Few recent movies have been as perfectly timed as Matt Tyrnauer’s Where’s My Roy Cohn. The documentary’s subject is among the most feared and reviled characters in contemporary American politics, a conniving, closeted heir to a giant family fortune who rose to prominence during the McCarthy era. Given his history, it seems almost predictable that he also played a critical role in the education of our current President—functioning as his fixer and consigliere for decades.
It’s the fourth film by the Santa Monica-born Tyrnauer, a Vanity Fair editor turned filmmaker who previously turned his lens on the designer Valentino, the denizens of Studio 54, and Hollywood hustler Scotty Bowers. Since its debut earlier this month the film has received a rapturous reception from both critics and moviegoers. This week the movie is widening its release in L.A. and extending to other art-house markets. We recently sat with Tyrnauer to discuss Cohn, Trump, sex, film, and the the making of the movie.
The film seems almost tailor-made for this particular political moment. But you started working on it before Trump was even elected.
Yeah. Cohn was also a major character in the Studio 54 doc I had been filming during the election when no one, myself included, thought Trump would win. Watching him leap off the screen as the lawyer for the club, yelling and barking in these shiny suits like some incredible Dr. Evil persona in all this extraordinary archival footage, I kept thinking, “Why hasn’t anybody done a Roy Cohn movie?” But when Trump won, I knew I had to make the film.
The title of the film refers to Trump’s constant complaint about his inability to find a lawyer that would defend him like Cohn did. But the recent Ukraine revelations suggest that he may finally have found his Roy Cohn in Attorney General Bill Barr.
Trump’s behavior and Barr’s co-conspirator involvement is right out of the Roy Cohn playbook. Like the Mafia dons Cohn represented, Trump and his stooge AG are clearly abusing their authority out of self-interest. Trump has reincarnated Roy Cohn via corrupt and seemingly deranged lawyers like Barr and Rudy Giuliani. With a dash of Santa Monica’s shame, Stephen Miller.
Why would a institutionalist like Barr sully his reputation to work with someone like Trump?
Trump studied the dark arts of greed, corruption, McCarthyism, and extortion at the master’s side, so in addition to his mash of stooge fixers, he’s his own Roy Cohn and knows how to cast a spell. While Barr’s clearly an enigma, word is he’s obsessed with executive power. He seems blindly devoted to serving a Machiavellian, dictator-aspirant boss so keen on flexing it.
The footage of the McCarthy hearings is even more fascinating in light of today’s scandals. Cohn was in the middle of all that, whispering into McCarthy’s ear, directing all the action…
He created the original media circus out of the nation’s first televised hearings because the army refused to give special treatment to his boyfriend. Cohn was madly in love with G. David Schine, an heir to the Statler Hilton empire, When Schine suddenly got drafted during the Korean War, Roy immediately started angling for a promotion to keep him safely at home with him. He didn’t ask for any old promotion—he wanted Schine promoted from Private to General. And Schine couldnt be in just any home—he had to have a post at the Waldorf Astoria penthouse.
Schine’s family owned the Hilton, didn’t they? Why didn’t they just stash him there?
Their flagship was in Buffalo, not Manhattan. (laughs) So naturally when the Army turned him down, Cohn became enraged and made it his mission “to wreck the Army.” He becomes this demagogue whisperer and evangelizes Joseph McCarthy to go zealously after them for harboring communists and, irony of ironies, gays.
You point out that there was a whole homophobic subtext to those hearings. At one point Joseph Welch taunts Cohn by noting that, “The pixie is a close relative of the fairy.” The dig seems pretty clear when you watch it now, but was it acknowledged at the time?
One of the uncomfortable truths of American history is how the effective deployment of homophobia helps bring the hearings to an end. Joseph Welch, one of the heroes of our modern history, pops McCarthy’s balloon with the famous line, “Have you no decency, sir?” As brilliant and correct as he and the line were, the darker subtext was there, and it wasn’t there by accident.
Was Cohn’s homosexuality an open secret in Washington?
It’s like the open secret described in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. It’s like how everyone in Hollywood knew Rock Hudson was gay, but as soon as you drove 30 miles out of town everyone presumed he was straight. DC’s a small town—everyone knew Roy Cohn was “a fairy” or “had a problem.” That’s what they called it back then if someone was gay. “He has a problem.” But the accusation was so scandalous at the time that it could never make the papers.
