Just in case you’re lying dead in a ditch somewhere—or more alarmingly, don’t have a television—I’m taking it upon myself to remind you that the 84th Academy Awards are Sunday night. Self-congratulatory tears will be shed, God will be thanked, sincere and entertaining people like animators and short-subject documentarians will be played off the stage mercilessly. If the stars align, we may be treated to one of Meryl Streep’s typical acceptance speeches of scatterbrained grandeur as the camera cruelly lingers on Glenn Close’s haunted Halloween mask of a smile.
But what we may not see is Sacha Baron Cohen. The most mischievously shape-shifting Jewish comedian/folk hero since Herschel of Ostropol has been warned by the Academy in no uncertain terms not to turn up dressed as Admiral General Alladeen, his lavishly bearded Qaddafi-esque alter ego from his upcoming movie, The Dictator. After pre-emptively banning (or so it was rumored) Baron Cohen from the pre-show swanning in the absence of assurances he would do so as “himself” (a concept surely as amorphous for the chameleon-like star as it was for the similarly slippery Peter Sellers), they are now reduced to stern proclamations warning of their extreme displeasure should their warnings be defied. “The red carpet,” sniffed one official Academy spokesperson, “is not about stunting.”
It’s hard to see why Baron Cohen—who turned down a chance to present an award in 2007 when the producers refused to let him to do so in character as the legendarily anti-Semitic Kazakh journalist Borat—should heed the red-carpet dress code for any reason other than the goodness of his heart. Certainly, there may be short-term censure: When 1999 Best Song nominees Trey Parker and Matt Stone attended the ceremony dressed as Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow (accompanied by co-nominee Marc Shaiman, resplendent in full pale-blue fox fur pimp regalia), the Academy’s then-President Jack Valenti called the South Park creators “hairballs” and thundered about his wish to give their nominated film the retroactive NC-17 rating that would have destroyed its box-office potential. But their careers hardly suffered for it; if anything, the so-called “stunt” merely solidified their brand as witty provocateurs willing to speak truth to power (and to publicly drop acid in front of Hollywood’s oldest guard). A high-profile brouhaha over The Dictator shortly before the film’s release may hurt Baron Cohen’s standing with the Academy, but it only stands to help his bottom line.
And besides, what does Sacha care if the Oscars are mad at him? It’s not as though he’s ever likely to win one. For decades, the Academy Awards have been uniquely inhospitable to the jesters in their midst. Not for nothing did Will Ferrell memorably sing the (Shaiman-penned) 2007 lament: “a comedian at the Oscars is the saddest, loneliest, alcoholic clown.” Comedies may rake in cash at the box-office, but it’s a truism verging on the point of cliché to say that they are almost uniformly overlooked come awards season (with the exception of the Golden Globes, which herds them into their own category, like the “Best Younger Actor” award at the Daytime Emmys). It’s possible to count the number of intentionally funny performances that have garnered Oscars in the past 25 years on one hand—and I know, because I just went on Wikipedia and tried it.
Indeed, a comedian of Baron Cohen’s caliber is in the uncomfortable position of making movies far more eloquent about the subjects they satirize than any of the mainstream Oscar contenders that so often strive to cover the same ground. A film like Borat interrogated the dark heart of lingering anti-Semitism more effectively than any number of inspirational/sanctimonious Holocaust flicks featuring incredibly attractive concentration camp inmates and the self-reflective Nazis who torment them, and if The Dictator turns out to be the ruthlessly insightful—not to mention commercially successful—treatise on the War on Terror that Hollywood has been searching for since the first bombs burst over Baghdad, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. That would sting.
Of course, there’s another reason for Baron Cohen to leave his breastplate of military medals and camel escort at home: He’s invited to the ceremony this year not under his own auspices as a Very Famous Person, but as part of the ensemble cast of the Best Picture nominee Hugo, and perhaps the Academy feels it’s only polite to support the film what brung ya, so to speak. It’s a fair enough point that would just about hold water if not for the fact that over the past several years the annual Oscars ceremony has become the world’s most star-studded and elaborate infomercial. The swag bags and gifting suites are old news, but a flurry of recent articles have revealed actresses to be heavily bribed—either with lucrative endorsement contracts or cold hard cash—by publicity-hungry fashion houses to wear their gowns on the red carpet. Studios and distributors spend unthinkable sums on yearlong, highly remunerative Oscars campaigns that resemble nothing so much as, well, American elections post-Citizens United. And like our creaky and imperiled democracy, the whole gruesome enterprise depends on a veneer of fulsomely earnest seriousness to hide the dirty fingerprints. All it takes is a single satirist as sly as Baron Cohen to turn the red carpet into a blatant marketing ploy for his next film for the whole thing to come crashing down around Hollywood’s expensively (and promotionally) shod feet. The emperor has no clothes if the dictator does.