Some years back, when HBO aired their production of Tony Kushner’s visionary Angels In America, a co-worker of mine, gay and Jewish, remarked favorably on Al Pacino’s portrayal of the Machiavellian attorney-power broker Roy Cohn, but had no clue that Cohn was an actual living person! He knew nothing of this evil weevil, the rabid anti-communist who gleefully did Joe McCarthy’s bidding during the Blacklist era, railed publicly against homosexuals – despite his ravenous appetite for pretty young men – and logged billable hours defending celebrity tax dodgers and gangsters.
In 1978, near the end of his life, Cohn delivered a notorious address to a right-wing, “family values” group, of which no text apparently still exists. Actor/writer Ron Vawter, who conceived the one-man stage production “Roy Cohn/Jack Smith”, later filmed by Waiting for the Moon’s Jill Godmilow and now out on DVD, decided to imagine Cohn’s words that night, and enlisted the provocative novelist Gary Indiana to conjure them up. Indiana’s Cohn, brought to life memorably by Vawter, trumpets anti-gay Tropicana pitchwoman Anita Bryant, herself a controversial firebrand during that decade, and denounces a proposed gay rights bill, referring scornfully to “the Roman circus of the homosexual underworld”, apparently pushing all gay men under the umbrella of the hedonistic carnal experimentation that many urban gay males partook of, before the Grim Reaper of AIDS showed his face.
It’s a world that radical boho New York performance artist may have known intimately. Smith, best remembered for his bizarre indie feature Flaming Creatures, a touchstone of 1960s avant-garde cinema, was a difficult individual to pigeonhole, suffice to call him a hipster/provocateur/art “fag”, who is touted by some as the godfather of performance art, of which the Big Apple has long been the epicenter.
On the surface, Smith, who wore his homosexuality on his sleeve, taunting those who tried to ignore it, would seem to have little in common with the ultraconservative Cohn, who hid his desires behind a Berlin Wall of self-deluding invective, and conceptually, that’s true. However, both men were roughly the same age, both passed from AIDS, and both enjoyed mighty reigns in their respective arenas, arguably representing two disparate poles of New York’s populace, with Cohn as a twisted version of The Age of Innocence’s genteel Newland Archer and Smith as Gangs of New York’s ferocious Bill the Butcher, carving out a reputation amongst the underground. Ironically, Cohn possessed the self-serving, fire-and-brimstone cutthroat instincts that Archer never had, remaining trapped in a loveless marriage.
Vawter’s Cohn stands at a podium, pontificating in a nasally, bridge-and-tunnel twang that anyone who knew the real Roy would recognize, occasionally indulging in self-deprecating Borscht Belt shtick, while explaining the concept of “fisting” to the audience, which was apparently mostly female. While recounting his drift to the political right, he offers vignettes about Jewish life in America, and it seems unlikely that he’d have dwelt on that in his talk, but maybe its inconceivability is the central conceit of Vawter’s production. The deeper mystery surrounding Cohn isn’t what he uttered in a single speech, but rather, how the thought processes of such a contradictory figure worked.
For his turn as Smith, Vawter goes flat-out, draping his body in pseudo-Egyptian drag, while mumbling incoherently about, well, nothing, as a studio-era movie, largely unseen, plays in the background. Did the real Smith actually speak in this halting My Left Foot cadence? If not, was he parodying himself in this bit? Or was it Vawter’s idea? Unless one has seen Smith’s What’s Underground About Marshmallows, it’s impossible to say. As Vawter himself states in an early voice-over, Jack Smith was an unpredictable chap, and no theater patron could accurately guess when a show would conclude or what this deranged thespian would do next. A pioneer in any field is inevitably a polarizing force, and Smith’s hilariously mannered self-indulgence surely drove some to distraction, particularly those considered outsiders to the downtown Manhattan art scene of the 1970s and ‘80s.
The film also features brief, grainy vignettes of Vawter rehearsing his Cohn bits, and I found myself wondering if the real Cohn stood before mirrors rehearsing his own legal summations and fawning conversational suck-ups to those he deemed could enable his rise.
Essentially, what Godmilow has done is present the play with very little extraneous material, and allowed Vawter to shine as he inhabits these two individuals who may forever remain enigmas. However maddeningly flamboyant his Smith is, I wanted to see more of Cohn, who has always fascinated me, and of course, we’ve seen “him” onscreen before, in Angels In America, and, in another HBO feature, Citizen Cohn, based on Nicholas Von Hoffman’s bestselling biography. The estimable James Woods took on the role in that film, and who’s complaining, but Vawter reigns supreme over Pacino and Woods in capturing Cohn, right down to his facial contours and vocal timbre. I suppose I was seeking fresh insights into Cohn’s psyche, which may be present in this production, if one digs deep enough.
It’s clear that both Jack Smith and Roy Cohn erected cages for themselves, though arguably Smith’s domicile was the emotionally healthier environment, as it was devoid of pretense or hypocrisy. It’s doubtful that they ever met, though Smith’s adoration in some hip media circles may have sometimes elevated him into the white-shoe stratosphere that Gordon Gekko or Sherman McCoy flew in. If anything, they were emblematic of an internal tug-of-war between a DIY ethos of being yourself, letting it all hang out, and damn the torpedos, or going along to get along, i.e., making whatever sacrifices needed to rise in the world. Of course, Roy Cohn, born into comfortable circumstances, was no Horatio Alger. And his unapologetic embrace of ruthlessness made him a sort of Michael Corleone figure, a man in moral decline whose wicked hubris finally succumbed to an unforgiving punishment. It may be that Smith’s existence served as an annoying, if unseen, conscientious reminder to Cohn that denying one’s nature is the surest path to destruction. At the very end, Cohn, disbarred, weakened by illness, and beset by enemies, surely must have ruminated on that.