Times 2 - UK (2020-10-16)

(Antfer) #1

4 1GT Friday October 16 2020 | the times

cover story

What you really need to

know about our greatest

(and richest) prankster

With a new Borat film out next

week, those close to its elusive

creator, Sacha Baron Cohen, tell

Ed Potton what makes him tick


acha Baron Cohen has
been promoting his new
movie in the only way he
knows — by getting his kit
off. In 2006 he pranced
around Cannes in a
mankini to launch his
Kazakhstani alter ego’s
first movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings
of America for Make Benefit Glorious
Nation of Kazakhstan. Now here he is
on the posters for Borat Subsequent
Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe

to American Regime for Make Benefit
Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
with only a surgical mask protecting
his modesty (“Wear mask. Save live”).
The man’s knack for self-publicity is as
prodigious as his film titles.
In the Trump-skewering new film
Borat makes another trip to America,
this time with his pregnant daughter
(“I feel bad because I was the one who
put baby in her,” he says, slapping his
wrist). The genially awful journalist
later offers her as a gift to Mike Pence,
the vice-president, screaming,
“Michael Penis, I brought the girl for
you!” at a press conference while
carrying her over his shoulder.
Baron Cohen, whose bigot-baiting
creations also include Ali G and
Brüno, is arguably the most successful
British comedian of the past 20 years,
worth $160 million compared with
Rowan Atkinson’s $150 million and
Ricky Gervais’s $130 million. Given
that, and how many compromising
situations we have seen him in —
from burying his nose between the
buttocks of his fictional manager (the
first Borat) to being fellated by a dog
(Ali G Indahouse) — it’s striking how
little we know about him.
The 49-year-old gives few
interviews, and when he appears out
of character he likes it to be on his
own terms — an erudite speech last
year on social media and a feature on
Donald Trump’s abuse of Facebook
(“the greatest propaganda machine in
history”) that he wrote this month for
Time magazine. Baron Cohen avoids
interviews, he told the BBC, because
“the moment I went on air and started
talking about, ‘Oh yes I set these
people up,’ there was a chance that the
interviewee would see [it] and
withdraw consent.”
Sure enough, this week the estate
of an American holocaust survivor,
Judith Dim Evans, sued the makers
of the new Borat film, asking that an
interview with her be removed. Evans
had thought it was for a serious
documentary, they claim.
It’s got much hairier than that.
Recalling a sequence in the film Brüno
in which his titular gay fashion
journalist indulged in heavy petting
with a man in a cage-fighting arena,
Baron Cohen wrote in Time: “The
crowd — including some recently
paroled prisoners with swastika tattoos
— erupted in homophobic slurs and
started hurling metal chairs at us. Had
I not ducked into a trapdoor and out
an escape tunnel, I think the crowd
would have beaten me senseless.”
Baron Cohen retired Ali G and
Brüno after audience familiarity
blunted their effectiveness, and
threatened to do the same with
Borat. I approached several of his
collaborators for this piece, but few

wanted to talk. Was that to preserve
his mystique or because they feared
reprisals? Nothing as bloody as what
befell those who irked his Gaddafi-
style despot in The Dictator, perhaps,
but you do sense that Baron Cohen,
like his idol Peter Sellers, can be
demanding. He is used to calling the
shots on his films and shows, even if
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