Do you think McCarthy was gay as well?
I don’t know. I added the scene of Vidal and Cohn on a talk show in the early ’70s to make clear that McCarthy was also tarnished by the hearings. On the show, Vidal asks Cohn in his inimitable way, “Tell me something, the most positive thing I’ve ever heard about Senator McCarthy is that he was a full-time homosexual. Is that true?” Cohn blanches before sputtering, “Well I know that’s your favorite topic of conversation.” To which Vidal replies: “Well, it’s aroused by the obvious.” (laughs) Actually, I have no idea if McCarthy was gay. But I will note that he was a permanent bachelor until late in life, when he married his female assistant.
Cohn’s tutelage of Donal Trump is a dominant theme in your movie. What brought them together?
Cohn created Trump in a way. Both men talked openly about how much Trump learned from him. And when Trump became President, Cohn was transformed from a footnote in modern American history to its Machiavelli—actually ascending to immortal political significance posthumously just like Machiavelli did 30 years after his initial influence. His disdain for rules and his willingness to savage anyone who got in his way are all straight out of the Cohn playbook. People who knew both men said unironically, Donald Trump is Roy Cohn.
“All Trump’s brash confidence came from absorbing the lessons Cohn taught him as the ultimate fixer at the height of his powers: 1.) never admit you’re wrong, never apologize, 2.) if someone hits you, hit them back a thousand times harder.”
What did Trump learn from Cohn that he didn’t know before?
He was just a callow rich kid before Cohn. He was this empty vessel watching Cohn reinvent himself as a connector between the underworld and the world of political and financial influence. All his brash confidence came from absorbing the lessons Cohn taught him as the ultimate fixer at the height of his powers: 1.) never admit you’re wrong, never apologize, 2.) if someone hits you, hit them back a thousand times harder. He took those lessons to heart.
Was there anything you learned about him that really surprised you?
Yes. The extent to which Cohn created a president from beyond the grave. And that he came from a super wealthy Jewish family that owned the Bank of the United States, Phillips Van Heusen shirts, Lionel trains, and Q-Tips.
Q-Tips was my favorite.
Who knew that Q-Tips were a Jewish invention? (laughs)
Your film is packed with lots of great photos that have never been seen before. Where did you find them?
I had heard rumors that Roy’s private photographic archive had been sold at auction, so I tracked down the person who bought them. He asked to remain anonymous, but he let us use them.
An endless parade of buff, shirtless boys.
These were very private photos that Cohn clearly would not want the general public to see. In the movie, I run them under a monologue: he’s talking about his butch, ungay persona, and meanwhile he’s sitting next a bunch of guys who all look like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy.
The one with him and the drag queens at Studio 54 shocked even me.
He loved the whole decadent, fall-of-the-Roman-Empire vibe of Studio.
Why did Warhol and the era’s demimonde find him so fascinating? Did he have the same kind of magnetic grotesqueness Trump has? Or did he have real charisma?
A dark kind, absolutely. The kind the Bible warns you to steer clear of somewhere, “the glamor of evil.”
Has to be New Testament because the Old one hardly has any glamor at all. (Laughs)
Totally. Studio 54 was the lodestar then. If you wanted to be in the city’s inner sanctum, you had to be at Studio. Warhol was a pillar and Roy Cohn was another pillar there: Cohn as a central player, and Warhol as the ultimate voyeur. But Warhol was no dummy, he was wary of Cohn. And many of the characters around them told me, “Andy warned me not to get caught up with Roy.”
Your slate of documentaries on Scotty, Studio 54, and now Roy Cohn—taken together they seem like a cinematic history of a certain gay era.
It’s true that they touch on gay culture and the advent of the HIV/AIDS crisis, so the theme’s there, intentionally or not.
Why do you think you keep returning to those themes?
It’s very hard to even express what it was like to people who didn’t experience coming of age during AIDS. Already the media has almost completely forgotten Gen X; everything is all about Millennials. But being a part of a generation heading blindly into unspeakable tragedy was really heavy for gays. It was like a tear in the human fabric just appeared and caught everyone by surprise, and it was already hard enough coming of age as a gay person.
