If eyes are windows on the soul, you only had to look at Roy Cohn’s to realize he didn’t have one. Cohn’s dazed glare reflected his moral bankruptcy. But even though he died in 1986, his flaws are connected to those of our present. He was Donald Trump’s mentor and partner in crime. He’s had a funny afterlife, first as a fictionalized character in “Angels in America” and last year as the subjects of two documentaries, Matt Tyrnauer’s “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” and Ivy Meeropol’s “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn.” R.E.M.’s “Exhuming McCarthy” plays over the latter film’s closing credits, but “Exhuming Cohn” would be more fitting for our times.
The two films competed with each other for access. “Angels in America” went unmentioned in “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” which seemed odd until I saw “Bully. Coward. Victim.” Meeropol’s film includes images of a 2018 revival of the play and interviews with Tony Kushner and Nathan Lane (who played Cohn then). She has a personal connection to Cohn. Her grandparents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Her father Michael holds Cohn responsible for their execution after convictions for spying for the Soviet Union, which led to him growing up under adoptive parents. Tyrnauer saw Cohn as grist for his series of documentaries about the hidden gay history of 20th-century American life.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s granddaughter examines a quintessentially evil closet case
“Bully. Coward. Victim.” begins with the Rosenbergs and home movies of her family. Her father was a child when they were executed, but he was a participant in the ‘60s New Left and defends the merits of the American Communist Party and the Rosenbergs’ devotion to the USSR. The blame he placed on Cohn drove him to argue against the lawyer on a talk show in the early ‘80s.
But Meeropol’s film has a split personality. It feels as though it might have started out as a feature-length personal essay-film that got chopped up into its current form.
Tyrnauer’s film relied heavily on video interviews with Cohn, while “Bully. Coward. Victim.” turns to audio, often played over still photos. Very early on in his career, Cohn’s role in the 1954 McCarthy congressional hearings was captured in Dan Talbot and Emile De Antonio’s “Point of Order!” a decade later. Even the brief clips Meeropol uses reveal how gay-baiting and jokes about “pixies” were once considered fair game for the whole political spectrum, as well as how soon innuendo about Cohn’s sexuality began swirling.
It’s impossible to make a film about Cohn in the current day without Trump being the elephant in the room. Cohn’s position as a prophet of Trumpism — or Trump’s as an inheritor of the venality and open shamelessness of Cohn — made up the subject matter of half of “Where’s My Roy Cohn?”
“Bully. Coward. Victim.” takes a broader view but also keeps returning to this, with the aid of TV footage of the late, great Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett. But despite Meeropol’s direct ties to her material, hers is a fairly straightforward documentary, telling Cohn’s life as a public figure in chronological order.
Like J. Edgar Hoover, Cohn was a real-life version of the gay man who turns fascist because he can’t handle an adult life dealing with his sexuality in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film “The Conformist.” Cohn’s Judaism also seemed to make him determined not to live up to any stereotype of the weak, whiny Jewish-American. Instead, he turned himself into a menacing creep. “Bully. Coward. Victim.” shows how he got an 18-month jail sentence for Richard Dupont, who published several issues of a ‘zine mocking Cohn as a closet case.
If “Bully. Coward. Victim.” contains plenty of worthwhile material, it’s all mighty familiar at this late date. Meeropol might have made a better film had she expanded her focus beyond Cohn and delved further into her family’s life. We hear a lot about what her father thinks about the Rosenbergs, but her own opinions can only be gleaned from the film itself. “Angels in America” was better at bringing out the contradictions of her title, which comes from Cohn’s place on the AIDS quilt, where “Coward” is sewn under a pink triangle.
As Cohn was dying of AIDS, his buddy Trump abandoned him. Cohn lived in a world where everyone knew his secrets, both sexual and political, and his presence was tolerated, if not encouraged. You’d expect John Waters to be repulsed by Cohn’s presence in ‘70s Provincetown, but the Hollywood and media celebrities who lined up to do coke with him at Studio 54 were titillated instead and played along with his pretense of heterosexuality. Wealth and power have a way of evening these things out. The greater implications of that subject are touched upon in Meeropol’s film, but as with the recent Netflix series “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich,” neither seems quite as cutting as the best fictional treatments of oligarchy.
BULLY. COWARD. VICTIM. THE STORY OF ROY COHN | Directed by Ivy Meeropol | HBO, HBO Go, HBO Max beginning Jun. 18 | HBO.com
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