Peter Bart: Cohen the chameleon

'Borat' star a confusing character

Debate may rage over the various “best actor” awards this year, but to me it’s clear which newcomer has stirred the most attention.

Hello “Borat.” That is, Sacha Baron Cohen.

Of course, that’s his biggest problem — Cohen’s that is. To many, even in Hollywood, Borat and Cohen are the same person. I spent some time talking with him (them) last week, and the conversation didn’t clear up the confusion.

Cohen is a gifted satirist and clown who has complete disdain for the standard boundaries of good taste. Disdain is surely the key to his success.

But therein lies the dilemma. Borat, in character, is devastatingly candid about his quirks and prejudices, while Cohen, in character, is not only guarded but downright furtive. After talking with him for an hour or so, I had no idea who he was. Cohen, that is.

With kudo season at hand, Cohen’s strategists decided that it was time their star made himself known through select interviews and appearances. That’s good strategy, except Cohen has seemed disoriented by the process.

Indeed, the “coming out” of Borat-Cohen reminded me of my experience working with Peter Sellers on a movie called “Being There.” Sellers, like Cohen, was a brilliant mimic and clown. Along the way, however, Sellers somehow lost his own identity and became a star in search of a person.

I’m not saying this will happen to Sacha Baron Cohen, yet his presentation these last two weeks has been more Sellers-like than he might imagine.

“With all the litigation surrounding your film, will you have to change your methods in the future?” someone asked him during an onstage interview in New York.

“It’s been so warm in New York I didn’t even wear a coat,” was Cohen’s reply.

Asked about portraying his “Bruno” character in a future film, Cohen became squirmy (Universal has $42 million riding on this venture). “I think I want to sing in my next film,” he said cautiously.

Cohen’s agenda of items to discuss consistently differed from that of his interviewers. He was eager to volunteer that he never had his suit cleaned during the entire shooting schedule of “Borat,” for example, because “the smell is an added thing for people to believe — I’m from a country where hygiene isn’t a necessity.”

Cohen, on the other hand, was very open about his debt to his collaborators, especially his writing team. A scene like “The Running of the Jews” was quickly discussed and approved, he disclosed, while the size and coloration of the feces bag that was flourished in the dinner party scene required more detailed debate.

Is Sacha Baron Cohen simply putting us on, or will his film career prove to be as much of a non sequitur as his conversation? In short, is he really Peter Sellers? His reps point out that he is smart, Cambridge educated and fired by a fierce ambition.

They add something else: He’s a star.

King of the Avatars?

When Fox ran into budget problems on Jim Cameron’s “Titanic,” and the director effectively told his studio to go “stick it,” the studio turned to Paramount as its co-financing partner. In the end, it wasn’t a great deal: Fox remained responsible for the overages while Paramount got a nice cut of the profits.

Hence, it’s a delicious irony that a decade later, Fox has finally announced a new Cameron movie, called “Avatar,” only to learn that Paramount, too, is making a movie called “Avatar.”

Paramount’s project is fully titled “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and the studio says it has carefully registered this title with the Motion Picture Assn. of America. That’s usually pretty good protection. M. Night Shyamalan is adapting the Nickelodeon TV series into a movie franchise.

Cameron’s “Avatar,” by contrast, is a sci-fi action piece, but it’s surely far more than that. With his customary modesty, Cameron has been suggesting that filmmaking will never be the same in the post-“Avatar” epoch.

That is, in the post-“Avatar” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender” epoch.

Par’s prescient pundit

Companies habitually pay consultants to tell them what they want to hear. That was not the case with Bob Daly and Paramount, however.

When Tom Freston and Brad Grey were organizing their new Paramount regime, Bob Daly, long the seer of Warner Bros., was paid a considerable sum of money to make his recommendations. When Gail Berman’s name was suggested, he reminded the Paramount hierarchs that Berman’s background was in television and that someone with greater experience in features was needed. A generation ago, Brandon Tartikoff had a disastrous run at the studio after a brilliant run in television.

Daly is still on retainer, but Berman is no longer at the studio.

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