Sacha Baron Cohen feature

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 12, 2006 8:38 am    Post subject: Sacha Baron Cohen feature Reply with quote

Sacha Baron Cohen: Our man from Kazakhstan

The comedian has come a long way since his days on late-night television. Yet, despite rave reviews for his latest films and the chance of a Hollywood career, his ability to offend still has critics wondering if the joke is on us

Oliver Marre
Sunday September 10, 2006
The Observer

Kazkhstan's cultural ambassador ... Borat arrives at the Toronto film festival. Photograph: Evan Agostini/Getty

Last Tuesday, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen managed to offend, separately, Mel Gibson and the nation of Kazakhstan. At an awards ceremony, hosted by GQ magazine, he was presented with the editor's special award. In accepting the gong, he said: 'I would like to dedicate this award to you, Mel Gibson. Melvin, it is you, not me, who should receive this GQ award for anti-Jew warrior of the year.'

Baron Cohen was speaking in the guise of his alter ego (or one of them), Borat, who is homophobic, racist and misogynist as well as anti-semitic. He also purports to be from the former Soviet state. Its government, claiming that he gives a misleading and entirely negative impression of the country, has shut down the spoof website, and is in the unenviable position of trying to come up with a counter-strike to Baron Cohen's satire.

When told that the government of Kazakhstan was intending to engage in a campaign against the film, whose full, glorious title is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Baron Cohen responded in character: 'I fully support my government's decision to sue this Jew.'

The 34-year-old Cambridge graduate is no stranger to such controversy. Indeed, his career has been built on winding people up, while keeping a deadpan face. Last year, again dressed as Borat, he was invited for supper at the plantation home of an old American family in deepest Mississippi. After he had left, they called it 'the first unpleasant episode [at their house] since the civil war'. George Matthews Marshall IV, Baron Cohen's host, is waiting to see whether anything taped that night (involving discussions of slavery and prostitution) has made it into the film, which opened to wild applause at the Cannes film festival, and threatens to sue if it has.

It's a busy time for Baron Cohen. As well as looking forward to an autumn release of his Borat feature film, for which he takes a writer and star credit, this week sees the British opening of Talladega Nights - an entertainingly broad send-up of Nascar racing - , providing him with his first Hollywood acting role.

The question that has been asked about the comedian since he first swaggered into our conscience in 1998, a middle-class, white, Jewish boy dressed in an outsize shellsuit, swathed in gold chains, sporting wraparound shades, swearing in slang and calling himself Ali G, is, if the characters he plays are offensive, should we lay the blame at Baron Cohen's door?

Novelist Jeanette Winterson was asked about Ali G in 2003 and, like the Kazakhstani government today, found him impossible to stomach. 'I don't know what the difference is between him and the Black and White Minstrels,' she said. Felix Dexter, the black comedian, agreed: 'He allows the liberal middle classes to laugh at black street culture in a context where they can retain their sense of political correctness.'

But most cultural commentators prefer to see Ali G as a parody of a white wannabe and rubbed their hands in glee when he asked a policeman: 'Is it cos I is black?' as he was forcibly removed from an environmental protest. Although Baron Cohen seldom speaks in his own voice in public, he has explained that the new film, like his television work, is a 'dramatic demonstration of how racism feeds on dumb conformity as much as rabid bigotry'.

Ali G's first appearance was as a roving interviewer on Channel 4's 11 O'Clock Show (which also launched the career of Ricky Gervais) when he was unleashed on unsuspecting characters in public life, asking them wildly inappropriate questions in pidgin English and misinterpreting their replies. He argued against the welfare state with Tony Benn, asked aspiring Tory politician Jacob Rees-Mogg whether he'd like to sleep with his sister and began an interview with the chairman of the Arts Council of England with the question: 'Why is everything you fund so crap?' All the jokes appealed to a clued-up, middle-class audience, but were delivered by an almost slapstick character.

Andrew Newman, who worked with Baron Cohen as his career took off, producing the first series of Da Ali G Show, and is now head of entertainment and comedy at Channel 4, explains: 'There's something for everyone, from kids on the street to the Queen Mum. In fact, she was a fan who apparently did a good impression. There's clever satire, it's visually funny and there are knob gags all the way through, too.'

From this formula swelled a tidal wave of Ali G success - more television shows; a Christmas special, Ali G Innit, which prompted Madonna to fly him to Los Angeles to take part in the video for her single 'Music'; and a feature film, in which the character becomes an MP.

