Searching for the Man Behind the Mustache
Thursday, January 31, 2008
SACHA BARON COHEN
The Unauthorized Biography: From Cambridge to Kazakhstan
By Kathleen Tracy
St. Martin's Griffin. 278 pp. Paperback, $13.95
Borat Sagdiyev is dead. On Dec. 21, 2007, the fearless Kazakhstan-born journalist, who roamed the United States tirelessly reporting and documenting our culture for the people of his country, died from physical exhaustion due to celebrity overexposure. He was 35.
Okay: Borat isn't really dead. If you've seen the 2006 smash comedy "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," you'll know that it's a character created by Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian who scored in the early part of this decade with "Da Ali G Show," a late-night cult hit on HBO. On that show, Baron Cohen developed three boneheaded, stereotypical characters -- wannabe gangster Ali G, fabulously flamboyant Bruno and Borat, the Kazakh journalist -- whose awkward interviews with conservative politicians and drunken frat boys allowed them to make fools of themselves. But it wasn't until 2006 that Baron Cohen hit the mainstream with his movie "Borat" and got tongues wagging about his personal life and sudden rise to fame. Consequently, the integrity of his characters -- and his style of gotcha comedy -- had been compromised. Borat needed to go, and Baron Cohen gave him a faux obituary.
Baron Cohen himself, however, is alive and well. In her unauthorized biography, journalist Kathleen Tracy attempts to dispel many questions about this mimic who is a modern-day Peter Sellers. She chronicles his life, from growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family in England to his years studying history at Cambridge University to the making of "Borat."
You might not think there would be much demand for a biography of a celebrity who's in the early stages of his career. But Baron Cohen has piqued interest by largely remaining a secret to the public. He almost entirely shuns the media, and on the rare occasion that he sits for an interview, he prefers to discuss his work rather than, say, his relationship with actress Isla Fisher, his fiancee. Baron Cohen's attempts to keep his life private have only whetted the appetite of the tabloids.
Unfortunately, Tracy's book misses on many levels. Having chronicled the personal histories of Don Imus, Angelina Jolie and Ellen DeGeneres, she certainly knows the terrain. And Tracy has done some research: She interviewed family members and uncovered quaint anecdotes, including one where Madonna and her husband, Guy Ritchie, dropped by for tea with Baron Cohen after he collaborated with her on a music video. Baron Cohen die-hards may be thrilled to learn even such trivia about their hero, but the whole thing seems dashed off. Given that this is an unauthorized book, you wonder if Tracy had access to her subject, whom she quotes at length in the present tense (a common device to suggest fresh reporting), but she doesn't make that clear.
Elsewhere, the prose is cringe-inducing. In describing one of Baron Cohen's early attempts at television humor -- a skit with a pal in which two Hasidic Jews strip down to their undergarments -- Tracy writes, "It was obvious these characters were DOA to television executives. . . . It was time to get serious and start clowning around. We're talking Clown with a capital C." You get the sense this was hurriedly written in the interest of deadlines and a paycheck.
Baron Cohen's contribution to pop culture is not as trivial as this book. By convincing his interview subjects that his characters are authentically foreign or exotic, he gets them to drop their guard and reveal interesting things. As Borat, he has exposed latent racism, bigotry and homophobia; in one film scene, he coaxed a crowd of Southerners to gleefully join in a song about massacring Jews.
So it would've been nice if Tracy surveyed cultural critics, pundits, sociologists -- anyone, really, with some credibility -- to establish a discussion about what Baron Cohen's art means. Detractors have claimed that his Ali G character is a deplorable, modernized version of Al Jolson's minstrel act; others have called Baron Cohen a genius at exposing prejudice. Tracy's attempts to provide context, however, just seem half-baked. Describing how Baron Cohen (as Borat) manages to ingratiate himself with Americans, she writes, "With so many countries hating us just on principle for having too much -- too much freedom, too much food, too much money, too much arrogance, too much fun -- most Americans are willing to accommodate a foreign visitor in hopes of changing that perception, at least on an individual level."
Still, Tracy does a fine job of getting the back story on Baron Cohen's greatest, most dangerous high jinks, including a harrowing escape by the comedian and his film crew from 60,000 football fans who threatened to kill "Bruno" when he spoke to the crowd during a game. Such anecdotes, though sad in that they expose the worst side of some Americans, occasionally turn "From Cambridge to Kazakhstan" into a hoot, but it's never quite as funny as watching the real thing.