BRUNO Reconsidered: It’s Not About Homophobia

bruno2“You never looked it up?  It never occurred to you?”, snipped an exasperated Ann Coulter to Chris Matthews during a 2003 TV interview as reported in the magazine The Nation.  What Matthews had supposedly failed to research sufficiently was why George C. Scott had refused to accept his Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the 1970 film Patton.

But Ann Coulter knew why.  Before I get to her explanation, I should say I don’t rely on Ann Coulter for information about Hollywood films of the 1970’s. There are recognized scholars and critics I can turn to for that, but I would hope if Ms. Coulter voiced an opinion, she would at least keep it grounded to events that occurred on planet Earth.  Sadly, this is not Ann Coulter’s way.

The truth is, when George C. Scott received his first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for the 1959 film Anatomy Of A Murder, he was so excited that his desire to become an Oscar winner literally took over his life. So, when he lost the Oscar to Hugh Griffith for Ben-Hur, Scott was devastated. Taking a long hard look at himself in the mirror, Scott concluded that it simply wasn’t healthy to crave some measly acting award that badly, so he decided he would never again have anything to do with the Oscars.

And he never did. Nominated again as Best Supporting Actor in 1962 for The Hustler, Scott refused to even accept the nomination; same again in 1972 when he was nominated for The Hospital. Likewise, he refused his Best Actor nomination for Patton, but by that time George C. Scott’s penchant for refusing Oscar nominations wasn’t news as he had been doing it steadfastly for about a decade. However, on April 15, 1971 when Scott actually won the coveted Oscar for his powerhouse portrayal of the brilliant, but erratic WWII general and he was not there to collect it, that WAS news. His acting Oscar was accepted by the film’s producer Frank McCarthy and (according to Scott’s instructions) returned to the offices of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences where it sits today, still uncollected.

My point in relating this story is that all of the information about George C. Scott and his Oscar-phobia can be easily found in magazine articles, biographical books and historical accounts by Scott’s contemporaries, along with many newspaper, radio, film and TV interviews.

But ordinary research is not for Ann Coulter. As she explained it to Chris Matthews, Scott refused his Oscar because the liberal filmmakers who made Patton had fully intended to do a hatchet job on the patriotic general, but somehow, because of their cinematic ineptitude, they made a film that presented George Patton in a heroic light, much to their unmitigated disgust.

So despite Patton getting ten Oscar nominations and winning seven (most of which were enthusiastically accepted), the evil Hollywood liberals showed their twin contempt for both General Patton and America by having a notoriously cranky actor refuse to collect his acting Oscar. Ann Coulter’s story is demonstrable lunacy.

So, what is the lesson here? That Hollywood films sometimes have unintended consequences? That’s true, although not in the case of Patton (the film was a commercial and critical success, indeed, everything it was supposed to be). That Ann Coulter is an ass? No one argues against that, including the people who like her, no, the lesson here is, be careful about ascribing motivations for the making of any film because you may be way off base.

Which allows me to segue from Patton to Bruno, two film titles I never thought I could ever get into the same sentence. In the new film Bruno, we follow another Sacha Baron Cohen character as he commingles with the American public, but because Bruno’s a flamboyant homosexual, it is somehow assumed that the whole point of the film Bruno is to explore/exploit homophobia in America. I am not convinced of this however. It seems like the public is once again taking their intellectual cues from media critics and TV commentators, but they are just being lazy thinkers if you ask me.

Consider Sacha Baron Cohen’s previous film Borat which dealt with a wide-eyed, but aggressively clueless TV personality from Kazakhstan (can you name a city in Kazakhstan?) who traveled across America to learn what makes our country great and to hopefully take those lessons back to Kazakhstan. Yet, because Borat Sagdiyev was a foreigner, most critics viewed Borat as some kind of harsh commentary on America’s innate isolationism and xenophobia.

I beg to differ.  It’s true Borat Sagdiyev misunderstood many things American and committed numerous faux-pas; he referred to African Americans as “chocolate faces”, he screwed up a simple driving lesson, wrecked a genteel Southern dinner party by inviting along a fat black prostitute and massacred our national anthem while singing it at a rodeo. But throughout it all, the harried and exasperated Americans he dealt with (mostly) bent over backwards to be gracious, polite, tolerant and helpful.

If the ordinary Americans in Borat showed any temper or strain, it was only because Borat often times acted like an incorrigible asshole. But deep down, the American people liked Borat and they wanted to help him. They recognized that he was a stranger in a strange land and understood they probably wouldn’t do much better if they had to fend for themselves in Kazakhstan.

