As much as the Oscars strive to celebrate the best movies and the artists responsible for making them, the Academy is certainly susceptible to intense scrutiny—Green Book as Best Picture in the year of our lord 2019?!—and major blind spots. Parasite’s triumph at last year’s ceremony was objectively awesome, but it also underlined the Oscars’ historic shortcomings: it took more than nine decades for a non-English-language film to nab Best Picture. Whether it’s broadening the types of films that can win top awards or diversifying its membership, progress within the Academy can happen, but it tends to be frustratingly incremental.
In addition to repeatedly delivering non-diverse nomination slates, the Oscars have also failed at evaluating what makes good acting outside of the typical conventions. For the Academy, that’s most apparent with the voting body’s long-standing aversion to comedy. Traditionally, acting nominees are overwhelmingly skewed in favor of dramatic work, in which a certain level of seriousness seems to be synonymous with prestige. Unfortunately, the Academy can’t retroactively give Tiffany Haddish the love she deserved for a fantastically bonkers performance in Girls Trip, but the Oscars are slowly beginning to recognize more work that defies the usual standards. It was only a couple of years ago that Olivia Colman won Best Actress for an unconventionally hilarious lead performance in The Favourite over presumptive front-runner Glenn Close, whose work in The Wife—[whispers] she was the wife—was more in the Academy’s wheelhouse. Still, you can count on one hand the number of actors nominated for full-on comedic performances at the Oscars this century: Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), Robert Downey Jr. (Tropic Thunder), and Renée Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Diary), all of whom went home empty-handed.
Given how rarely the Academy honors comedy these days, the fact that Maria Bakalova even got a nomination this year feels like a victory in and of itself. After all, it’s not just that Bakalova was nominated within a customarily ignored genre—she was nominated for a crass mockumentary that required her to do everything from performing a “fertility dance” at a debutante ball with visible menstrual blood to sitting down for a now-infamous interview with a disgraced political figure. Rewarding Bakalova’s work, which flies in the face of what typically constitutes an “Oscar-worthy” performance, won’t fix the Academy’s bias against comedy overnight. Nevertheless, that kind of recognition would still be a great success!
It was undeniably thrilling news when it was first announced that a Borat sequel had been stealthily shot, produced, and would be released on Amazon Prime in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, but it came with some important caveats. Living up to one of the best comedies of the aughts is one thing; for Sacha Baron Cohen to attempt the Borat schtick when his Kazakhstan reporter is almost universally recognized is another challenge entirely. The solution for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm wasn’t just to sideline the title character—Cohen is usually donning a disguise-within-a-disguise to keep unsuspecting victims of his pranks off the scent—but to center the film’s emotional arc on his teenage daughter.
A largely unknown Bulgarian actress prior to the film’s release, Bakalova first appears as Tutar before Borat departs for America to present a famous Kazakh monkey as a bribe to the Trump administration. (Fictional Kazakhstan has fallen on hard times.) Living in Borat’s barn, Tutar initially presents as a feral teenager with few, if any, social norms, whose narrow view of the world revolves around the prospect of finding a husband to house her in a cage. Unbeknownst to her father, Tutar sneaks into the monkey crate and eats the primate on their journey to the United States—shifting Borat’s plans to present his daughter as a child bride to any high-ranking member of Trump’s inner circle that will accept her.
On screen, the narrative plays out as a journey of self-discovery for father and daughter. Borat learns to overcome the cruel and outdated practices of his home country to love his daughter as she is; Tutar, meanwhile, undergoes a feminist awakening to discover her worth while recognizing how much misogyny is embedded in society around her. In practice, that requires Bakalova to keep pace with Cohen, a uniquely gifted improvisational comic who appears most comfortable the more he commits to the bit. What’s most shocking about Bakalova’s performance isn’t that she handles everything her costar throws at her, but that she actually commandeers several of Subsequent Moviefilm’s best sequences. In one scene, Tutar accidentally puts a “baby” inside of her by swallowing a cupcake decoration. She and Borat then visit a women’s health center, where Bakalova’s infantile behavior to a pro-life pastor who believes she was impregnated by her father will make you want to cover your eyes in horror.
Arguably even more impressive are several pranks in the film when the actress goes solo, including telling a group of Republican women about the joys of masturbating, underlining Bakalova’s own comedy chops when working on the fly. But Bakalova’s performance goes beyond nailing the general grotesqueries required to star in a Borat movie: Tutar also has moments of unexpected poignancy. Bakalova imbues her character with genuine warmth, and it radiates throughout the movie, whether in scripted scenes bonding with her father or interactions with real-life people, like a saintly babysitter worried about Tutar’s well-being. (Tutar describes Borat to the babysitter as “the smartest man in the whole flat world” and doesn’t believe women can learn how to drive.)
The biggest challenge Subsequent Moviefilm faced was avoiding becoming a retread of the original film. While it’s unclear just how intentional the Tutar pivot ended up being from the onset—perhaps Cohen was emboldened by the exceptional work of his able sidekick—the character really does steal the show. Tutar is the sort of transformative role that the Oscars usually eat up—think Christian Bale slimming down in The Fighter or Leonardo DiCaprio devouring raw bison meat and generally having the worst time of his life for The Revenant—but in a much more unconventional setting. But just because Tutar doesn’t have the usual hallmarks of an Oscar-winning performance doesn’t make her any less Oscar worthy.
It’s not unusual for unknown performers to come out of the blue and win an Oscar to elevate their profile. (Think Kathy Bates for Misery or Lupita Nyong’o, fresh out of Yale School of Drama, for 12 Years a Slave.) It would be a little more unusual were that Oscar presented to a virtually anonymous Bulgarian actress whose oddball performance began as an unkempt villager in a barn dreaming of a cage to live in and ended as something closer to Tomi Lahren cosplay that generated an entire news cycle about Rudy Giuliani. But the eccentricities of Bakalova’s performance do nothing to diminish what she accomplished, having lulled countless unsuspecting people into believing that Tutar might not be a fictional character. More than even a much-deserved Oscar, it’s a testament to Bakalova’s work that, much like Cohen’s Kazakh journalist, Tutar will be so ingrained into popular culture that she’d have a hard time duping folks ever again.