Erin Fowler rang in his 21st birthday last September in the time-honored tradition of college students everywhere: with drinking and dancing, starting at a club and ending at a popular local bar in Ft. Smith, Ark. While he celebrated over drinks, the melancholy strains of a slow country song came over the sound system—the universal cue to couple up for a slow dance—so he reached for his boyfriend, 25-year-old Dennis Marriott. The two drew close together on the dance floor, swaying to Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man."
But what started out innocently enough—"We weren't grinding, just slow-dancing," says Fowler—quickly turned ugly. An angry voice came over the speakers telling the couple to "Get your butts off of the floor!" and the rest of the bar started booing, cursing, and hurling epithets at them. When they left later, they found the fender of their Nissan Altima smashed in. The mark is still there.
If Sacha Baron Cohen's latest film, Brüno, is to be trusted, this story is typical of Ft. Smith, a Wild-West-meets-Old-South city wedged between the Ozarks and the Oklahoma border. Cohen's titular character is a swishy fashion journalist from Austria who bares his midriff in front of the world's most intolerant scenery: an extremely conservative Hasidic community in Israel, for example, or the lair of a supposed Bethlehem-based suicide-bombing sect. You can probably guess the results from the film's trailer. But against this stiff competition, it is Ft. Smith that comes across as the real hotbed of homophobia. The film's penultimate, climactic scene is an arena cage fight held in the town, where sparring between Brüno and his assistant escalates into a passionate embrace, then a sloppy makeout session, and finally, a sensual striptease. The enraged onlookers go wild, turning their beer cups, food wrappers, and even a metal chair into munitions. The trash rains in slow motion to Céline Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," offering a desperately bleak montage of American narrow-mindedness.
Marriott and Fowler may have avoided physical assault at the bar, but their accounts of being openly gay in Ft. Smith are filled with similar stories. Rocks with "fag" scrawled on them have been hurled at the home they share; Fowler, who's studying to be a history teacher, was excommunicated from his Jehovah's Witness faith and kicked out of his childhood home by his parents. Marriott, a marketing student who formerly had a side job as a Wal-Mart cashier, says patrons frequently skipped his line and told others to do the same to avoid contact with "the fairy."
But others in the community are upset. What appears in the film, they say, was indicative not of regional intolerance but of heavy-handed stage management.
In early June of last year, fliers strewn across Ft. Smith and the surrounding Ozark hamlets promised a big night of "Blue Collar Brawlin' " at the local convention center. "GET THERE EARLY! $1 BEER" and "HOT CHICKS, COLD BEER, HARDCORE FIGHTS," they bleated in big typeface, next to a photo of a woman in a pink lamé bikini. Tickets sold for $5 in advance, $10 at the door, a pittance compared with typical cage-fight nights, which can run $25 to $30 a head. It's no surprise, then, that "people were coming in droves," according to the convention center's sales director, Karin Hobbs, including several men intent on participating in an advertised tough-man competition. (Hobbs and the rest of the facility's staff were under the impression that the fight was for a reality show.) Once at the fight, attendees had to turn over cameras, cigarette lighters, and other items. They were required to sign waivers allowing them to be filmed and then were deliberately made to wait for 90 minutes at the door. "At this point, they were frustrated," Hobbs says.
Once in, attendees were ready to "get this party started," Hobbs says, and a massive crush of people hit the bar, which the flier advertised would sell $1 beers only for the first hour. But the promotion never expired, though the audience kept thinking it was about to. As a result, attendees got drunker and drunker, something Hobbs and the Ft. Smith Police Department say was planned all along. Before the event, they say, the catering company in charge of concessions was told to keep the beer at $1, no matter what, and that the movie's production team would pay the difference later. "Beers are normally five to six bucks by design because we don't want people just sitting there power-drinking all day," says Sgt. Levi Risley, the spokesman for the Ft. Smith Police Department. "It creates problems, subsidizing alcohol sales." (Contacted by NEWSWEEK for comment on this and other alleged stage management, Universal Pictures said it had nothing to add beyond the movie's production notes.)
Hobbs says that the film crew also threw T shirts out into the crowd with profane images and homophobic phrases ("Straight Dave" and "My A--hole Is Just for S--tting") emblazoned on the front, presumably to rile up the crowd further. They'd originally asked the police officers to also wear the shirts, say Hobbs and Risley, but the officers declined, saying they needed to be in uniform.
The whole event prompts tough questions, but they're more about filmmaking than tolerance. Baron Cohen's audience-baiting isn't obviously scripted, like most feature films, but it also doesn't adhere to the truth-telling principles of journalism. Yet the studio still presents his movies as accurate reflections of society. In the production notes, Universal states that to get the reaction Baron Cohen wanted, "[m]uch goading or antagonism wasn't necessary at all. He found that once interviewees had a lens in front of them and were prompted with uncomfortable scenarios, they reacted incredibly honestly. People don't say or do things on camera that they don't mean." The people actually shown on camera beg to differ. According to The Dallas Morning News, several participants in a faux talk show seen in the film say they too were misled; they say they were lured into a studio to talk about family values and instead were faced with Brüno talking about disowning his child if he turns out to be straight.
Fowler and Marriott, for their part, find the depiction of Ft. Smith not that far from reality; the two are planning to leave town as soon as they finish college. For now, Marriott says his soundtrack is Augustana's wistful "Boston": "I think that I'm just tired/I think I need a new town, to leave this all behind."