Borat Sagdiyev. Ali G. Brüno. Colonel Erran Morad. Admiral General Aladeen.
Sacha Baron Cohen goes by many names. The bread and butter of his act is disguise and trickery. Either by playing dumb or feigning authority, he exploits the gullible and persuades the uncertain to produce maximally uncomfortable comedy. Baron Cohen’s “victims” are public figures, ranking among the political and pop-cultural elite. Historically, no one has been safe from this trickery. Early in his career as Ali G., Baron Cohen cracked jokes at the expense of priests and rabbis, but more recently, Baron Cohen’s ridicule has been directed at the American political right, to outstanding effect.
In the Golden Globe winning sequel to “Borat” — ridiculously titled in full “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” — Baron Cohen enlisted co-star Maria Bakalova (“Last Call”) to pull one of these more newsworthy pranks on Rudy Giuliani, former New York Mayor and Trump lackey, literally catching him with his pants down. But Giuliani is not nearly the most prominent of Baron Cohen’s punchlines.
For his 2018 series “Who Is America?”, Baron Cohen interviewed former Vice President Dick Cheney as Col. Erran Morad. This character was purportedly a member of the Israeli special forces, and according to an interview with Don Cheadle, was “a ‘reverse character creation’ built to appeal specifically to Cheney.”
Morad asked Cheney about his “favorite war,” to which the vice president proudly recalled deploying over half a million American soldiers in Desert Storm (roughly one-third of whom now suffer from chronic health issues due to chemical exposure during their service). At the end of the interview, Morad pulled out a “waterboarding kit” consisting of a rag and a plastic jug, which he offered to Cheney for his signature. Cheney remarked “I’ve never signed one of those before,” as though anyone might have.
Alas, Dick Cheney is a minor chapter of Baron Cohen’s career, no matter how embarrassing it was for the vice president. Born in London in 1971, Baron Cohen grew up “posh and socialist” to Jewish parents. In the late 1990s, he gained recognition for his first major character, Ali G., which his producers initially wanted to call the “youth wanker.” Baron Cohen thought that with a real name, he might be able to convince his interviewees “that he could actually be that thick.”
All the while, Baron Cohen had ideological objectives. His targets were not random, and his ridicule was never apolitical. His entire career has been serious, if executed in the least serious ways.
In November 2019, Baron Cohen penned an op-ed in The Washington Post, in which he criticizes the “Silicon Six” tech CEOs for failing to do enough to combat hate speech online. Admitting that he has “built a career on pushing the limits of propriety and good taste,” he shared that “some critics have said (his) comedy risks reinforce old racial and religious stereotypes.” He sees things differently, as his provocative jokes illuminate the bigotry that lies just beneath the surface. By so easily rousing hatred and racist rhetoric, his comedy shows how the baring of these ugly teeth requires little invitation. Many have said this is why the rhetoric of Trumpism is so hate-filled: The ex-president invited hate speech by giving racism a platform and normalizing bigotry.
In an interview with Variety following his recent Golden Globe win for “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” Baron Cohen shared that he made the film because of Trump’s presidency. He said that Trump “was spreading these conspiracy theories and hate and lies and was really helped by social media as well, and I felt the only thing I could do was pull out the grey suit and do Borat again.” As a comedian, free speech is important to Baron Cohen; he sees the real and dangerous hate that teems on social media as a scourge to be eliminated.
Speaking to the Anti-Defamation League in 2019, Baron Cohen charged that “If Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem.’” Baron Cohen concludes his op-ed in the Post with strength: “Zuckerberg claims his main goal is to ‘uphold as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible.’ Yet our freedoms are not only an end in themselves, they’re also a means to another end — to our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And today these rights are threatened by hate, conspiracies and lies.”
Baron Cohen is a comic, but he is not incapable of setting aside humor in the interest of human rights. Thus it shouldn’t come as much surprise that Baron Cohen has turned from comedy to drama. 2020 was an exciting year for Baron Cohen fans: In addition to “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” the comic donned a different mask for Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “The Spy,” a Netflix limited series. In these latter projects, Baron Cohen has traded his provocative and cringe-inducing deadpan for dramatic complexity and dynamism. The jack of all guises has shown he is a master of many.
Playing Abbie Hoffman, activist and one of seven defendants charged with crossing state lines to incite a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Baron Cohen is in more familiar territory. Hoffman uses provocative humor to make a political statement in the courtroom and on stages — much like Baron Cohen himself, albeit in a more “conventional” and less disguised manner. Though similarly confrontational, Hoffman’s comedic punches are more public and meant to rouse the support of many against one.
Baron Cohen’s confrontational comedy is sometimes public and sometimes more private, but always for the camera and viewer. When Borat storms CPAC dressed as then-President Trump in search of Vice President Mike Pence, he receives no sympathy from his immediate audience. Unlike the purely satirical Borat, Baron Cohen waxes dramatic as Hoffman. In a heated exchange with Eddie Redmayne, who plays Tom Hayden, all comedy is lost. All that remains is confrontation. Baron Cohen dominates the scene nonetheless; he harnesses his dramatic seriousness directly, unfiltered by satire.
For those who thought his performance as Hoffman was a fluke, or too close to his confrontationally comedic comfort zone, Baron Cohen offers Eli Cohen, in “The Spy.” Based on the story of a real Israeli intelligence officer who went undercover in Syria and was ultimately executed, “The Spy” is not lighthearted. Baron Cohen’s performance taps into a number of emotions foreign to his satirical characters. Keeping his real job hidden from his wife, Eli Cohen is burdened by this sense of a double self. Fear and a cold-blooded patriotism coexist in Eli Cohen, and Baron Cohen plays this conflicted man brilliantly and convincingly.
Hoffman was closer to home as a free-thinking, funny guy. Though the subject matter was more serious, Baron Cohen’s satirist roots were accommodated. Eli Cohen’s exacting and calculating espionage is purely dramatic, with compelling effect. As a mentally-taxed and emotionally volatile spy, Baron Cohen shifts within the bounds of his character from romantic husband to agent of war. There is a sexiness to Eli Cohen which is wholly absent from the wardrobe of characters Baron Cohen has worn over the years. His ability to shape-shift from edgy satirist to A-List leading man is exceptional.
Baron Cohen is not the first actor to change tact, and it remains to be seen where he will go from here. What makes Baron Cohen’s shift remarkable is how seamless it has been, and how his dramatic work is contemporaneous with some of his finest satire. While “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm” netted Baron Cohen two Golden Globe Awards, for Best Musical/Comedy and Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy, his performance as Abbie Hoffman earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ali G. drops a Grammy-winning mixtape.
If he did, I’m sure the content would be relevant, political and oriented to social issues. Underlying all of Baron Cohen’s comedic work is an intelligent grasp on the problems plaguing our culture. From this seriousness and wit, the multi-talented actor draws his dramatic ability.
Baron Cohen is exemplary of breadth in acting prowess. When we consider actors’ range on screen, we would be wise to look to their deeply-held social beliefs. Without a serious foundation, the comic cannot play the dramaturg; without a sense of humor, the dramaturg will only make you laugh when he fails. Sacha Baron Cohen rarely seems to fail.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.