I didn’t watch the Oscars, but friends of mine Facebooked and Tweeted that host Ellen DeGeneres went after Oscar-winning singer-actress Liza Minnelli during her monologue, joking that Minnelli was a female impersonator. Initially I was offended – after all, I assumed DeGeneres’ joke was at the expense of Minnelli’s looks, maybe. Others called the quip transphobic – which made things even worse in my mind.
Until I watched the monologue. And now I see that there was no offense meant in DeGeneres’ “dig” at Minnelli.
During her monologue, the comedienne was running through the expansive guest list of who was at the Oscars – and because some of the nominated films were based on true stories, the real life people who inspired the films attended – Captain Richard Phillips from Captain Phillips and Philomena Lee from Philomena – and to tweak with all these “real” people impersonated by movie stars, Minnelli was thrown in the introductions as a female impersonator, because DeGeneres was playing with the concept of real, living people being portrayed by actors – but she was turning the joke on its face by making it a famous person being impersonated by a “real” person – and of course, there’s a long history of Minnelli being the inspiration for many a drag queen, so there was that element to the joke as well.
The audience initially may have been put off by the joke as mean-spirited, but I think it quickly caught on to what DeGeneres was doing, because slowly the laughs built up to applause (and Minnelli’s sister, singer Lorna Luft, guffawed at the gag). Was Minnelli pissed? I don’t know – she mugged for the camera a quick shot.
I’m not saying that the joke was hilarious (though, I gotta admit, once I got over the initial gasp, and the “wait, what did she say…” moment, I did laugh) or that viewers shouldn’t be offended. But I do think that when looking at the larger context of DeGeneres’ joke, she was just goosing Minnelli’s public image as the ideal subject for drag queens.