This article is part of our 2020 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, we explain why Rudy Giuliani’s appearance in Borat Subsequent Film is our pick for Scene of the Year.
There is a sickening sort of serendipity to our 2020 scene of the year. It’s sickening because it’s vile in nature and could not exist in its particular monstrosity if we lived under an even remotely ethical administration, perhaps one that valued human life over capital gain, egotism, legal gymnastics, or getting some at any cost. But it’s serendipitous for the same reasons.
In the undeniable state of things, a rarified peek behind the curtain at one of the nation’s most historically rotten lawyer-politicians becomes a damning affirmation of the deceitful and unconscionable behavior exhibited by Donald Trump and his administration since day one. It’s the kind of thing we wish didn’t exist, but as long as it does, we’re glad it’s on camera. Our scene of the year is the Rudy Giuliani bedroom scene in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
A prominent real-world villain, Giuliani has been the focus of an enormous number of perturbing and humiliating headlines in 2020. But he’s gone above and beyond by accidentally regurgitating his villainy in the cinematic realm, thanks to Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his “non-male son,” Tutar (newcomer Maria Bakalova). The incriminating sequence lasts about twenty-five seconds, but it can all be captured in one shot of Giuliani lying down on the hotel bed digging around in his pants.
The president’s personal attorney thought he was signing on for an interview, but he didn’t realize the woman interviewing him was Bakalova in character as Borat’s successfully estranged daughter, or that the crew was the Borat sequel team incognito. In the suite’s living room, with TV cameras on both of them, Tutar conducts a painfully cringey interview in which Giuliani becomes flirtatious, an awful sight to behold in the context of a seventy-six-year-old sleaze and a twenty-four-year-old journalist. After some brief tomfoolery from Borat posing as the boom mic operator, the two are left alone, and Tutar leads Giuliani into the bedroom with his whiskey in tow.
This is a candid camera moment. That’s partly what makes it so great/terrible. Giuliani has no idea he’s on tape. Once in the bedroom, he instructs Tutar to “come here” so he can take her mic off. She winces visibly as he does so, the only moment in the movie in which we see through her character. Giuliani, however, does not. Unbothered by her reaction, he lays on the bed for her to help him take off his mic. She takes it off for him and turns around slowly to put it on the table. Mic out of the question (this will be important later), Giuliani fishes around in his pants while eyeing her from the bed.
Just when things start to seem too disturbing to keep watching, Borat — in women’s lingerie and a cheap, shaggy-gray-haired American disguise — bursts in with one of the film’s funniest lines: “Put down your chram! She fifteen. She too old for you.” Giuliani bounces up off the bed flustered and quickly makes way to the security guard standing watch outside the door to figure out what the hell is going on. Baron Cohen and Bakalova, still improvising in character, follow him closely, begging for his sexual attention.
“I’m better than him,” says Tutar. “No, I better. My back pussy very tight,” Borat retorts. “No, please, my front anus!” Tutar shouts at a confused Giuliani. After Baron Cohen offers some prison-rate fellatio tricks and expresses disappointment in the absence of golden showers, Giuliani calls the cops and disappears down the hall, and our father-daughter combo flees.
That’s the description of the scene within the narrative of the film. But consider the description of the scene from the production’s point of view. In setting Giuliani up to prove himself scum, Baron Cohen, Bakalova, and company were so successful that Baron Cohen had to barge in to save his co-star from being sexually accosted by the ex-Mayor of New York City, who was mounting this situation in what he believed to be a routine interview. However, it’s worth noting that Bakalova stated that she trusted Baron Cohen to come out at the right time and “never felt [she] was in danger.”
The scene is rarified air for all viewing parties, whether politically, comedically, or cinematically invested. It marks a singular collision of three things. First, a sinister political celebrity in heat, and even more, the president’s righthand man – a Gríma Wormtongue, if you will, although the metaphor only holds up in the sense that he’s disgusting, without a moral compass, not actually in charge, and a career bootlicker. Second, a major motion picture prank in disguise, and an especially funny one at that. And third, the most fraught political climate in modern American history, if not ever.
The first makes the scene ripe for political implication, which means it holds real-world consequences. The second gives the scene an international audience – imperative in a mediascape where evidence of executive malfeasance can go unnoticed if it doesn’t draw a large enough crowd — and a sense of much-needed comic relief. And the third set the stage for the scene to make front-page headlines in the hurricane of America’s unrelenting 2020 news cycle.
