And the first big winner at this weekend’s Academy Awards is... Sacha Baron Cohen. The British comedian won’t be getting within a country mile of a golden statuette, of course, but that hasn’t prevented him from already managing to successfully hijack Sunday’s event for PR purposes.
The red carpet was still being laid down on Hollywood Boulevard today as Baron Cohen deftly elevated himself to the event’s pre-eminent talking-point, as claim and furious counter-claim swirled over an alleged attempt to “ban” him from attending the ceremony.
Seeds of controversy were first planted earlier this week, when rumours surfaced that, in keeping with his habit of stepping out in character as one of his fictional alter-egos, Baron Cohen intended to show up at this year’s Oscars dressed as the protagonist from his forthcoming film, The Dictator.
The plan, quietly placed into the public domain by the movie’s studio, Paramount, was considered highly controversial by traditionalists. In the words of the Hollywood Reporter, they argued that it might “violate the sanctity” of an event which – rightly or wrongly - regards itself as a demure celebration of the craft of film-making, rather than an exercise in crass commercialism.
Baron Cohen plays a Middle Eastern military leader modelled on Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddaffi in the satirical film, which comes out in May and is directed by Larry Charles, his collaborator on Borat and Bruno. In a trailer unveiled last month, he wears a voluminous fake beard and sunglasses, along with a chest-fill of medals.
Aside from the question of commercialism, some of the more conservative voices within the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences feared that this might be a particularly distasteful comic avenue for one of their guests to pursue in light of recent events in Syria and elsewhere.
The managing director of membership for the organisation, Kimberly Rouch, duly telephoned Paramount on Wednesday with a stiff warning: that Baron Cohen, who was due to attend as a guest of the Studio, will now be unwelcome at the blue riband ceremony if he decides to show up dressed as his character.
“Unless they’re assured that nothing entertaining is going to happen on the Red Carpet, the Academy is not admitting Sacha Baron Cohen to the show,” a spokesman for Paramount promptly told the Deadline blog.
It, in turn, broke news of the controversy by publishing an item which claiming in its headline that the British actor had been unceremoniously “banned” from the occasion.
Amid the ensuing welter of publicity, the organisers of the Oscars yesterday took issue with Deadline’s interpretation of events, saying that they had merely reminded the actor’s hosts of their stiffly-enforced black-tie dress code.
"We haven't banned him. We're just waiting to hear what he's going to do,” said a spokesman. “His tickets haven't been pulled. We are waiting to hear back.”
But they were really arguing about semantics. Whether or not Baron Cohen has indeed been “banned,” from the 2012 Oscars, he has already achieved his number one aim: of garnering publicity for a summer movie billed as: “he heroic story of a dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.”