If the funny folks at Universal Pictures are to be believed, at one time the working title for Sacha Baron Cohen’s forthcoming film “Bruno’’ was “Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt.’’ That working title - real or fake - was dropped, probably because it ended up giving away the plot of the film. It also shows why many gay activists are getting anxious as the film’s July 10 release date approaches. While the movie skewers the frivolity of the fashion world, its series of improbable vignettes appear to focus more on the lisping, lederhosen-wearing Bruno’s sexuality than his profession. (The film does not screen in Boston for critics until a few days before it opens.)
Much like Cohen’s guileless character Borat, who traveled the country butchering American customs and holding a mirror to the intolerant masses, Bruno possesses the same cringe-inducing power to show America’s squeamishness toward homosexuality. To become Bruno, an obnoxious, self-involved Austrian fashion journalist, Cohen transformed himself through a vigorous program of bleaching, waxing, and plucking into an extreme stereotype of a gay man - all topped off with a thick-as-strudel Austrian accent. That sort of makeover worked to the tune of $125 million and strong reviews for “Borat.’’ The worry with “Bruno,’’ however, is that not everyone will get the joke the way it was intended.
Rashad Robinson, senior director of media programs for the group the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, is concerned that outside of major metropolitan areas “Bruno’’ will simply enforce tired ideas of what gay culture is all about. Robinson fears that instead of laughing at the uncomfortable reaction of redneck hunters around the fire when Bruno says, “We’re just like the ‘Sex and the City’ girls - which one are you?,’’ people will be laughing at an outdated stereotype.
“It’s all about context,’’ Robinson said on the phone earlier this week. “I think Cohen and Universal often had the right intentions with what they were doing, but in the early cut of the movie that I saw, they also missed the mark a few times. Really, my fear is that in parts of the country where gay men and lesbians are still unable to adopt children or can lose their job for being gay, ‘Bruno’ is going to make things worse for people.’’
Robinson has been inundated with requests from reporters to talk about “Bruno,’’ and nearly every media outlet - from The New York Times to Gawker - has been analyzing the question of Bruno’s power to undermine gay rights, particularly at a time when the battle for gay marriage is a hot-button issue. Those of us who are fashion reporters with an Austrian background will have to wage our own protest given that our numbers seem to be much smaller.
At Club Cafe last week, many lingering around the bar dismissed the idea of “Bruno’’ as being something that could cause harm to gay civil rights.
“I think most people realize that it’s a movie, and that Bruno is a fictional character,’’ said David DiMarco, who was visiting Boston from New Jersey. “From the previews I’ve seen, it’s hilarious. It’s smart to approach the topic with humor to make people realize how ridiculous the whole thing is.’’
But 42-year-old Evan Kelley said he feels empathy for those gay high school students around the country who will undoubtedly pick up the nickname “Bruno’’ when they return to school in the fall. He can relate. When he was a high school junior he picked up the nickname “Serge’’ based on the offensively swishy gay character that Bronson Pinchot played in “Beverly Hills Cop.’’
“I’ll see Bruno, and I fell out of my chair laughing when Sacha Baron Cohen landed on Eminem at the MTV Movie Awards,’’ he said. “But I also think it won’t be so funny to kids who are having a hard time or questioning their sexuality. How do you tell your parents you’re gay when they think all gay people are like Bruno or Rosie O’Donnell?’’
And although no one is saying it, the fear of Bruno in gay circles goes deeper than the debate for marriage rights. In the gay community, where the phrase “straight acting’’ is heard as often as “paper or plastic?,’’ the idea of the ultra-queeny Bruno is a scary proposition. Unlike other flaming characters who are used for comic effect, and then fade neatly into the background (see “He’s Just Not That Into You,’’) Bruno forces both homosexual and heterosexual audiences to confront their discomfort, and that can be as frightening as watching Bruno navigate Milan Fashion Week in his all-Velcro jumpsuit.