The scene comes with a real-world saga, waged in legal obligation by Giuliani, cleverly built upon by Borat, and brought to a sobering close by Baron Cohen out-of-character. The day before the film’s release, Giuliani tweeted, “At no time before, during, or after the interview was I ever inappropriate. If Sacha Baron Cohen implies otherwise he is a stone-cold liar.” He claimed he “was tucking in [his] shirt.” Baron Cohen, knowing he didn’t need to imply anything, released a response video as Borat: “I here to defend America’s Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. What was an innocent sexy-time encounter between a consenting man and my fifteen-year-old daughter have been turned into something disgusting by fake news media. I warn you, anyone else try this and Rudolph will not hesitate to reach into his legal briefs and whip out his subpoenas.”
Soon after, on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Cohen exerted confidence in the footage: “I would say that if the president’s lawyer found what he did there appropriate behavior, then heaven knows what he’s done with other female journalists in hotel rooms. […] It is what it is. He did what he did. Make your own mind up. It was pretty clear to us.” It’s pretty clear to us, too. There’s no need to speculate on what might’ve happened had it gone uninterrupted. It would be an unnecessary reach for a story that carries enough serious implication in what actually unfolded onscreen. It will be filed among the most searing evidence of sexual misconduct against an administration littered with accusations all the way up to the top.
That’s in large part due to execution. Baron Cohen, Bakalova, and the production crew deserve immense credit for executing in-the-moment because it’s not something many would’ve been able to pull off. Director Jason Woliner says Giuliani was the film’s target all along, a sentiment he seems to share with 2020. The producers not only figured out how to get into a room with Giuliani, but how to test his ethic in a professional setting in a room full of hidden cameras. On top of that, Bakalova, one of five hundred actors who auditioned for the demanding role, had to keep Giuliani believably strung along through an interview and into the aftermath. And then there was Baron Cohen’s hideaway.
The crew had built a hideaway in the closet for Baron Cohen once everyone else had left the room, and it was necessary for Bakalova’s safety. Giuliani had hired an ex-cop to sweep the room and guard the door outside, ensuring no one could come in or out. While in the room as the boom mic operator, Cohen ducked into the pitch-dark hideaway, locked it from inside, and went undetected in the sweep. “The idea was that I would know what [Giuliani] was doing via text messages with the director because I had no eyes on anything,” Baron Cohen told Stephen Colbert while chronicling the story. To make things even more difficult, once inside, Baron Cohen turned on the phone to find it at three percent – no one had charged it. Panicked, he turned it on airplane mode and checked in periodically. It lasted just long enough for him to emerge at the right time.
Watching the Giuliani Borat scene is like watching Jackass and primetime news simultaneously while reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Like Arendt, Cohen spotlights what happens when people remain unquestioning and complicit in the face of morally bankrupt authority because they were doing their job or didn’t want any trouble. But where most of the film reflects Baron Cohen’s modern, comedic approach to Arendt’s examination of the banality of evil in those who help him with reprehensible actions, the Giuliani scene reflects a different yet intertwined Arendt topic of study: how mob mentality enables corruption and the mass acceptance of it. He shows us how someone in Giuliani’s position is empowered to corner a woman fifty years their younger in a professional setting only to be defended by the president and other leading political figures. It’s simply mob shit.
Baron Cohen is unparalleled in the way he educates viewers on vital social and political issues through incisive docufiction satire while unearthing the despicable actions and philosophies of US lawmakers and politicians. He makes do for all of us on the drunken Thanksgiving challenge from a distant, disappointing cousin to “prove it” – to prove the inhumanity, ignorance, and criminality that undergirds American politics, to evidence the permissibility of sycophantic behavior on a mass scale. Needless to say, Giuliani is far from Baron Cohen’s first. He joins a long list of the Baron Cohen-duped that includes Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Matt Gaetz, Jason Spencer, Corey Lewandowski, Roy Moore, and (pre-presidency) Donald Trump.
At its core, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, in all of its fearless absurdity, calls on our country’s leaders to act on our behalf, not on behalf of tradition, or staunch religious conviction, or the lobbyists in their pocket, or their fucked-up friends, or a superior barking about supremacy, whether national, racial, gendered, or otherwise. And the Giuliani scene is the beating heart of the film, the reason it achieved iconic entertainment shock value and will continue to be referenced in political discourse.
It’s also mind-boggling historically, valuable in its timeliness and pre-election prescience. It prefaced Giuliani’s delightfully humiliating litigious rampage as a make-up-leaking mad-man trying to fraudulently invalidate a fair election on behalf of the President of the United States. Two weeks after the movie dropped, Giuliani would find himself plunked outside the Four Seasons Total Landscaping in a mortifying display of campaign incoherence, soon to be walloped in court by upheld legal processes and relegated to a hospital bed with COVID-19 — after calling it a hoax. As of now, he’s back on his bullshit. Hopefully, Baron Cohen will be soon, too.