Was it all stage-managed from the start? The "will he, won't he?" battle over Sacha Baron Cohen's appearance at tonight's Oscar ceremony has ended with victory for the comic actor, who will now be a focus of attention at this year's awards.
For some, however, the last-minute U-turn, allowing the actor to attend in character as his latest alter ego has all the hallmarks of a slick marketing exercise. It is the Oscars, after all.
Initially, Cohen had been barred from appearing in character as Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen, from his new film The Dictator, about the leader of a fictional Middle Eastern country called Wadiya.
But after a high-profile to-and-fro conducted in the glare of the public eye, Oscars organisers apparently relented when a producer of the show revealed that Cohen would now be showing up in Hollywood in costume. He will not only walk on the famed red carpet wearing a full beard, wig and elaborate dress uniform but will then attend the show, raising the prospect of some sort of stunt during the ceremony itself.
Cohen – or rather Aladeen – reacted in triumph to the news. "Victory is ours! Today the Mighty Nation of Wadiya triumphed over the Zionist snakes of Hollywood," he said on a statement on a fake Wadiya website set up to promote the film. "What I am trying to say here is that the Academy has surrendered and sent over two tickets and a parking pass!
"Today Oscar, tomorrow Obama!"
Aladeen has already been all over the US airwaves, after Cohen phoned the Today Show to fume in character about being barred from the Oscars. "Usually, I would be impressed by an act of cowardice by a faceless regime, but this is personal," he said.
But now The Dictator will get one of the most lucrative marketing boosts imaginable. The Oscars is one of the biggest events on the US cultural calendar and hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide will essentially watch a free plug for The Dictator, which is to be released later this year. Cohen himself was given tickets to the Oscars because of his role in the hit film Hugo, which has netted 11 nominations.
The stunt is typical Cohen. When he was promoting a film about outlandish gay Austrian fashionista Bruno, he descended from the ceiling at an MTV awards show and landed in the lap of rapper Eminem. The rapper stormed out, but later revealed that he had been in on the joke.
The details of the Oscars ceremony require months of planning and it is unlikely that last-minute changes would be made to it. Some insiders have wondered whether the 11th-hour argument over Cohen's participation was genuine or just a way to generate some useful press coverage before the event.
"Was he ever truly prohibited from attending?" asked one Reuters story about the controversy. Certainly, both sides are set to benefit from Baron Cohen's appearance. For Oscar organisers, the argument over Cohen's role might just persuade extra viewers to tune in out of the hope that the actor's latest character does something bizarre and unexpected. Meanwhile, the backers of The Dictator get the sort of exposure which a Hollywood publicist could usually only dream of.
Whatever its true status, the spat has all added up to a shot-in-the-arm for the Oscar ceremony after several years in which the show was widely considered lacklustre. Indeed, this year's Oscars have been marked by a deep-rooted nostalgia for the glory days of decades past, rather than any sense of looking towards a vibrant future.
The Hollywood and Highland Centre in which the ceremony will take place has been decked out to resemble a "timeless movie theatre" – a long way away from the laptops and iPads on which many films are watched these days. The nomination list also has a distinctly nostalgic feel. The top tip for best film, The Artist, is a silent black and white movie and itself a homage to a long-lost Hollywood era. Hugo is also distinctly nostalgic in tone and features the work of a silent film great. It was directed by Martin Scorsese, an auteur known for his reverence for Hollywood history.
Meanwhile, other films that have received nominations, such as My Week With Marilyn, celebrate bygone stars – such as Marilyn Monroe – or bygone times, such as Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, which is set in the French capital during the 1920s. Organisers have even abandoned last year's modernist innovation of inviting two young stars – in the form of Anne Hathaway and James Franco – to host the ceremony. Their performance, especially Franco's, was seen as a flop and, instead, organisers have brought back veteran host Billy Crystal in yet another throwback move.
It is Crystal's ninth turn as Oscars host, second only to comedian Bob Hope who performed the duty no fewer than 18 times.
Web site design by Burgess Powers