Sacha Baron Cohen, as most of you probably know, is an Englishman, who bills himself as a writer, comedian and actor. Now, I have reason to question one of those billings, as anyone with an attentive ear, would have.
Last night, I saw Sacha Baron Cohen on the Conan O'Brien show. Amazingly, we actually get this show in Singapore, on one of the many cable channels available. It is quite fun to watch since Conan O'Brien manages to entice a wide variety of interesting people on to his show. Not all of them are A listers, but many of them are, perhaps, more interesting because they are not. Sometimes, it is good to watch people who are less famous and less familiar, since they may bring something new.
Sacha Baron Cohen appeared, last night, as Bruno. He was introduced as Bruno and interviewed as Bruno. He arrived wearing silver trousers and a dark sleeveless top. He was, as expected, rather camp. Sacha Baron Cohen, as Bruno, proceeded to "act" in character, throughout. He made jokes and observations as Bruno. He interacted as Bruno. He pretended to an attraction to Conan O'Brien, as Bruno. This was all very well, if not very convincing. At no time, for instance, could anyone watching Sacha Baron Cohen, as Bruno, conceive the understanding that this was a "real" person. He didn't come across as a real person, at all. He came across as a rather overdone caricature of a gay man, given to an excess of flamboyance. This, in itself, was rather disappointing, since I had understood that the whole point of Sacha Baron Cohen's work was to fool people into believing that his creations were real, so as to secure, from them, reactions to this supposed reality. That, however, was not what was happening on the Conan O'Brien show. What was happening was that an Englishman of rather limited acting ability was attempting to portray what he thought to be an over the top gay Austrian.
Now, why do I say "rather limited acting ability"...well, quite simply because at no time was he able to create a coherent reality for this character, Bruno. The actions of the character were not done convincingly, in any way. In fact, they came across as a painting of a gay man "by numbers"...meaning he was going through a routine: "now I do this, then I say this, then I do that..."...it just felt lifeless, like a man going through empty motions, that had no meaning for him. The actions did not seem motivated by any genuine inner drive, at all. This was not a gay man expressing himself, rather loudly, on a tv chat show. It was an Englishman giving a very slipshod caricature of his idea of a gay man, in such a way that none of the individual actions were convincing and the whole just did not hold together, in the least.
I was very disappointed, since, after all the hype surrounding this man (Sacha Baron Cohen)...I rather expected a higher degree of acting skill.
Now, I must come to the real failing of Sacha Baron Cohen's portrayal of Bruno: the accent. Bruno is supposed to be a young gay AUSTRIAN man...and so, presumably, he is supposed to speak with an Austrian accent. Yet, that is not what I heard, last night, on the Conan O'Brien show. The accent was only very occasionally remotely akin to an Austrian's. Most of the time, Bruno - an "Austrian" - spoke with an upper crust ENGLISH accent. His accent kept slipping in and out of a well spoken English accent. Presumably, given his Cambridge University background, that well spoken English accent is, in fact, Sacha Baron Cohen's own. When his accent wasn't clearly an English one, it was most often not an Austrian one, either: it was a confused mix of many influences that just didn't convince one that it was from anywhere in particular.
A talent for accents is not universal among actors. However, almost all actors are able to be consistent with the voice that they use, for a role. Sacha Baron Cohen's biggest failing was not that he can't do an Austrian accent (he can't...he really can't), but that he can't keep his accent consistent. Every few words, he would slip into a different accent. His voice was just all over the place.
The fact is, that if Sacha Baron Cohen's performance on Conan O'Brien had been an audition for any acting job, there has ever been, in the history of acting, he would NOT have got the job. His performance was simply too poor, too amateurish, too hammy and just plain unfunny to persuade any casting director, or director, at any level, to give him a job. The funny thing is, of course, that Sacha Baron Cohen has a job...Bruno. He is just not doing it very well. In fact, he is doing it very badly.
The most embarrassing thing about the Conan O'Brien show, for Sacha Baron Cohen, was that he was followed, on the show, by a real actor. By this I mean that the actor could actually act. The difference between them was stark. He was an English actor from True Blood, a show presently popular in the US. He did something that made Bruno look excruciatingly bad: he used accents, perfectly. He slipped from a standard English accent, to a Cockney, to a Somerset accent, to a Deep Southern accent from the US...all in moments. Each accent was absolutely convincing, stable, didn't drift, was perfectly accurate in its rendition and seemed to be accompanied by a character, too. The voices were different, interesting and truthful. There was just one thing he could have done to make Bruno look even worse: an Austrian accent. Thankfully, for Sacha Baron Cohen, he didn't do that...though, if he had been mischievous, he could and should have done.
I think the problem with Sacha Baron Cohen is that he is too successful. No-one is telling him: "Hang on Sacha, but you know that accent you have got, is just not working...in fact, I am not sure what accent it is that you have got. You should get a voice coach or failing that, don't bother with the accent."
No-one, basically, is telling him the truth. The truth is, he is able to think up characters that have some comic potential. However, those characters are sometimes beyond the range of his abilities as an actor to portray effectively. Bruno, for instance, appears, from the evidence of that interview on Conan O'Brien, to be way out of Sacha Baron Cohen's range. From my point of view, he failed in every respect with that character (except possibly the costume design, which was probably someone else's work). Thinking up an interesting character is not enough, if you are going to be the performer of it: it has to be within the range and ability of the performer. An Austrian accent is not within Sacha Baron Cohen's ability range. In fact, the stability and conviction of any accent he gives, is doubtful, given the performance last night. Thus, Sacha Baron Cohen should steer clear of doing accents. He shouldn't even try. Then he should consider the range of actions required of him, by the character: he should ask whether he can actually perform those actions convincingly. Bruno was not a convincing gay man, in many ways. Thus, if he was ever intended to be convincing, he failed to do so.
I note, from articles written about him, that Sacha Baron Cohen is often praised for "keeping in character"...well, maintaining an accent is part of keeping in character, and this Cohen was unable to do for more than two or three seconds, in last night's interview. So, it would seem that there is a difference between the PR surrounding Cohen and the actual abilities of the man.
It will be interesting to see what Sacha Baron Cohen does next. If it involves accents, I hazard to think just how unconvincing it will be. We will see.
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Labels: accents, acting ability, actor, Bruno, Cambridge University, comedian, Conan O'Brien, English, hyped, lack of talent, Sacha Baron Cohen, writer