The documentary Where's My Roy Cohn? premiered this past Friday. After seeing the film, I walked out of the theatre, turned to my friend, and said, "Ick!"
Oh, the documentary itself is fine. Where's My Roy Cohn?, created by filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer (known for his films Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood and Studio 54), is rich with details about the notorious and despicable New York lawyer known for, among other things, being Donald Trump's mentor. "I wanted to connect the dots for a general audience and show them who Cohn was and how he got us to where we are today," Tyrnauer said. "While he might seem a relatively obscure figure in our political history, he has an outsized role in fashioning the predicament we're in right now politically."
I was first introduced to Roy Cohn as a character in Tony Kushner's landmark play Angels in America, only vaguely realizing that Cohn was a real person when I first saw it. Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1927, the all-too-real Roy Cohn was dastardly, shifty, a hypocrite, and a liar. He was rich, successful, powerful, and feared. He was gay, in the closet, and died of AIDS in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1986 at the age of 59.
When someone is as evil as Roy Cohn was, it's easy to make fun of what he looked like. The documentary mentions his looks a bit too often, but truthfully, his face did look somewhat like a melted candle. He was slim, 5 feet 8 inches tall, and habitually tan. But what's most startling about his appearance is his eyes. In the amazing archival interviews and footage used in Where's My Roy Cohn?, his eyes appear to be sometimes a surprisingly beautiful paled turquoise -- and other times, a ghostly, cinder-block gray, making him appear like a movie supervillain.
Like many supervillains, Roy Cohn was super smart. An only child with a doting mother and a politically powerful judge for a father, Cohn graduated from Columbia Law School at age 20 and had to wait until he became of legal age to be admitted into the New York Bar Association. He began his career as an assistant U.S. attorney, prosecuting alleged Soviet operatives. He was involved in the famous espionage trial, prosecution, and execution of Americans Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He worked with Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the nation's capital, famously accusing countrymen as communist traitors and (clutch the pearls and gasp!) homosexuals. After leaving the Washington, D.C. office, he came back to New York and built a 30-year law career that included representing clients ranging from mob bosses to the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, from Aristotle Onassis to the owners of famed nightclub Studio 54.
Cohn was closely tied to conservatives and was an informal advisor to both presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He supported all the Republican leaders of his time, yet he was a registered Democrat. His influential friends included broadcast journalist Barbara Walters (she was his beard for years), gossip columnist Liz Smith, novelist Norman Mailer, and, of course, businessman (and future president) Donald Trump. In the film, Cohn is quoted as saying that he and Trump got along so well because the two were just alike.
Cohn was a man who blatantly took credit for winning battles that he didn't win, and for doing absolutely anything in order to defeat his opponents. He would flagrantly lie, masterfully change the conversation, and brazenly use diversionary tactics. He also once said, "What you say can have nothing to do with what you believe."
Sound like anyone you know?
Roy Cohn was a man who contained multitudes. He was ruthless when it came to his career, was an active philanthropist, and was very social. He was a "confirmed bachelor" who had witch-hunted homosexuals. He would often flaunt his blonde, blue-eyed, tall and chiseled male companion (Cohn's preferred type), taking him to conservative fundraisers and functions. He abused prescription drugs. He was vain, worrying about his physique to the point of doing 200 sit-ups every day, while simultaneously giving orders to his assistant. This powerful man had an impeccable and fantastic New York apartment (among other residences), which included a bedroom decorated with a great, big mirror on the ceiling over the bed, giant stuffed animals, and a menagerie of adorable tiny frog figurines. Cohn needed daily sexual validation and, according to the documentary, he preferred that validation to be "new," often employing male prostitutes. The movie quotes Cohn telling his cousin that in sexual situations, "I'm the girl." Yet in interviews, when pointedly asked if he was a homosexual, Cohn would deny and deflect the question. One clip in the documentary shows him saying, "Anybody who knows me, or knows anything about me, or who knows the way my mind works, would have an awfully hard time reconciling that with any kind of homosexuality. In other words, every facet of my personality, my aggressiveness, my toughness … is just totally incompatible with anything like that."
Because, of course, gays are weak. We're all sissies who have nothing tough or aggressive or strong about us. Right.
In the 1980s when Cohn became sick, he refuted the fact that it was AIDS, telling friends and reporters that he had liver cancer. Despite this denial, he bullied his friends President and First Lady Ronald and Nancy Reagan to get him into special AIDS medical trials not available to the general public. (Ron and Nancy denied that same favor to their friend, movie star Rock Hudson.) To his dying day, Roy Cohn staunchly affirmed that he was a straight man sick with liver cancer. He died on August 2, 1986.
I wish that Where's My Roy Cohn? ended with something cute. Like, after he died, it was discovered that Roy Cohn left his riches to HIV/AIDS research or to benefit people living with HIV, or even made a deathbed apology to those gay people he persecuted in the early days of his career. He did not do any of these things. In fact, he died three weeks after being disbarred in disgrace for unethical and unprofessional conduct. Many of his friends stayed away, including his pal Donald Trump. The documentary says that Cohn's absolute goal was to die completely broke and owing millions to the IRS, and that's what he did.
Call me Pollyanna, but can you imagine the good he could have done if he'd come out? If, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, Cohn had been able to step up and bravely tell his rich, powerful, politically connected friends that he had AIDS and something needed to be done? Can you imagine how that kind of bravery and truth might have affected his mentee, Donald Trump? Instead, Roy Cohn cowardly clutched the biggest lie of his life like a starving snake with a fresh rat.
Go ahead and see Where's My Roy Cohn? Just plan on needing a shower afterwards.