Trigger Warning: This article contains several references to animal cruelty during shooting.
In the summer of 1994, Forrest Gump was released in the United States to wide acclaim, becoming the fourth highest grossing film at that time and winning six Oscars, including Best Picture. Roger Ebert wrote, ‘I’ve never met anyone like Forrest Gump in a movie before, and for that matter I’ve never seen a movie quite like Forrest Gump.’ It is curious to read that from Ebert, because just ten months prior in September 1993, a film called Bad Boy Bubby was shown at the Venice Film Festival.
Put simply, Bad Boy Bubby is Forrest Gump on bath salts, imbued with pitch-black humour instead of sickly treacle. While Gump opens in a leafy Savannah park to Alan Silvestri’s melodic score, Bubby begins in a hellish room with no natural light and filthy grey walls, which is inhabited by Bubby (Nicholas Hope), a simple man-child, and Mam (Claire Benito), his vile incestuous mother.
Mam never tells Bubby that life is like a box of chocolates. Instead, she rapes him and claims that the outside world is a dangerous place with poisonous air that will kill him if he dares to leave. She corroborates her lie by wearing a gas mask every time she goes out, and to further ensure he obeys, puts the fear of God into him by placing a cross on the wall, convincing Bubby he’s being watched.
The film is driven by Nicholas Hope’s portrayal of a man completely bereft of social conditioning. Bubby speaks in broken English, and the only way he can expand his vocabulary is by imitating verbatim the few abhorrent people around him. He also imitates these degenerates’ behaviour, namely his mother’s abuse. He does this by wearing her clothes and repeating her threats, only he directs it towards the very bottom of the household hierarchy – their cat.
These scenes plagued the film with cries of animal cruelty from audiences and critics alike. Chief among them was Mark Kermode, the hardened horror fan with a self-assigned duty to watch any film from beginning to end. Bad Boy Bubby, however, proved too much, ‘I have a principle where I definitely leave any film which features actual cruelty to children or animals… I walked out of the Australian film Bad Boy Bubby in which they mistreated a cat.’ Kermode was not alone, the BBFC objected to it so much they banned it.
Alarmed by the backlash, director Rolf De Heer wrote to the Italian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1993, detailing how the cat used in the film was provided by the Australian Animal Welfare League, who intended on ‘destroying’ the animal once filming had wrapped:
‘We were handed the feral cat by the Welfare League on the strict understanding that we had to return it to them to be destroyed… feral cats are too wild to be tamed and it is considered cruel to keep them in captivity for any length of time.
We filmed with this feral cat, and the approved representative of the League was on set at all times during this filming. She had complete authority, from me, to stop filming with the cat, or change the way we were filming. The cat was well fed, treated very gently, and the shots were designed so that we would only have to do one take of one angle to get the desired effect. Filming went very smoothly for these reasons.’
Some will never be appeased on this subject, but De Heer raises serious questions about the limit of art and cinema with these visceral provocations. Accusations of cruelty are not unfounded, but De Heer could not be accused of merely trying to shock, because Bubby’s cruelty is important to his psyche – he projects his suffering onto the only creature with even less authority than himself. Whether an animal’s wellbeing should be sacrificed for the sake of a narrative, however, is far more dubious.
Besides, Bad Boy Bubby is bigger than its controversy. This isn’t a video nasty but an adventure film of the most transgressive, idiosyncratic variety; because when Bubby manages to escape his tormentors, he begins a liberating, sensory odyssey that unfolds in ways you’d never expect.
I feared for him as he navigated this new world, desperate to understand the variety of people – and animals – he meets. While not every plot development is believable, the film is edgy and abnormal enough for it not to matter. In fact, I was pleased for any good fortune that came Bubby’s way, regardless of its implausibility.
Again, Nicholas Hope’s raw, unhinged performance is truly compelling. He is a noble savage with a blank yet evocative expression, scanning the world unleashed before him. Bad Boy Bubby should have made Nicholas Hope, yet what has followed is a series of near misses. The title of his memoir, Brushing the Tip of Fame, says it all.
He’ll always have Bad Boy Bubby, though, a proverbial cult classic that’s as wild and unpredictable as its primitive central character. Please, watch this instead of Forrest Gump.