So, while a superficial reading of Borat could be nothing more than ugly Americans living up to a bad stereotype, a better reading I think, showed contemporary Americans being very tolerant and forgiving toward a foreign guest from hell. If anything, it was Borat Sagdiyev who was the xenophobe, culturally stuck in Kazakhstan. His anti-Semitism never wavered, he was constantly insulting Uzbekistanis and did he really think he could kidnap Pamela Anderson with impunity and take her back to Kazakhstan to work the plow on his farm?

bruno3So what is it in Bruno that gives people the idea the film is out to expose homophobia?  The film Bruno begins with Bruno getting fired from his Austrian TV show Funkyzeit and then being banished from the European fashion world because he accidentally disrupted a runway show. So, with no marketable skills other than an ability to be “fabulous”, the self-involved, ego-centric, fame-whore Bruno comes to the only place in the world where those character flaws could actually be considered assets, Los Angeles.

What is Bruno’s only goal? It’s to become world famous. That’s it. And we soon learn that he will do virtually anything, step on anyone, use and abuse everyone towards that less than noble goal. But a funny thing happened on the way to Bruno’s worldwide fame, I came to like and respect him a lot.

Bruno immediately realizes that in order to be famous, he has to get on TV and it is while in Los Angeles that Bruno makes a pilot for a vacuous celebrity chat show that is test screened before a focus group of ordinary people. This chat show consists of endless shots of Bruno dancing in revealing leopard skin outfits, interviews with “B” list celebrities insulting the fetuses of “D” list celebrities, a fleeting dismissal from Harrison Ford as he races to catch a plane and a big floppy penis that shouts the name BRUNO!  Not surprisingly, the focus group doesn’t like this show, but is Bruno’s talk show really all that terrible?  It’s hardly the dumbest thing that has ever been on television.

bruno5So, with television now closed to him, Bruno figures that making an illicit sex tape with someone famous is the next best step on his climb to fame (I bet you can name more celebrity sex tapes than you can cities in Kazakhstan) and this leads him to interview the independent presidential candidate Ron Paul (who Bruno endearingly refers to as RuPaul). Things take a turn for the bizarre when Bruno traps Ron Paul in a hotel bedroom and after putting on soft light and sexy music, he makes inappropriate advances on the septuagenarian candidate by telling him he’s cuter than Enrique Iglesias and forces poor Ron Paul to run away like a scared little kid.

The real wonder is that Ron Paul stayed put in the hotel room as long as he did.  I was completely on his side, yes, Ron Paul called Bruno a “Queer!” when he ran away, but I would have said much worse and I’m gay myself.

The humor impaired may wonder where the joke is here? Well, it’s in the sad fact that a candidate running for President of the United States who is unconnected to either the Republicans or the Democrats is so marginalized that he is forced to take media face time with any idiot with a TV camera who will give it to him because it’s the only way he can get his message out.  Some people saw homophobia in the Ron Paul scenes; I saw an arch comment on our political system.

Likewise, Bruno’s decision to adopt a poor child from Africa as a means to get the illusive fame he craves (I bet you can name more celebrities with adopted African children than you can cities in Kazakhstan) leads to one of the most gut-bustlingly funny and strange scenes I have ever seen in any movie.

bruno1Poor Bruno ends up facing down an audience of angry black citizens in Dallas on The Richard Bey Show, a daytime confrontational talk show that makes Geraldo Rivera seem respectable and he tries to justify his love for the little black child he traded for an iPod in Ghana. The audience is flabbergasted by the seeming callousness of this, but truly, I wonder what Madonna or Angelina Jolie paid to get their African babies?

I think the audiences hostility towards Bruno has less to do with the fact that he’s gay and more to do with his European or more specifically, his Teutonic arrogance coupled with his ignorance about Africa (and America) combined with his blithe carelessness towards his young black baby who he has given the “great African-American name of OJ”. The TV audience seemed more upset by the picture of little OJ nailed up on a cross as a black baby Jesus than they did of little OJ in a hot tub with Bruno and his male friends. The sequence ends with a woman from the Texas Child Welfare Department coming out and taking little OJ (a more sweet tempered child I’ve never seen) away from Bruno who is devastated. And I was too. This is where Bruno really deviates from Borat in significant ways. Borat was a funny travelogue, but little else; Bruno has scenes of real drama in it.

I mean it when I say I respected Bruno and I liked his clear sense of who he was. He’s gay and doesn’t care if that bothers you, which is why I was intrigued about where the film Bruno would go when Bruno realizes that to be famous in America, in all but a few isolated cases, you have to be (or at least pretend to be), straight. So Bruno goes to Alabama for lessons from a Christian group that helps turn gay men straight through the love of Jesus; the savior with those blue eyes, that blond hair, and those killer abs!  Yeah, that’ll work. These turn out to be some of the most funny/sad sequences in the film, for no other reason than the asshole ministers who do this kind of thing are unbelievable creeps. I mean, even the worst kind of Christian recognizes these scumbags are either out and out frauds or self-deluded charlatans. If there is a God, I know these fools are going to be punished big time.

