Sacha Baron Cohen moves the needle of history with 'Borat,' 'Chicago 7'

Glenn Whipp, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

If not for Trump, Cohen would never have made a "Borat" sequel. Their paths first crossed in 2003 when Cohen interviewed Trump as wannabe-rapper-journalist Ali G, pitching him an idea for gloves to wear while eating ice cream. In 2012, after Cohen, costumed as his character from the movie "The Dictator," dumped the cremation "ashes" of Kim Jong Il on Ryan Seacrest on the Oscars' red carpet, Trump posted a video defending Seacrest, saying that Cohen "should have been put down fast." Likely, this public show of support had nothing whatsoever to do with Cohen defecating in front of a Trump property in the first "Borat" movie.

"The new 'Borat' is really my form of peaceful protest," Cohen says. It was imperative, he believed, to release the movie before Election Day to "sound the alarm." When the pandemic and its subsequent lockdown happened in early March, Universal Pictures executives suggested delaying the movie to 2021 when movie theaters, presumably, would be open. But Cohen couldn't shake the footage they'd shot of Pence dismissing the risks of the coronavirus during his CPAC speech.

"If this movie was going to be an indictment of Trumpism, I had to point to his biggest failure, which was his callous mismanagement of this crisis, leading to unspeakable death and catastrophe," Cohen says. Amazon Studios bought the film, paying around $80 million.

"You know, it's a bit of a challenge to talk about this movie without sounding a little pretentious," Woliner says, laughing. "Can a comedy move the needle in terms of history? I don't know. But that's what Sacha was determined to do."

"Somehow, Sacha is doing a revolution in the world through Borat," adds Maria Bakalova, the Bulgarian actress who plays Borat's daughter in the sequel. "And then you watch him play Abbie Hoffman, who dedicated his life to revolution. The similarities are huge. Their impact comes through this crazy, genius comedy."

Cohen, 49, says his father had a biography about Hoffman in the house, but he didn't read it as a young man and only became introduced to the activist while at Cambridge University, writing his college thesis on the Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Hoffman's purposeful over-the-top theatrics — he once vowed to levitate the Pentagon, putting an end to the Vietnam War — resonated with Cohen, who, growing up in London, loved Monty Python, Peter Sellers and the surrealistic, subversive films of Luis Buñuel.

There was another connection: Cohen studied with the great theater and clown teacher Philippe Gaulier, who leads one of the few classes on the art of bouffon. Never heard of a bouffon? They were outcasts in medieval society who would be allowed back into the villages once a year to put on plays that mocked the establishment. "It was a very biting form of satire aimed at power," Cohen says. "You'd have people with extreme deformities playing the king of France."


Hoffman, Cohen believes, followed the lineage of the bouffon during the 1969 trial in which he and the other defendants (originally there were eight) were charged with conspiracy and, yes, crossing state lines to incite a riot in the wake of violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Hoffman and fellow Youth International Party (yippies) co-founder Jerry Rubin (played by Jeremy Strong in the movie) would play pranks in the courtroom, provoking the judge and demonstrating they had no respect for the trial.

"Outwardly, he was a buffoon, but underneath it all was a deeply committed activist who was ready to risk his life to challenge injustice," Cohen says. "He showed the power of humor to expose the ills of society."

Sorkin describes Cohen as "joyful" and appreciated the spontaneity he and Strong brought to their courtroom scenes, though there were times when he needed to tell them to dial the antics down a notch.

"You'd hear me say things like, 'Cut. That was great. Let's try it again, but without the kazoo,'" Sorkin says. "There were any number of unexpected touches they brought in, but it energized everyone."

Cohen continued obsessively studying Hoffman while making "The Trial of the Chicago 7," emailing Sorkin almost every night about a new discovery. "I couldn't help myself," Cohen says. "'What about this, Aaron? This is incredible. Shouldn't we put this in?' And very graciously, Aaron would reply to each email and say, 'I think we got it. Let's stick with this version of the script.'"

"But it's hard not to fall in love with someone like Abbie Hoffman," Cohen continues, "this incredibly entertaining guy who was ready to die for his cause. When they ask him what the price is and he says 'his life,' it almost brought tears to my eyes."

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