6 movie roles that show off Sacha Baron Cohen’s acting talent

November 17, 2020
He burst onto our screens way back at the turn of the millennium as the outrageous faux-gangster Ali G. In the twenty years or so since, Sacha Baron Cohen has shocked and entertained the world in a string of roles that have demonstrated his diverse acting talent.

Whether it be dressing up as President Trump in his latest creation, or strolling down the street in a full-body G-String, his character Borat is one of the most popular parodies of all time. But it’s not just comedy that Cohen is known for: his ability to provide serious performances, as well as laugh-out-loud moments, means that he’s often cast in some of the biggest movies around. Here’s a look at some of them.

Les Miserables – sleazy innkeeper

You might not have had Baron Cohen down as a talented singer, but his role as crooked innkeeper Monsieur Thénardier in this classic musical allows him to show off his vocal range. Alongside on-screen wife Helena Bonham Carter, he runs a sordid hotel which serves as a backdrop to plotting, bribery and blackmail.

The role also allows him to display his extravagant acting ability. Striding around in a military uniform, he’s a commanding on-screen presence as he conspires to make life as difficult as possible for lead character Jean Valjean.

While he might not have won as many plaudits as Anne Hathaway in the film – the actress won one of the film’s three Oscars for her supporting role – Baron Cohen still plays an important part in providing some of the complex back story to the movie.

Sweeney Todd – Italian barber

While cast in another musical role, this movie sees Baron Cohen in a different look altogether – as flamboyant Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli, Sweeney Todd’s hated rival.

The actor’s towering height and unusual face suit the role perfectly, and his flamboyant acting style comes to the fore in an entertaining shaving contest with Sweeney Todd.

The film was hailed as the finest of 2007 by one critic and won a string of awards including an Oscar and two Golden Globes. Baron Cohen won high praise for his role.

Unfortunately for character Pirelli, though, the movie sees him humiliated at the hands of Todd, and subject to a predictably gruesome ending for someone who dares to come up against the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Anti-war activist

Baron Cohen manages to inject some humour into a serious situation through his role as anti-Vietnam activist Abbie Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin’s drama. Central to the movie are the epic courtroom battles between Hoffman and the prosecution, where Cohen’s enigmatic speaking skills really bring his character to life, and his scenes with fellow actor Eddie Redmayne show just how passionate the protest movement was.

The film was originally set to premiere in cinemas before the COVID-19 pandemic, but Paramount sold its distribution rights to Netflix instead. At the time of writing, this is the only way to legally view the movie, which is great if you already have a subscription. For those that don’t, the company do offer regular free trials – a tactic used by many online companies as a way of giving the customer a taste of their products, in the form of things like gift cards and no deposit casino bonuses. As such, this is a great way to watch Cohen’s virtuoso performance for free.

Hugo – Railway stationmaster

Perhaps the most critically acclaimed of all Baron Cohen’s movies, Hugo won five Oscars for its moving portrayal of an orphan living alone in a Paris railway station. Cast as the pompous stationmaster Inspector Dasté, Baron Cohen is superb as his character torments the boy, threatening to send him to an orphanage.

While the inspector is a real bad guy in the movie, Cohen’s acting range allows him to project a vulnerable side to the character. His leg brace from a war injury offers a hint to the insecurity that powers his menacing behaviour, and director Martin Scorsese saw Cohen as the ideal actor to play such a complex role.

Although a box office disaster, the movie is a classic, drawing on social themes of poverty and hierarchy. Baron Cohen helps to present the fearsome nature of authority in 1930s Paris, while maintaining a human side to his character. Always worth a watch.

The Madagascar trilogy – a king lemur

Baron Cohen first dived into the cartoon world in the original Madagascar movie in 2005 – an entertaining tale about a zany bunch of animals who break free from a New York zoo, only to find themselves transported to Africa where things are much more wild than they imagined.

There’s Marty the zebra, Alex the lion and Melman the giraffe, all contributing their own unique personalities to the chaos, but it’s Baron Cohen’s King Junior – a self-centred lemur – who steals the show. His version of hit song ‘I Like to Move It’ became a global smash, played at kids’ parties all over the world. But it’s how the character came into being that’s the most intriguing part.

Originally Cohen and King Junior were only due to have a two-line part, but the actor’s improvised eight-minute audition — using an accent based on his own lawyer’s — convinced the movie’s producers that the character needed more airtime. It led to him playing a central part throughout the Madagascar series.

Talladega Nights – Formula One driver

Although Sacha Baron Cohen’s breakthrough Hollywood role, it remains one of his most memorable. As arrogant French driver Juan Girard, he brings all his flamboyance to the fore – reading Camus while driving, smoking ultra-thin cigarettes and generally antagonising Will Ferrell’s character Ricky Bobby.

While there are flashes of Borat in this character by the way he seeks to provoke those around him, Baron Cohen still shines in his unique take of a comedy bad boy. Moto journalist Leo Parente described it as the most accurate racing film he’d ever seen, unsarcastically, which goes to show the great job that all of the actors did – even if it was a comedy.


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