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‘Borat was so 2006,” the tagline for Brüno reads, but Sacha Baron Cohen’s lavender Molotov cocktail is very 1882—the year Oscar Wilde arrived in the U.S. to give an infamous lecture tour that lasted 10 months. Wilde was the first foreign flaming creature to arrive on our shores to provoke; nearly a century would pass before two other Euro-homos, Quentin Crisp and Rosa von Praunheim, would shake things up stateside. Though Baron Cohen may fall at the opposite end of the Kinsey scale from his nellie creation, Brüno has now become part of the pantheon of sodomite outsiders looking in. Below, more on the three who paved his way:
“I have nothing to declare but my genius.”
So Wilde is reported to have said when he arrived in New York City on the S.S. Arizona. Though Brüno seems to declare nothing but his anus when he lands at LAX, both provocateurs left the Old World seeking greater fame. Wilde, speaking up to six times a week, lectured on aestheticism, dropping, as Richard Ellmann notes in his indispensable biography Oscar Wilde, truth bombs like, “We spend our days looking for the secret of life. Well, the secret of life is art.” Both Wilde and Brüno criss-crossed the States, making stops in Alabama: the Austrian flamer to go hunting in Cullman County, Wilde to speak at the Frascati Amusement Park in Mobile. Brüno’s leopard-skin singlets and ass-cheek-revealing hot pants cause double-takes, much as Wilde’s knee breeches and silk stockings “polarized opposition.”
Ellmann’s summary of Wilde’s speaking engagements—”His tour was a series of more or less successful confrontations in which his flagrant and unconventional charm was pitted against conventional maleness and resultant suspicion”—could just as easily describe Brüno’s gonzo methods. Wilde’s doctrines, frequently dismissed as effeminate, “constituted the most determined and sustained attack upon materialistic vulgarity that America had seen,” as Ellmann notes. Baron Cohen’s fruity alter-id aims for the same, going after the more debased aspects of our culture: celebrities, PR consultants, stage parents, ex-gay ministers, talk-show audiences, and cage-match enthusiasts. Even the writer’s temperament—”Wilde sought no enemies, and managed to be kind even to the incompetent,” Ellmann says—seems reflected in Brüno’s duplicitous naïveté.
“When I was young, a homosexual man was thought to be effeminate.”
With his glossy lips and limp wrists, swish Brüno plays into the horror and disgust of the femme fag—just like Quentin Crisp (reminiscing above). Londoner Crisp, whose ease with epigrams led many to think of him as an heir to Wilde, first came to New York in 1978 to tour with his one-man show, later moving to Gotham for good as a septuagenarian in 1981. The rouged, scarf-draped raconteur, who died in 1999, proffered opinions that were equal parts self-regard and self-loathing. In his foreword to his 1996 book, Resident Alien: The New York Diaries, Crisp sniffs, “The gay community, because it insists on being equal with real people, has decided that homosexual men are not an inferior race and so parade an egregious masculine image. . . . They mate with other gargoyles of masculinity, scorning or regarding with pitying contempt those of us who cannot rise to such manliness.” Crisp would surely approve of Brüno’s emphatically un-butch romantic choices (a pygmy flight attendant, Milli of Milli Vanilli) and how doggedly the Austrian’s “bride” gives chase.
“Fashion has to be a second skin, which suggests the size of the cock.”
Brüno quite literally demonstrates the above, one of several scathing lines from Rosa von Praunheim’s incendiary first feature, It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse But the Society in Which He Lives (1971), a savage attack on gay-male self-destruction. But just as Baron Cohen’s Viennese fagshionista has some LGBT groups worked up, so did the Berlin-based von Praunheim’s film provoke queer wrath when it played in New York in 1972. After presenting It Is Not at the Gay Activists Alliance headquarters in Soho, von Praunheim engaged, as Vito Russo notes in The Celluloid Closet, in “an intense confrontation” with the audience, who “expected a gay liberation film from Germany; instead they discovered that von Praunheim had made a film which attacked them mercilessly.” Undeterred by this reception, von Praunheim continued making films about gay life in the States; in 1979’s Army of Lovers or Revolt of the Perverts, the director, expressing the importance of making the private public, asks his students at the San Francisco Art Institute to film him having sex with a porn star, lustily engaging in acts that Brüno can only pantomime.