I can hear the protests already. Sacha Baron Cohen? Ali G? Nominated in the same category as Walter Brennan and George C. Scott and Jason Robards? For a performance in a broad, NASCAR-inspired, Will Ferrell comedy? Dude, comedy actors rarely gets nom’ed, and when they do it’s for performances in high-falutin relationship comedies like “The Goodbye Girl” or “Annie Hall,” or in dark comedies like “Dr. Strangelove.” Cohen, in contrast, plays a taunting, gay, Formula Un race car driver whose motivations are never particularly clear. His character is one-note — or, at best, one-and-a-half notes. He isn’t even the funniest thing in the movie. And you want this guy to be nominated best supporting actor?
Those are among the reasons Cohen probably won’t get nominated for “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” Here are the reasons why he should.
Most comedians include in their performance a sly wink to let the audience in on the joke. Consider it the smiley face at the end of the e-mail message. Will Ferrell plays his southern-fried, NASCAR bad-ass, John C. Reilly is his doofus second banana, and Gary Cole is a hoot as his ne’er-do-well dad. All are great comedic performances, and they provide most of the belly laughs in the movie. But they make sure we’re in on the joke. There’s always a wink telling us: This is a comedy.
Cohen doesn’t wink. He plays Jean Girrard, the baddest Frenchman in an American film in a long time, and he plays him straight. He’s essentially the straight man in the movie (no pun intended). The biggest laughs come from others reacting to his audacity, but it’s as much Cohen’s audacity as Girrard’s. There’s a stillness to Cohen’s performance, a complete conviction out of the Peter Sellers school of comedy. This may be why some people don’t think Cohen is funny. He makes us nervous. Is he joking? We can’t tell. Where’s the smiley face? We need the smiley face!
Cohen gives his character weight. A flighty gay Frenchman would’ve made the movie flutter away into silliness. Cohen’s performance anchors it.
In Girrard’s introductory scene in the redneck bar, he seems unbreakable. He introduces jazz on the jukebox, smokes his cigarette European-style, stares down “Monsieur Booby,” counters Ferrell’s he-man bravado with savate, forces him to say “I love crepes,” and introduces his husband Gregory. They kiss and grab ass. It’s everything a certain segment of the U.S. population has demonized over the past few years bundled into one character, and it’s hilarious and heroic and villainous all at once.
There may be no greater dialogue this year than Girrard taunting the crowd with the bankruptcy of American culture, which, he says, has only given the world “George Bush, Cheerios and the Thigh Master.” When asked what the French have given the world, he trumps the bar with, “Democracy, Existentialism and the ménage a trois. ” Coming five years after “freedom fries,” it’s a breath of fresh air.
I haven’t begun talking about Cohen’s bizarre French accent — the way he rolls his words slowly around his mouth, “like a dog with peanut butter in his mouth,” one character says — or the 10-second kiss with Will Ferrell at the end of the film (“You taste of America,” he tells him), which, at the least, will get recognition at next year’s MTV awards. No supporting performance this year has been so unique.
These are the reasons why Cohen should get nominated. Why might he get nominated?
Admittedly it’s still early in the Oscar season, but the usually crowded supporting actor field isn’t so crowded. You can go with Ben Affleck, if you want to downgrade his performance in “Hollywoodland” to a supporting role, or Alec Baldwin, if you want to upgrade his role in “The Departed” from mere cameo, or Donald Sutherland in “Aurora Borealis,” if anyone had bothered to see the film. But so far it’s an open field.
Another reason Cohen might get nominated? “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” in which he stars, looks to be a hit. It also looks to be controversial. If it’s both, the Academy, which gravitates towards popularity but shies away from controversy, might reward him for his role in one of the biggest comedies of the year. That, after all, is the Academy way.
Erik Lundegaard feels that the U.S. would get better results abroad if they promoted the third great French contribution to society rather than the first. He can be reached at: