If Donald Trump is Darth Vader—a really stupid, yammering version of Vader—then lawyer Roy Cohn was his Emperor Palpatine. At least according to Where’s My Roy Cohn?, the captivating and infuriating new documentary from journalist and filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer (Studio 54, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood).
One of the most evil, hypocritical queer figures in history, the Jewish, gay, self-loathing Cohn made a career out of persecuting his fellow Jews and homosexuals, most famously during the 1950s McCarthy witch hunt, the Rosenberg trial (his manipulations of the judge led to the execution of accused spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg), and the “Lavender Scare” purge, during which thousands of gay government employees lost their careers and lives.
A pal of the Reagans, who helped him access experimental AIDS treatments in the mid-1980s while he continued to publicly deny he was gay and HIV-positive, Cohn, who died from AIDS-related complications in 1986, also represented and mentored Trump—who lives by Cohn’s playbook of never apologizing, always claiming victory, screwing everyone, dodging taxes and financial obligations, indulging and manipulating the media, and lying, lying, lying.
Armed with a wealth of archival material and new interviews with Cohn’s colleagues, friends, family members, and even an ex-boyfriend, Tyrnauer paints a damning picture of both Cohn (whose life was dramatized in Tony Kushner’s epic play Angels in America) and his equally vile protégé. He recently spoke with NewNowNext about making the doc.
How did this project come about?
In 2016 I was cutting the 54 documentary, and Roy Cohn was the lawyer for Studio 54. I was watching hours and hours of archival footage, and Cohn is in a lot of it, because he’s a media whore—I think that’s what the technical term is. He’s always in front of the cameras, and I was thinking, Why hasn’t anyone done a Roy Cohn documentary?, but I put it out of my mind because my next thought was, He’s not relevant unless there’s a Trump presidency, because that brings a whole new aspect. Like everyone else I was convinced there would be a Hillary win, and I was knocked sideways by the election result, and the next day I wrote the treatment.
I think Roy Cohn would have just been a really bold footnote to U.S. history if it hadn’t been for the surprise election of his protégé. When Trump won the electoral college, Cohn was elevated to the status of a modern Machiavelli. His influence on the country posthumously is enormous, and probably much greater than when he was alive.
You managed to secure a treasure trove of film, video, and photos of Roy. But was there a holy grail you chased and didn’t get?
Oh, we found the holy grail. I heard rumors there was a private photo archive of Roy’s and that it had been purchased quietly at an auction and was out of the public eye. I didn’t know if it was true, but it turned out it was, and I was able to track down the person [who bought it], and they let me use it. Many of the photos you see—especially when Roy’s with an array of shirtless young men, or boys who look they may or may not be for rent—were his photos, and he didn’t want the general public to see them.
There’s footage from a 60 Minutes interview with Cohn near the end of his life when he’s visibly sick, and yet when Mike Wallace asks if he has AIDS, knowing he is in the National Institutes of Health database as having AIDS, he flatly denies it, insisting he had liver cancer but “is in total remission.”
I think when you understand his character, then nothing surprises you about him. He was a congenital fibber and an equally troubled and empty person who had no moral compass, and was capable of almost anything. He was a monster.
Yet charismatic, clearly. Would you go to dinner with him if he was still around?
If it were about reporting on him and in a journalistic context, yes, I would. For a social occasion, no, I don’t think I would.
You interviewed the odious Trump enabler Roger Stone, who of course knew Cohn. To get it out of the way, is Roger wearing a wig?
It’s not for me to say. I didn’t ask. I’ll leave it to you.
How did you feel about interviewing Roger? He’s such a douchebag, and helped not only elect Trump but coached Al Franken’s accuser, Leeann Tweeden, and effectively doxxed Franken out of the senate.
Journalistically, I felt I should, and I was glad he agreed. But personally, I remember waking up on the wrong side of the bed that morning thinking, Oh, what have I gotten myself into? Roger was already at his peak of infamy in the early months of the Trump administration, yet he was gracious and seemed to enjoy talking about his hero. It’s disturbing anyone would think of Roy as a hero, but that’s the point of speaking with him, and he gave a really wonderful performance. I use the word “performance” very purposely, because like Roy and Trump, they’re all performers playing to the audiences they want to play to. He seemed forthcoming and added information I hadn’t heard before. Whether or not it was God’s honest truth, though, I can’t say.
Besides equipping Trump with his strategies and philosophies, how else did Roy damage the country?
The most unexplored element is his relationship to the Reagan administration, vis-à-vis Rupert Murdoch, and the relaxing of FCC regulations, which led to the creation of Fox News. That was a slow burn that ended up having enormous consequences that have shaped all of our lives.
Is Lindsey Graham the new Roy Cohn? What do you think they have on him that’s made him such a Trumpster lap dog?
I think Roy was more Doberman Pinscher and Graham is more Bichon Frise. I can’t understand Lindsey Graham’s peculiar behavior. It seems to be something more akin to schizophrenia. One day he denounces Trump as one of the worst people to live, and the next they’re golfing and he seems very keen to be around him. I can’t even speculate. I don’t understand that kind of inconsistency. It makes no sense to me.
Trump refused to be interviewed for the film, despite multiple requests. How do you think he feels about it?
I don’t know how he feels. Well, I think we do know how he feels because he asked the question that gave the film its title. It was inspired by his frustration with Jeff Sessions not protecting him. I think he was missing Roy.
As you spell out clearly in the film, Cohn would never admit defeat, so do you roll your eyes when you hear people predict, in a fog of delusion, that Trump will resign like Nixon did?
I never thought he would resign. Never admitting defeat is a Trump trait, and certainly one he learned from Cohn. The terrible irony of Cohn is in the dark narrative of his hypocrisy: being a gay man who persecuted other gay people, becoming a victim of HIV/AIDS and managing to turn a terminal illness into another moment of signal hypocrisy by allowing Ronald and Nancy Reagan to get him into an experimental AIDS treatment program run by the NIH, which afforded him cutting-edge medical care that was not available to everyone else. It was hypocrisy upon hypocrisy on a scale almost unimaginable. It’s like a circle of Dante’s hell that Dante might not have even thought to invent.
How do you feel about HBO’s upcoming Roy Cohn documentary, directed by the Rosenbergs’ granddaughter, Ivy Meeropol?
I’m eager to see it. We worked separately. I never met her but think she’s a very good filmmaker. The more Roy Cohn movies the better, because everyone in the world needs to know who he is right now.
Cohn was played by another right winger, James Woods, in a 1992 HBO movie Citizen Cohn. Who would you love to see play him if someone makes another narrative feature about him?
Tobey Maguire. I think he’s a good actor and has a vague resemblance. Roy could only have dreamed to be half as good-looking as Tobey, but there might still be something there.
Where’s My Roy Cohn? hits theaters September 20.