OK, that unsightly encounter on Sunday’s MTV Movie Awards between Bruno and Eminem—aka Sacha Baron Cohen and Marshall Mathers—was a complete fake. We have it on the authority of MTV flacks and the show’s Twittering head writer, Scott Aukerman, that the two entertainment icons actually rehearsed the climactic moment in which Cohen’s flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion correspondent character—wearing white-feathered wings and a buttcrack-revealing thong—was lowered from the ceiling onto the rapper’s snarling face.
Arse to arse, as it were.
At which point Mathers screamed “Are you serious?—get him off me!” followed by an explosion of bleeped profanities, and then stormed out of the Gibson Theater with his equally rage-filled bodyguards. It sure looked real—wardrobe malfunction as psychodrama.
Not since Mothra descended on Godzilla—also, by the way, a manufactured clash—has there been such excitement in the popular culture. But I’m not so sure it was all that funny (never mind the camera angle on a giggly Cameron Diaz) and I’m not sure I want to see Cohen psychically assault a bunch of unsuspecting fashionistas when his latest big-budget ambush-mockumentary, Bruno, is released next month by Universal Pictures.
The Cambridge-educated Londoner, who hails from an Orthodox Jewish family of impressive intellectual attainment, has gotten rich off of his comically thuggish and ignorant characters (namely Borat and Ali G) who regularly make fools of the high and mighty and, with increasing frequency, ordinary innocents in the service of cheap laughs.
The white rap star from Detroit, who is equally talented but otherwise unlettered, has made a fortune of his own from bracing performances of occasionally misogynistic and homophobic ditties—some of it hate-speech directed at his mother—while impersonating a not-so-comically thuggish character.
Eminem, who likewise has product to move (his CD Relapse debuted May 19), had almost succeeded in rehabilitating himself from the debacle of a previous MTV appearance years ago in which he manhandled Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and bullied the bald, bespectacled Moby. On Sunday I even thought he might be a sympathetic victim—that is, when many fans believed that the faceoff was the real deal—and wondered if he had grounds to sue.
But prominent entertainment lawyer David H. Chidekel set me straight. “The only thing that Eminem could really sue for here are damages,” he told The Daily Beast’s Cate Smithson. “First, he could sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and second, assault—unwanted touching where you feel some emotional response.” But “Eminem’s case wouldn’t be very strong,” Chidekel went on. “He’s a little nutty—what, is he going to go to his shrink and prove that he hasn’t slept in three days over [the incident]?...Everybody knows Sacha Baron Cohen does these kinds of things.”
Indeed, he does. New York magazine’s film critic David Edelstein offered a rare cautionary note amid all the raves for Cohen’s 2006 hit, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Cataloguing the movie’s many instances of cruelty and humiliation inflicted on people who believed they were only trying to be hospitable to a foreign visitor, Edelstein observed: “Most clowns have a wide streak of sadism, but it’s tempting to think of Sacha Baron Cohen as a sadist with a wide streak of clownishness.” As if to confirm Edelstein’s speculation, at a premiere party for a different movie in Manhattan, the 6-foot-4 Cohen grabbed the throat and squeezed the windpipe of a working Daily News photographer who had the gall to do his job and take his picture. Cohen wasn’t joking.
All of which makes me less than amused by this latest display of cultural coarsening that sank us even lower, if possible, than the cheesiest reality-TV show. When I see a looming celebrity gluteus, something inside me fairly shrieks: I’m a civilian, get me out of here! And as for Bruno and Eminem, a plague on both those louses.
Lloyd Grove is a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.