The Real Reason John Cena Was Naked At The 2024 Oscars

With moments like Ryan Gosling performing a spirited rendition of the "Barbie" tune "I'm Just Ken," the 2024 Academy Awards weren't exactly lacking in playful guy energy. However, the crowning achievement on this front went to none other than actor and WWE star John Cena, who turned up on stage in the kind of outfit the costume-conscious ceremony guests wouldn't dream of wearing on the red carpet — that is, in the nude. 

Cena's moment of extremely public nudity was part of a skit where host Jimmy Kimmel attempted to replicate a streaking incident from 1974. At the 46th Academy Awards, a streaker called Robert Opel ran onstage and showed a "V" hand sign — among other things — creating temporary mirth and mild mayhem among the viewers. Opel was a teacher, activist, and performance artist who was fond of arranging flashy stunts to protest the general stuffiness of society, and while his streaking didn't disrupt the ceremony for too long, he certainly drew attention to himself.

It doesn't appear that the experience left Opel worse for wear, however. When a fan runs onto the field at the Super Bowl, he might be punished — but despite the fact that Opel had streaked at the entertainment industry's answer to that high-profile event, he wasn't arrested. Instead, he got to have a press conference.

Streaking was everywhere in the early 1970s

The streaking at the 1974 Oscars was hardly an isolated incident. Streaking was a massive fad during the early 1970s, reaching its peak in 1973 and 1974. From mass streaking events to naked parachuting, students in particular enjoyed this particular pastime, to the point that even some West Point cadets got in on the action. To illustrate just how big streaking was, one particular University of Georgia mass streaking event had over 1,500 participants. A singer called Ray Stevens even had a Billboard #1 hit with a song called, yes, "The Streak." As such, Robert Opel may have been more visible than most, but he certainly wasn't the only streaker in town. 

Unfortunately, Opel's life wasn't quite as fun and whimsical as his big streaking moment might make it seem. He did arrange other performance stunts — notably, after Harvey Milk's killer Dan White utilized the "Twinkie defense" to get a lenient sentence, Opel set up a pretend execution event for White at the Gay Freedom Day Parade. In an earlier instance, a streaking protest led to four months in jail. However, there's no telling how far Opel might have taken his artistry over the years. He died in 1979, when a pair of armed men tried to rob his art gallery and one of them shot him.  

The 2024 Oscars made sure that Robert Opel lives on

On the surface, the 2024 Academy Awards used Robert Opel's streaking incident simply as a way to transition into the John Cena skit. However, what transpired on stage had plenty of similarities with Opel's brand of artistry — either coincidentally or by design. 

Despite the sometimes goofy shapes his work took — such as streaking at the Oscars — Opel was a gay activist and a provocateur who was willing to put his well-being on the line for a cause he believed in, sometimes clashing with the authorities while doing so. Not unlike this mix of absurdity and seriousness, Cena left it all on stage and combined laugh-out-loud comedy with deadpan concern. "I changed my mind. I don't want to do the streaker bit," he told Jimmy Kimmel at the beginning of the skit. "I just don't feel right about it." The pair then went on to have a debate about the suitability of streaker comedy in the awards ceremony environment, and whether the male body should be treated as a joke. 

Yes, Cena soon turned things to pure comedy by taking the stage while holding a strategically-placed award envelope in a way that made it clear he wished his iconic "You Can't See Me" taunt was literal. He even received a very nice dress before presenting the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. Still, that doesn't take away the fact that the sketch also included discussion about self-determination, body image, and what constitutes good manners — serious subjects wrapped in absurdity, just like Opel used to do. It's hard to say whether the original 1974 Oscars streaker would have enjoyed the Cena skit, but Opel might very well be pleased that the Academy hasn't forgotten him.