By 2000, Baron Cohen was famous in the world far beyond late-night comedy aficionados. His television shows gave him the space to develop other characters: Bruno, the gay Austrian fashion junkie, and Borat, whom he had played in an earlier incarnation on the Paramount Channel on cable television before Ali G. 'He totally immerses himself in the characters and becomes them,' says Newman. 'It means he can interact with people totally naturally and think on the hoof. It goes way beyond acting; it's almost uncanny.'

When out of character, Baron Cohen works hard to keep his private life under wraps. He is in a long-term relationship with actress Isla Fisher and they are engaged to be married, though a wedding expected this year has been postponed because of her work commitments. They currently live in Los Angeles, where he has just added another string to his bow. His performance in Talladega Nights, as a camp, Camus-reading, macchiato-sipping, French Formula One driver trying to make it in NASCAR has gone down well in America. According to Rolling Stone magazine, his scenes are among the film's best: 'Delicious... outrageous... inspired lunacy.'

With roles in three further comedy feature films lined up for the next two years, Baron Cohen looks set to be one of the few stars able comfortably to bridge not just the Atlantic, but the gap between television humour and acting on the big screen. It remains to be seen whether this capacity extends beyond comedy.

Baron Cohen's career as a comedian began with the rejection of a sketch show (involving stripping Hasidic Jews) by broadcasters for being 'too offensive' and saw him earning a crust as a male model and cable channel phone-in host, before he got his break on Paramount. Despite that early, unseen sketch and Borat's more outrageous statements, the one thing it would be difficult to accuse Baron Cohen of is anti-semitism, not merely because he is Jewish, but because, having been raised by Orthodox parents, he still practises his religion. (Fisher was reported to be learning about Jewish life ahead of the marriage.)

He was born in 1971, the second of three sons, to Gerald and Daniella. His father, who is Welsh, runs a successful clothing shop in Piccadilly, London, while his mother is Israeli. After a private education at Haberdashers' Aske's School in Elstree, also the alma mater of comedians David Baddiel and Matt Lucas, where he was much liked and well-behaved, he attended Christ's College, Cambridge, to read history. University friends remember him as belonging to the fringes of the extrovert Footlights drama society set. 'He was a decent enough actor. I recall him doing very well in Cyrano de Bergerac,' says one. 'But he was never exactly a leading light.' At the same time, he was involved with Habonim, a Zionist youth movement.

In his third year at Cambridge, Baron Cohen wrote a thesis about the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement. 'He took it very seriously,' remembers a contemporary. 'He spent time in the USA researching it during the summer holidays; it was extremely well received.' The existence of this thesis suggests that Baron Cohen has more than a passing interest both in Borat's specific American targets and in the wider challenges of social integration and bigotry with which his comedy deals. His description of a black American southerner as having a 'chocolate face' retains its capacity to shock and the method Baron Cohen employs to expose the prejudices of others is still amusing.

But beyond the silly costumes and thick accents, beyond the bawdy humour, could the comedian see himself as more than an entertainer? It is not the Kazakhstani government which has anything to fear from his forthcoming Borat film: the country was chosen for its obscurity, not as a target for satire. It is the rest of us who ought to wonder why we laugh and what laughing at Baron Cohen's comedy says about us. At the same time, we can sit back and watch his burgeoning career, as an accomplished British satirist emerges as a Hollywood comic talent.

The Baron Cohen lowdown

Born Sacha Baron Cohen, 13 October 1971, to Gerald and Daniella. He has two brothers, Erran and Amnon. Educated at Haberdashers' Aske's school in Elstree and Christ's College, Cambridge, where he read history, he now lives in Los Angles and is engaged to actress Isla Fisher.

Best of times This year sees the release of two feature films featuring Baron Cohen. Both have, so far, been well received critically and he's proved he can act as well as satirise. But he got his big break in 1998, when he was an instant success on The 11 O'Clock Show

Worst of times In 2002, while promoting his Ali G film, he swore in character on Radio 1 and was, unusually, forced to apologise. He did so in character.

What he says 'So, if this show teach you anything, it should teach you how to respect everyone: animals, children, bitches, spazmos, mingers, lezzers, fatty boombahs and even gaylords. So, to all you lot watching this, but mainly to the normal people, respect.' Ali G

What others say 'He's not funny at all.' Tom Paulin

'You've got no time for people, you think they're lazy, greedy, don't want to work, you call women bitches and then you're asking me about a society that's happy.' Tony Benn (to Ali G)

'I totally fell for the act.' Pamela Anderson
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PostPosted: Tue Sep 12, 2006 5:53 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

That was a resounding NO for me. I can't stand this guy and to me, I find him totally "unfunny".
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