Back in 2006 British TV comedian Sacha Baron Cohen took the world by storm when he wrote, produced, and starred in the outlandish mockumentary film “Borat.” The title character, a guileless Kazakh journalist, had already appeared in various projects over the preceding decade, including the HBO series “Da Ali G Show” and the 2002 film “Ali G Indahouse.” It was not until he was given his own film, however, that he truly broke into the zeitgeist and his creator experienced his greatest success.
Though he had a BAFTA Award and four Emmy bids to his name prior to “Borat,” Baron Cohen’s popularity rose to new heights upon the film’s release and his comedic genius attracted widespread acclaim. The film outgrossed “Ali G Indahouse” tenfold and became a serious awards contender in 2007. Baron Cohen ended up winning a Golden Globe for his acting and earned WGA and Oscar nominations for co-writing the screenplay. Since then, his credits have included lead roles in “Bruno” and “The Dictator” and supporting ones in Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd,” Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” and Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables.” Now, he may finally have another shot at Oscar glory for his most serious film role to date.
In the Netflix release “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” he portrays civil rights activist Abbie Hoffman, one of seven men who faced federal charges following a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The actor initially stays true to his image, playing Hoffman as a funnyman who spouts wisecracks in the courtroom and recounts flashback segments in the form of standup comedy. He is a hippie whose personality is as flashy as his clothes, but, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that he takes his activism very seriously and is willing to risk his life for political revolution. In the words of Peter Travers (ABC News), Baron Cohen “aces the dramatic demands of his role.”
Joe Morgenstern (The Wall Street Journal) writes that Baron Cohen’s “agility as a comic actor gives him the key to Hoffman’s quicksilver intelligence” and that he makes Hoffman “the movie’s most intriguing character.” Indeed, some of the film’s most impactful moments involve him showing off his dramatic chops, including a scene in which Hoffman testifies for the group and several in which he calmly yet passionately debates the much more straightlaced Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne). Their starkly different approaches toward the same goals of pacifism and equal rights are effectively conveyed by both actors and illustrate the film’s thematic foundation.
Last October, the decision was made to campaign the film’s entire, primarily male cast as supporting players, and Baron Cohen’s Oscar buzz began to grow as soon as he exited the crowded Best Actor field. That same month, he experienced an even greater surge in relevancy when “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” premiered on Amazon Prime Video. Despite its tonal differences compared to “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” both films been cited as very politically pertinent and are reflective of the actor’s own strongly held views. In 2018, he used his chameleonic talents to expose the ugly aspects of Americanism in the mutli-Emmy-nominated Showtime series “Who Is America?” and demonstrated then that his unique wit has only gotten sharper over time. This year, his likability, charisma, and impressive acting range are on full display like never before, and he appears primed for academy recognition.
The 49-year-old currently ranks second in our Best Supporting Actor race with 9/2 odds, behind only Leslie Odom, Jr. (“One Night in Miami”). His castmates, Mark Rylance and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, are in sixth and ninth place, respectively, while Frank Langella and Redmayne appear in the top 20. Just as he does in our ranking, Baron Cohen has stood far ahead of all of them during the critics awards season. So far, he has over a dozen nominations to his name, with wins from groups in Denver, Nashville, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Texas. The singular love for his performance and the good will surrounding him may indeed make him the favorite to snag the Oscar trophy.
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