I liked how Bruno told the one pastor that his lips looked liked they’d be great for giving blowjobs and Pastor dick-lips only response was that his lips were “made for praising Jesus”. Not missing a beat, Bruno reiterates his point, “No, your lips were made for something else, you’re just not using them for that.” A perfect response and Pastor dick-lips did not know what to say.

Still, it’s hard not to admire Bruno and his complete contempt for authority. During a scene where Bruno tries to butch it up by getting some military training, I like how he insulted his drill instructor by saying he could “be a general in the bitch Army!” I have never met any heterosexual man with enough balls to talk back to a drill sergeant. But Bruno did! Likewise, how does Bruno handle those odious Fred Phelps nitwits? He runs right in their midst shackled to his sex partner in all types of weird fetish gear and complains that his male trick is about to shit on his balls.

It is very gratifying to see those horrible people from the Westboro Baptist church with their “God Hates Fags” signs run away in fear and I mean total fear. They did not know what to do! Apparently Bruno isn’t one of those nice fags who will stand around and suffer their insulting existence with quiet dignity. Yes, they have a right to espouse their loathsome politics, but gays have a right to jeer back at them mercilessly and we should, each time we see them, every where we see them.

bruno4One of the subplots in Bruno is similar to a subplot in Borat. In the earlier film, Borat has a falling out with his producer Azamat and they go their separate ways for part of the film. Same thing happens to Bruno and his loyal assistant Lutz, but in this case, we all know that Bruno and Lutz are actually meant for each other and I despaired when they separated.

So, at the finale, when Bruno has transformed himself into “Straight Dave” and is now promoting himself in cage fights, when he gets challenged by someone in the audience calling him a faggot and he demands the guy come into the cage to get his ass kicked and it turns out to be Lutz, I was startled by the initial savagery of the fight, but then their initial battering soon turned into kisses and hugs and other lovey-dovey moves all accompanied by the strains of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic. And the drunken, mostly male heterosexual audience went wild and they screamed and threw their beer cups, snack wrappers and other trash into the cage.

Two observations, one, by this point in the film I was involved with Bruno and Lutz and cared about them and was really happy to see them get back together and two, don’t drunken, mostly male heterosexual audiences get wild at ordinary wrestling matches and cage fights? Isn’t throwing beer cups, snack wrappers and other trash a common occurrence at events like this anyway?

How does the same audience doing the same thing they would do if they were liquored up at a similar kind of event comprise homophobia in this context? It doesn’t according to me although there are wonderful shots of people reacting to the two men in the cage kissing each other instead of kicking each other’s ass. In their eyes you can see the kind of disassociation seen on the Titanic or at Chernobyl. The audience simply could not process what they were seeing initially. And when they did, they jeered like audiences do when served bread and circuses and then went to get more beer.

Which brings me to my final observation. There was a scene from the 1967 film In The Heat Of The Night when Sidney Poitier a police detective from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is in a small Mississippi town assisting in the investigation of a racially charged murder.

One of the suspects Mr. Endicott (Larry Gates), is a condescending rich white guy who spouts patronizing nonsense about how Negroes are like a certain type of orchid in that they take lots of care and feeding in order to reach their potential as if black people were like cows giving thin milk.

Well, Sidney Poitier is having none of this and he continues to ask tough questions about Endicott’s whereabouts and activities. Our rich white man is not used to getting the third degree from a Negro and during a particularly heated exchange, he slaps Sidney Poitier in the face and Poitier immediately slaps him back, hard. Not used to this, and quivering with rage, Endicott asks Sheriff Gillespie (played by Oscar winner Rod Steiger), if he saw this slapping. Gillespie says he saw it.

“What are you going to do about it?” asks Mr. Endicott now seething in impotent fury.

“I don’t know”, comes the measured response from Gillespie.

I believe this is what they call a paradigm shift. Once upon a time in America, a black man slapping a white man would have meant almost instant death for the black man no matter who he was or what his reason for slapping the white man was, but after that scene from In The Heat Of The Night, that was no longer true mostly. The world had changed.

A paradigm shift is something rarely seen in movies and even less in real life, but occasionally they happen. Bruno may have that kind of affect on America. It won’t be immediate, but I think it will be more far reaching because the joke in Bruno is not against gays, but against the kind of shallow people who desire fame above all else. And the fact that Bruno is gay is inconsequential to that plot development. When Poitier slapped Endicott, the balance of power was shifted and the rich white guy was no longer automatically the top dog. I think Bruno may have a similar effect. At least I hope so.  I’m getting pretty sick of being treated like a second-class citizen and Bruno’s ability to just be himself (however shallow that may be) amid the chaos of contemporary America gives me hope.

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