in his Jewish/gentile rift, or a hundred other comedians, haven’t gone before.
So why the outrage? Maybe because against the backdrop of increasing anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, Jews are extra sensitive. Maybe because an older generation of Jews is unfamiliar with a newer brand of “Family Guy”/“South Park” humor. Even Amy Davidson, writing on the New Yorker blog, took offense — this from a magazine whose editor David Remnick once wrote a much-deserved, flattering profile of Howard Stern. Stern’s brand of satire paved the way for comedians like MacFarlane.
Or maybe the outrage arises because Jews are still uncomfortable with the notion of being powerful. Deal with it. Jews are disproportionately represented in Hollywood. But wait, there’s more: The Jewish state has 200 nuclear weapons and a hegemony of power in the Middle East. Jews are disproportionately represented in government, finance, law, publishing and medicine. Only Jews can read these factual statements and think, Oy!
The ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center not only miss the point, they are missing the opportunity. MacFarlane’s jokes, like all good humor, can get people thinking, can open a conversation: Why are Jews so prevalent in Hollywood? How does their Jewish identity inform their creative choices? How would Hollywood look if it were composed, disproportionately, of WASPs or Thais, or anti-Semites?
Hollywood is one of America’s greatest gifts to the world — why else would 2 billion people tune in to see “Lincoln” get robbed of best picture? There is nothing to hide and plenty to joke about.
(Rob Eshman is publisher and editor in chief of the Jewish Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.)