Adding sex and death to the mix did not help.
Making Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood confirmed for me over and over again that gay culture and life in the 20th century had always erased itself. Even before AIDS, homosexuality hid itself, covered its tracks, even obliterated itself. You lived the love that dare not speak its name in secret, because there was no discussing it.
Now you can’t turn on the TV without seeing a gay character. My 12-year-old nephew was just telling me about his school’s straight-gay alliance.
When the Valentino movie came out, I was thrilled when the LGBTQ group at my old high school invited me to show it. The kids asked me after, “were you a part of the LGBTQ club when you were here?” I was like, “uh, there weren’t even gay people at this school.” Of course there were, but no one was out. Even the out people weren’t actually out. Many of the older men I interviewed for Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood were a bit nostalgic for the old days.
I met some of those characters at your wild book party at Chateau Marmont! All those fancy matrons and their gentlemen walkers in their 80s and 90s, I thought their whole world had vanished. Where did you find them all?
From Scotty’s client list. He just handed it over to me on day one of the shoot. They were actors, who were not out, but everyone knew they were gay. Not huge, movie-level stars, but TV leading men, people like Earl Holliman, who was on Police Woman with Angie Dickinson. And George Maharis, the star of 77 Sunset Strip or Route 66, I get them confused. They were semi-closeted and still functioned pretty freely. They were, and still are in a way, the grand dames of Beverly Hills and the johns and hustlers of yore. And they all go into this kind of reverie saying, “Oh, you have no idea how great it was before Gay Lib.”
Vidal was also nostalgic for that time.
Williams, too. They were sort of rulers of this world, a very nice position to be in. The letters between them are all about functioning in plain sight with an open secret.
I didn’t realize until Scotty and the Secret History how much the police impacted and interacted with gays in L.A.
The LAPD was basically a gestapo with a very robust “vice squad,” a corrupt, moneymaking operation that in large part persecuted gay people. Part of Scotty’s mission was to protect his Hollywood and prominent clients from the vice squad and the press. Together they actively sought to shake down many they threatened to expose.
Was it just a few bad apples or an organized LAPD thing?
Very much systemic. The only way homosexuality was accepted was as a vice, and the vice squad was there to maintain moral rectitude. You were in a real pickle if you wanted to be openly gay, because simply holding hands with, hugging, or even touching another man could land you in the clink. And then there was another extortion ring where the attorneys would ask for money to facilitate the bribe that would get the charge dismissed.
A racket, basically.
One of the go-to lawyers, Harry Weiss, actually owned many of the gay bars. He would tip the vice squad off when to raid, and then he would make extra because all of the guys who were arrested would then—And then he would take their cash and bribe the officers on their behalf.
Was there any moment when you were doing the Cohn film that you felt any sympathy about him? Was there anything to redeem him?
Everyone who knew him testified to the fact that he could be very funny, gossipy, very charming.
Did he ever have a long-term boyfriend?
At the end of his life he had a significant relationship that went on for a few years. I contacted the guy and he ultimately declined to participate. As one of Cohn’s legal associates says in the film, “If you were on Roy’s good side it was terrific, if you were on his bad side it was terrible.” Also a lot like Trump. Journalists, as we both know from interviewing him many years ago, all say that Donald Trump is very skillful at playing them, he’s also capable of rare moments of charm.
Did he ever lower the hard shell he assumed in public? Could he be vulnerable at all?
No one ever talked about him as someone who seemed human except one of his sick relatives he took in. He’s the only one who said how helpful Roy was, that it wasn’t a transactional relationship. But that’s the exception because the transactional nature of Cohn is, like with Trump, the essence of the man. No beliefs, everything quid pro quo, very New York.
Do you ever feel sorry for him or do you just feel contempt?
Contempt. It’s hard to maintain that someone’s so ill, but even in his illness he’s a horrible hypocrite. He gets the Reagans to sneak him into the National Institute of Health for experimental treatment programs while they were callously denying an entire community of Americans in dire need at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Was it difficult spending a year on such a dark subject?
I was a bit concerned about getting such a thoroughly evil character in my head for so long. Your life becomes all about Roy for that entire time, which is exactly the way he would have wanted it. Luckily, I was able to detach and protect myself. You really can do a character study of Satan without becoming Satan yourself.
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