For Actor-Activist Sacha Baron Cohen, Being Called A 'Bouffon' Is A Good Thing Up for Oscars for two different movies — The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm -- Cohen says he was influenced by Peter Sellers, Monty Python and French clown Philippe Gaulier.
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For Actor-Activist Sacha Baron Cohen, Being Called A 'Bouffon' Is A Good Thing

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For Actor-Activist Sacha Baron Cohen, Being Called A 'Bouffon' Is A Good Thing

For Actor-Activist Sacha Baron Cohen, Being Called A 'Bouffon' Is A Good Thing

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Sacha Baron Cohen is nominated for two Oscars, best supporting actor for his portrayal of Abbie Hoffman in "The Trial Of The Chicago 7" and best adapted screenplay for "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm."


SACHA BARON COHEN: (As Borat, speaking non-English language). My name-a (ph) Borat. My wife is nice - not.

MARTIN: With characters like Borat, Cohen's outrageous pranks are supposed to challenge people's beliefs and hold the powerful to account, which parallels the countercultural revolutionary he portrays in "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." NPR's Elizabeth Blair has more.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Like him or not, Sacha Baron Cohen is both a sophisticated clown and a social activist. The clown part started early as he watched British comedians Peter Sellers and Monty Python.

BARON COHEN: The reason I became a comedian was really from seeing "Life Of Brian" when I was about 8 years old. My brothers had smuggled me into the cinema, and I just couldn't believe it.


GRAHAM CHAPMAN: (As Brian) What will they do to me?

MICHAEL PALIN: (As Ben) Oh, you'll probably get away with crucifixion.

CHAPMAN: (As Brian) Crucifixion?

BLAIR: At Cambridge University, Cohen studied the American civil rights movement. His dissertation was called "The Black-Jewish Alliance: The Case Of Mistaken Identities." And that's when Abbie Hoffman first became one of Sacha Baron Cohen's heroes.

BARON COHEN: I was just really in awe of Abbie, somebody who was really an authentic protester who was ready to die to fight against injustice.

BLAIR: Hoffman also knew how to entertain. In 1968, he and others were accused of conspiring to start a riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Hoffman and his friend Jerry Rubin showed up to court one day dressed in judicial robes. Hoffman did a headstand on the defense table. Here he is in a press conference.


ABBIE HOFFMAN: And as far as the dangerous concealed weapon in the - I mean, that's out of sight. This was a small penknife that practically everybody in America carries, you know. And it's to clean my teeth.

BARON COHEN: He really understood the power of humor and wit and comedy to reveal the ills of society.

BLAIR: And the establishment hated him for it.


FRANK LANGELLA: (As Judge Julius Hoffman) Silence. Bailiff, charge Mr. Rubin and Mr. Hoffman with one count of contempt.

BLAIR: In the movie, Frank Langella plays Judge Julius Hoffman - no relation to Abbie.


LANGELLA: (As Judge Julius Hoffman) What is your date of birth?

BARON COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) Psychologically, 1960.

LANGELLA: (As Judge Julius Hoffman) And what were you doing until 1960?

BARON COHEN: (As Abbie Hoffman) Nothing. I believe it's called an American education.

BLAIR: Cohen says he's wanted to play Hoffman for more than 20 years. To get his mannerisms down, he listened to his speeches and press conferences and read transcripts of the trial. As a writer himself, Cohen was in awe. And then he pitched those lines to Aaron Sorkin, who wrote and directed "Chicago 7."

BARON COHEN: And Aaron very kindly would say, thank you very much, but we're going to stick with the script.

BLAIR: Sticking with the script was nearly impossible when Sacha Baron Cohen was making his other Oscar-nominated movie.


BARON COHEN: (As Borat) What is more dangerous, this virus or the Democrat?

JIM RUSSELL: Democrats.


BLAIR: "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" is like a cross between the satirical correspondence of "The Daily Show" and the slapstick of "The Three Stooges." Cohen impersonates a naive, backward journalist from a mythical version of Kazakhstan.

BARON COHEN: Borat is a misogynist. He's a racist. He's an anti-Semite.

BLAIR: And when people spend time with him thinking they're being filmed for a foreign documentary or some other pretext, their true beliefs often emerge.


BARON COHEN: (As Borat) Hillary Clinton drink the blood of children.

RUSSELL: That's what we've heard - or I've heard.

HOLLEMAN: It's been said.

BLAIR: Sacha Baron Cohen spent almost a full week as Borat, living with two QAnon followers without ever breaking character. Cohen says he liked them.

BARON COHEN: Sure, they're conspiracy theorists, and many liberals see them as the enemy. But you know, I like them, and a lot of people who've seen the movie really like them, too. And what you realize - that these are good, ordinary people who've been fed a diet of lies and conspiracies by politicians and social media.

BLAIR: Cohen and a team of eight writers are nominated for the Oscar for adapted screenplay for "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm." And even though the movie demands constant improvising, Cohen says they wrote a 90-page script before they started shooting.

BARON COHEN: We not only wrote Borat's lines and Tutar's lines, Borat's daughter, we wrote the lines that we hoped the real people would say. And we had a read-through. We brought in the major screenwriters that we knew in Hollywood and directors, and it was great. And the main question was, who are you going to get to cast to play Mike Pence or Rudy Giuliani? And I said, no, no, this is - we're going to get Mike Pence to play Mike Pence. And at that point, they were - just said, all right. You're completely mad, and you've wasted the last two hours of our life. Thank you very much.

BLAIR: Sure enough, Mike Pence played Mike Pence, and Rudy Giuliani played Rudy Giuliani.


RUDY GIULIANI: Nice to meet you, my dear.

MARIA BAKALOVA: (As Tutar) Nice to meet you.

BLAIR: In a scene from the movie that made headlines, Borat's daughter, Tutar, played by Maria Bakalova, is a journalist who interviews Giuliani in a hotel room.


BAKALOVA: (As Tutar) I will try my best. But because I'm super excited and nervous...

GIULIANI: Well, you relax. I'll relax you. Want me to ask you a question?


GIULIANI: I'll relax you, OK?

BLAIR: Bakalova is nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress.

BAKALOVA: For sure I was freaking out before that famous scene in the hotel in New York with Rudy Giuliani because he's established enough public figure, and he's a politician. And I'm not even American.

BLAIR: Every day of filming, she says, the script changed.

BAKALOVA: They were writing new scenes and new jokes because Sacha is also a perfectionist. So theoretically, there is always going to be probably a better joke.

BLAIR: Sacha Baron Cohen is serious about the craft and power of comedy. He holds fast to something he learned early in his career.

BARON COHEN: When I was in my early 20s, I'd learned under this legendary clown teacher, which sounds like a joke in itself. But there is a legendary clown teacher called Philippe Gaulier, and he taught this really obscure form of satire called bouffon. And bouffons were kind of the dispossessed in society in the medieval ages. They'd live outside of the towns. And then once a year, they were allowed in the villages, in the towns. And they would put on these bouffon plays, and the idea was to undermine the establishment.

BLAIR: Cohen says Gaulier once told him, you are a bouffon.

BARON COHEN: And I was quite shocked. But I suppose, yes, I've never sought the approval of people I don't respect.

BLAIR: How else could Sacha Baron Cohen spend years pulling off wildly ambitious pranks that raise awareness, sometimes get him sued and win him Oscar nominations?

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


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