Sacha Baron Cohen and the Censors: Will Brüno Be NC-17?

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Sacha Baron Cohen as Brüno

I'd like to have seen the faces of the movie-ratings board members as they sat through the scene in Brüno where, according to the movie-business website the Wrap, the lead character, a gay Austrian fashion guru, "appears to have anal sex with a man on camera." And I can almost guarantee that Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays Brüno in the same-titled movie, would love to have watched them watching it.

As Ali G, as Borat and now as a gay Austrian fashion guru, Baron Cohen has fashioned a comedy career from a series of deadpan assaults on the propriety of unsuspecting citizens. He basically makes fun of naive people and exploits the weakness of their decency for our amusement and discomfort. What, then, could be more delicious for Baron Cohen than spying on the members of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings board — the de facto censorship committee of Hollywood movies — as they recoiled from the backdoor action onscreen and then had to consider saying no to one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the summer? Or, even worse, consider saying yes? Whether or not Baron Cohen had planned to put the scene in the final film, he could have jumped out at the end of the screening shouting, "You've been punk'd!" (See pictures of Kazakhstan at the time of Borat.)

But two can play at this game. Brüno, the Wrap's Sharon Waxman reported on Sunday, "has been slapped with an NC-17 rating on its first submission to the Motion Picture Association of America because of numerous sexual scenes that the ratings board considers over the line." The NC-17, which forbids admission to those under age 17, is a toxic label. Many theater chains won't play a film with that rating; some newspapers and TV networks won't advertise it; and retail behemoths like Wal-Mart won't stock the eventual DVD. (See the 100 best movies of all time.)

And movie companies, who want to squeeze every dollar out of young teens, hate to see their most reliable audience barred at the theater door. Not that moviemakers can't get away with a lot. Baron Cohen's last jape, the 2006 Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, contained a nude-wrestling scene that had the star's face in the genitals of his fat, hairy assistant — but it received wide distribution and grossed $129 million domestically on an $18 million budget because the MPAA withheld the taboo rating and gave it an R, which means kids are allowed if accompanied by adults (or if they can sneak into the indifferently policed auditoriums showing the film). Universal, the studio that paid $40 million for the U.S. rights to Brüno and will spend a like amount in prints and advertising, has already said it won't release an NC-17 version of the film.

So Brüno will have to get the less onerous R rating. "On its first submission, the film did not receive an R," said a Universal spokesman, sounding like an auto executive putting the best spin on a dressing-down by the Obama Administration, "but it is far too early to say that there is any struggle to get there." Translation: the version of Brüno shown to the MPAA was like an out-of-town tryout for a Broadway show or a novel's first draft — except that the script doctors, or editors, are outside agents with the power to tell Baron Cohen what he can leave in and what has to go.

In Hollywood, you see, the making of a movie involves two crucial groups of people: the creative team, who put it together, and the MPAA ratings board, which decides whether and in what form it can be shown if it is to win the magic R. In rare cases, a film's rating has been appealed to a higher committee, the MPAA's Supreme Court, and won. Generally, though, achieving a softer rating is a matter of negotiation. The board tells you what to take out, and you do it. Or they don't, and you have to guess.

And that can depend on who your backer is. Back in 2006, I reviewed This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Kirby Dick's polemical documentary about the MPAA board, which charged that the ratings system had a bias toward films from the big studios and against indie movies. I wrote: "Dick takes a deposition from Matt Stone, who created South Park with Trey Parker. Stone says that when their indie comedy Orgazmo was slapped with an NC-17, they were given no hints in cutting the film to get a less proscriptive rating. Yet two years later, when Paramount was behind their movie South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, the board, according to Stone, offered explicit help in which scenes might be softened or removed to achieve an R." (See pictures of great animated movies.)

For the moment, Baron Cohen is doubtless playing the uncompromising artist, insisting that every frame of his film be shown as is; and Universal, I'd guess, is exerting its muscle both on the MPAA to approve a version with some shock value and on their star-auteur to throw the board a few boners and get the damn R. Baron Cohen shoots a lot of footage in his docucomedies, and, the studio spokesman told Waxman, "With the quantity of material available, I cannot foresee a problem. It's not even April and the film comes out July 10, so it's nonsense to say there's a struggle of any kind."

But part of Baron Cohen's appeal is his desire to push the envelope, and then burn it. He wants his fans to consider if his work is revelatory or predatory, and to ask, just a little, "Is he nuts?" Indeed, so fervid is the actor's belief in the cleansing power of confrontational comedy, so extreme is his commitment to the characters he plays — he's a Method farceur, a Daniel Day-Lewis with a sadistic sense of humor — that I wouldn't be surprised if Brüno did go backdoor with that guy, on camera. (The actor could tell his fiancée, actress Isla Fisher, that he was just being true to the process.) And I wonder if Baron Cohen isn't urging his sponsors to release the uncut version of Brüno — and forcing them to decide if he's serious or if he's punking them. (See pictures of the 2009 BAFTAs.)

Honestly, though, it doesn't matter. These aren't the '70s, when directors like Sam Peckinpah, Ken Russell and Bernardo Bertolucci had a more serious and reckless sense of cinematic adventure than filmmakers do now, when they took an X rating (as the NC-17 was called then) to insure that their visions reached the screen — and when a film existed only in the version that was shown in theaters. Today, the theatrical release is often just a teaser for the "unrated" DVD, like a hardcover book that implicitly promises a smuttier paperback. It's as if, back in the '50s, the hardcover edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover was censored, but the paperback had all the naughty bits. Wal-Mart won't sell NC-17 movies, but they readily peddle the gross-out versions of comedies that were originally rated R.

So all the hullabaloo over Brüno isn't so much a debate over artistic integrity or the protection of children's sensibilities as it is early ballyhoo for the DVD edition. You'll most likely see a slightly sanitized version of the movie when it opens in July. Then, when the digital version comes out in October, you can watch Sacha Baron Cohen apparently have anal sex with a man on camera. Commerce and art — or, if you will, propriety and obscenity — will be neatly served, one on the big screen, the other on the small.

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