Sneak Peek of New Roy Cohn Documentary Comes to Provincetown
by Steve Desroches
TOP IMAGE: Roy Cohn. Photo Courtesy of HBO
Evil. It’s a big word, if not in length than in meaning. It can of course be used flippantly or for intentional hyperbole. But to the Abrahamic religions, and other belief systems around the world, evil is not just an adjective, but a very real force. Something to fear, something to denounce, something to battle. Culturally, and politically, the word has gravitas. When President George W Bush declared Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the “Axis of Evil,” some bristled that invoking the word carried tones of apocalyptic religious warfare or could conjure a dehumanizing image of complicated world affairs and those caught in between. The takeaway is that the response to the word evil is that it should always be used judiciously, as it removes humanity and replaces it with the demonic. But when speaking about Roy Cohn, the word evil is used with rapid-fire certainty by those who knew him: his colleagues, associates, even members of his own family.
Indeed, history has not been kind to Roy Cohn, and many feel it’s just desserts. That’s apparent in the new documentary Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn, so named after an anonymous panel sent to the AIDS Memorial Quilt two years after his death in 1986. Cohn is of course the infamous lawyer who became a rabid conservative wunderkind for his significant role in sending the Rosenbergs to the electric chair in what many people, from all points of the political spectrum, essentially agree was little more than judicial murder. He’d go on to be Senator Joseph McCarthy’s right hand man during the witch hunt for Communists leading to the “Lavender Scare,” the purge of gays and lesbians from the State Department. He then became the go-to lawyer for the notorious Studio 54 and had a Rolodex of rich, powerful, and corrupt clients, including a young New York City real estate mogul named Donald Trump. That of course has renewed interest in Cohn, considering his close personal relationship with the man who would be president (at least as of this printing). And Bully. Coward. Victim. is one of those current examinations, but with an intensely personal touch. It’s directed by Ivy Meeropol, the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
“Calling him evil doesn’t get to the meaning of what it means to be human,” says Meeropol. “It’s all true. But just to call him evil doesn’t get us anywhere. It’s not enough. It’s dismissive. There’s no point. Could I challenge myself to have empathy for this person?”
And to some degree Meeropol admits, she did. His evident self-loathing, how deeply closeted as a gay man he was, and his death from AIDS are all aspects of his life she takes no pleasure in. That being said, her view remains that he was a vicious, reckless man with little to no conscience. And yes, evil.
The documentary, which premiered earlier this month at the New York Film Festival and will screen for one night only here in Provincetown this week, is an examination of Roy Cohn the man rather than a historical rehash or fevered connect-the-dots to Trump project. When it comes to Cohn, “why” is an impossible question to really answer. Bully. Coward. Victim. looks to answer “who,” as in who was he really. The answer isn’t as scary as his historical reputation as an unscrupulous monster, though it’s just as disturbing. This character study reveals the weaknesses and insecurities of this ruthless and incredibly powerful man, showing that behind the bravado was a pathetic, lonely creature.
One of the great successes of Bully. Coward. Victim., one that is of particular interest to us here on the Outer Cape, is that Meeropol managed to show just how special a place Provincetown was to Cohn. He was no casual visitor. He began spending summers in Provincetown in the early 1970s, right about the time he became Donald Trump’s lawyer, and continued to visit until shortly before his death. A significant portion of the documentary is set in Provincetown and includes interviews with familiar faces, including Anne Packard, John Waters, Peter Manso, Ryan Landry, Bobby Wetherbee, Tony Kushner, and Noreen Bahring, as well as incredible footage of the town in the 1970s and 1980s. It was here that this miserable man was his happiest, knee-deep in cocaine and hustlers as he occasionally used Provincetown as a locale for money laundering.
Adding to the poignancy and geographical immediacy of the film is that the Outer Cape is also an important place for Meeropol and her family. When her father and uncle were orphaned by the execution of their parents, they were adopted by Anne and Abel Meeropol, who over time brought their sons to the Outer Cape. Meeropol’s parents Michael and Ann brought her and her brother throughout their youth, eventually buying a house in Truro. Meeropol thinks back to her days as a child and theorizes that she very well could have walked right passed Roy Cohn on Commercial Street at some point, both caught in a strange gravitational pull toward Provincetown. But Cohn’s association with Provincetown does not sour what is a very special place to Meeropol, who met her husband at an event at the Fine Arts Work Center on Valentine’s Day in the mid 1990s. Her 2004 film Heir to an Execution,about her grandparents, screened in town, giving her another landmark moment.
“The film had been to Sundance, but having it shown at the Provincetown Film Festival and having Larry Kramer there and stand up in the back of the room and give me a standing ovation,” says Meeropol. “It was one of the highlights of my life.”
As the Trump administration continues to attack the standards of law and decency of our country like a corrupt semi-literate kraken, connecting the dots of how we got here can look like a scribbled rat’s nest. But it’s clear that a straight line can be drawn from Roy Cohn to Donald Trump. Those who study the relationship can see that in the best of times Trump could seem like a ventriloquist dummy on Cohn’s lap and in the worst, a full-on Linda-Blair-style possession. Those who know their history see the Trump presidency like a shriek from Cohn’s grave.
“Oh gosh, so much,” says Meeropol on Trump resembling Cohn. “Recently, Trump was speaking about the whistle blowers, calling them spies and traitors and said, ‘You remember what we used to do to spies?’ If you don’t know your history, and a lot of Americans don’t, he was referring to my grandparents. Roy Cohn taught him that.”
Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn screens at Waters Edge Cinema at Whaler’s Whar, 237 Commercial St.f, second floor, on Wednesday, October 30 at 7:30 p.m. A Q and A with the filmmaker and several subjects in the documentary will follow the screening. Tickets ($20) are available at the box office and online at provincetownfilm.org. For more information call 508.487.3456.