"Right now I'm saying it deserves to win Best Picture. I haven't seen a better movie this year," said Judd Apatow, the acclaimed director/ co-writer behind 2005's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."
Has he caught an early look at rumored Oscar contender "Dreamgirls"? Or perhaps he's gushing over the intricately plotted drama "Babel" from Alejandro González Iñárritu?
" 'Borat' is groundbreaking," he said, continuing to heap praise on the most unlikely awards contender of the year. Could "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," the film that might be the raunchiest and filthiest release this side of "Jackass: Number Two," win an Oscar? High-five, indeed. It's not as crazy a proposition as you might think.
It would be one thing if Apatow were alone in his assessment of the surprise comedy hit. Indeed, since opening in limited release on November 3, "Borat" has earned some of the most glowing raves of the year. Well-regarded critics from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and more publications have gushed. And this is not the kind of passionate commentary one normally associates with a movie that features jokes about pubic hair and anti-Semitism. "There's Something About Mary" wasn't called "a Platonic ideal of high-and lowbrow" by The Washington Post.
"Borat" is clearly not just any comedy that's caught the public's fancy (if you haven't done a Borat imitation for your friends yet, you will soon). There is its performance at the box office — a surprise #1 debut with $26.4 million in its opening weekend (see "Borat Is Box-Offce Blockbuster — High Five!"), overtaking surefire family fare like "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Claus" and "Flushed Away." And when the numbers are crunched, the story is all the more remarkable. Opening in just 837 theaters, "Borat" packed in audiences like virtually no other blockbuster, earning a mind-boggling $31,000 per screen. To put that number in perspective, the #1 opening weekend of all time, for "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," only slightly outearned that average with almost $33,000 per theater.
So it's a hit — that much is certain. But a stellar box-office performance isn't the only factor in attracting awards consideration. In fact, it's a lot less important than a film that feels like an Oscar contender. Say what you will about "Crash" — it felt Oscar-y. Important subject? Check. Showy cast? Got it. The list goes on. And this is where "Borat" has a long, uphill battle to climb.
With a barely-settled-into-your-seat running time of 84 minutes, "Borat" doesn't have the length of "Braveheart." Its director is not named Scorsese or Spielberg. His name is Larry Charles, and he is primarily known for his television work ("Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Seinfeld") and a critically reviled film debut ("Masked and Anonymous"), most notable for pairing Bob Dylan with a bizarre ensemble (Val Kilmer and Cheech Marin?).
Then there is the rating. "Borat" is rated R, which is not to say that Oscar frowns on adult fare (remember X-rated "Midnight Cowboy"?). It's just that it's a certain kind of R — one that earns its place through graphic nude fights between Sacha Baron Cohen and an obese co-star and various other inappropriate content far too extensive to list. Why is this a problem? Because the Academy is notoriously old and crotchety. Famed comic writer Larry Gelbart knows this. His nominated screenplay for "Tootsie" was beaten by "Gandhi." "The Academy takes itself very seriously. It's the old adage that comedy isn't as difficult as drama," he says.
The last comedy to win Best Picture was — check your calendars — "Annie Hall" in 1978. And comic performances only get slightly better attention. The last performances one might call "comic" to win in the leading categories were Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt for 1997's "As Good as It Gets."
No, "Borat" was clearly not a film built for awards, but there is one category in which some believe it has a fighting chance: Best Actor. Beating at the heart of this silly little film is a performance so committed that it recalls the comic greats of the past, like Peter Sellers and Buster Keaton. Baron Cohen's portrayal of Borat is so fully realized that it just might have voters thinking seriously about a character whose hobbies include collecting pictures of women using the toilet.
"Borat" producer Jay Roach (director of the "Austin Powers" movies) called Baron Cohen's performance "groundbreaking however you look at it. You are completely relating to this character, hanging on the edge of your seat about everything that's going to happen to him. It's unbelievable."
Apatow, who saw the film early on and has been among its biggest cheerleaders, agrees. "His performance is one of the great comedy performances of all time," he said. "And the fact that he put himself in actual danger has got to be worth something. Anyone that was arrested several times during their shoot deserves an award."
His point is well taken. Baron Cohen's Borat is not simply a well-scripted and articulated character essayed on a soundstage, but a flesh-and-blood human moving about our real world. Apatow said the concept is entirely new. "What he's done is almost impossible. For years, people have been talking about attempting to do a fictional movie that takes place in the real world, but no one has ever been able to figure out how to do it. It's like if you unleashed Groucho Marx on the real world."
The real-life Baron Cohen may be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to earning him Oscar recognition. Thus far, the actor has only appeared publicly in character to support the movie, and there are no imminent plans to change course. Typically actors who receive nominations run the publicity gauntlet for months. Last year, you would be hard-pressed to find a significant talk show that didn't feature Philip Seymour Hoffman on his seemingly endless Best Actor tour for "Capote."
These publicity stops humanize the actors for voters and allow the public to see how great a transformation was undertaken. No such luck this time with Baron Cohen. Roach believes it may be time to change course here. "I would like to see him do some talk-show appearances [as himself], because he's extremely charismatic and funny," he suggested. "I think people will enjoy getting to know him better and enjoy comparing the real Sacha with these incredible creations."
Admittedly, it would be a shock to find Baron Cohen an Oscar nominee alongside other potential candidates Peter O'Toole ("Venus") and Forest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland"), but there is some precedent for out-there performances receiving attention. In 2005, Johnny Depp's famous Keith Richards-inspired turn as Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" landed him in the rarefied Oscar air. However, Baron Cohen, unlike Depp, is nearly unknown. For Baron Cohen, a busy awards season would be new territory, except to anglophiles and devoted HBO watchers addicted to "Da Ali G Show" (where Borat roamed for two seasons).
The bigger question remains: Can a comedy with a capital C (i.e. one without a significant drama component) be a legitimate awards contender? And is "Borat" the film to do it? Gelbart has his doubts. "Borat doesn't have a chance. Its edginess is going to put a lot of older people in the Academy off. Unfortunately, if he can't win an award in Kazakhstan, he won't win one on [Hollywood's] Wilshire Boulevard."
Apatow remembers the groundswell that began last year for "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" to get Oscar attention. "When I was nominated for a Writers Guild Award, I had a flash when I thought, 'I guess it's not completely out of the question that I could get nominated for an Academy Award.' " Reality set in the morning the nominations were announced. When screenplay contenders were listed, Apatow's name was clearly absent. Laughing, he says now, "Woody Allen was nominated [for 'Match Point']. That son of a bitch! There's nothing worse than getting beaten out by one of Woody Allen's dramas. It's like losing to [Allen's 1978 drama] 'Interiors.' "
One imagines Baron Cohen won't be expecting a phone call on nomination morning either. But Roach clings to the dream. "If not this performance, what would it take?" he asked. "With these kinds of reviews and this kind of connection to the audience, if he can't be recognized, who ever could be?"
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