Brüno's Michael Jackson Problem

Sacha Baron Cohen’s upcoming comedy has many jokes at the expense of Michael and La Toya Jackson. Kim Masters on how the King of Pop’s death will affect the king of outrageous humor.

UPDATE: Universal Pictures released this statement about Brüno on Friday: "Out of respect for the Jackson family, the filmmakers have decided to remove a small scene involving LaToya Jackson.”

Michael Jackson’s death—and online images of a tearful La Toya Jackson running into the UCLA Medical Center—may be creating a dilemma for Universal Pictures and its upcoming release, Brüno.

The film, featuring Sacha Baron Cohen as an outrageous gay Austrian fashion maven, includes a sequence with Brüno conducting an interview with an unsuspecting La Toya Jackson, enticing her to eat sushi off the stomach of a nude Latino gardener and pestering her about her brother. Brüno tries to get Michael’s number from her phone.

“It wasn’t like they shot it and he was 85 years old and they expected him to die,” one executive says. “It’s just another one on the list of controversial issues surrounding Brüno.”

Good taste has never been a hallmark of Sacha Baron Cohen’s work, but given Michael Jackson’s death, this setup could jolt audiences out of the world that the film creates. Few film executives have seen the movie yet but based on early reports, they have mixed ideas about whether the sequence will be an issue.

“It so transgresses the question of taste—you cut it, I think,” says a former studio president not associated with the film. “You certainly have a conversation about it. You examine it very carefully.”

A veteran marketing executive disagrees. “It wasn’t like they shot it and [Michael Jackson] was 85 years old and they expected him to die,” she says. “It’s just another one on the list of controversial issues surrounding Brüno.” But if the Jackson family asks that the sequence be deleted, she adds, that will create a problem.

Another producer says the only issue is whether the scene still plays funny. “If events have overtaken it, they should take it out,” he says. But this close to the July 10 release date, he says, it’s possible that prints have already been struck. If they have, trimming the scene would cost millions of dollars. “I don’t know if that would be worth it. It would have to be really bad,” he says.

Hollywood is watching closely to see how Brüno will fare at the box office, given a controversial central character that either satirizes homophobia or encourages it, depending on your point of view. Universal is in need of a hit after misses like State of Play, Duplicity, and Land of the Lost.

Asked whether the studio will alter the film, a Universal executive yesterday shot back with two words: “Too soon.”

Kim Masters is the host of The Business, public radio's weekly show about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.