The gatekeeper

Matt Tyrnauer on Where's My Roy Cohn?

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Matt Tyrnauer's Where's My Roy Cohn? on the streets of New York: "Cohn, I think, was the person who sat between those two worlds and was the gatekeeper between the underworld and the overworld of politics and money and power."
Matt Tyrnauer's Where's My Roy Cohn? on the streets of New York: "Cohn, I think, was the person who sat between those two worlds and was the gatekeeper between the underworld and the overworld of politics and money and power." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

There is only one filmmaker who has documented Valentino Garavani (Valentino: The Last Emperor); Scotty Bowers (Scotty And The Secret History Of Hollywood); Jane Jacobs (Citizen Jane: Battle For The City), and Ian Schrager (Studio 54). And now Matt Tyrnauer has added Roy Cohn to the list with his insightfully dark Where's My Roy Cohn? Last fall, Matt told me that the idea for the film came out of his Studio 54 work, as Roy Cohn was the lawyer for Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, and showed up prominently in the archival of the infamous club.

Matt Tyrnauer on Gore Vidal: "He was prescient and brilliant. And he nails Roy Cohn on TV in the early Seventies. He kind of gets to him and few people did."
Matt Tyrnauer on Gore Vidal: "He was prescient and brilliant. And he nails Roy Cohn on TV in the early Seventies. He kind of gets to him and few people did." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In my conversation with Matt Tyrnauer this week, I started out with the quote on the poster that sets the tone of the film and which made me think of William Friedkin's documentary The Devil And Father Amorth about exorcism. Matt calls Roy Cohn, who was chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, "the gatekeeper between the underworld and the overworld of politics and money and power" and relates his film Where's My Roy Cohn? to what Gore Vidal called the "United States of Amnesia".

Tyrnauer's approach is that of a hypocrisy hunter, and he gets family members and colleagues and, particularly impressively, a boyfriend of Cohn's (who denied his homosexuality until his death of AIDS) to open up about the unscrupulous and powerful man. From his poignant role in the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg trial, back to his parents' unhappy marriage, and forward to his anti-Communist, anti-gay efforts with McCarthy and J Edgar Hoover, to his life-long inferiority complexes and amoral tactics for success as a lawyer and ruthless orchestrator of power - the film is a mosaic of the life of a 20th century man. More importantly, every aspect illuminates not only the past, but our present. Tyrnauer elegantly leaves it up to each viewer to connect the dots of strategy, so that we actively work on our own enlightenment.

Matt Tyrnauer on Roy Cohn (at Studio 54): "I've never made a film about someone so dark and diabolical and, I think it's fair to say, evil."
Matt Tyrnauer on Roy Cohn (at Studio 54): "I've never made a film about someone so dark and diabolical and, I think it's fair to say, evil."

Anne-Katrin Titze: You put a very telling quote about Roy Cohn from your film on the poster: "When you were in his presence, you knew you were …

Matt Tyrnauer: … in the presence of evil."

AKT: William Friedkin made a documentary about an exorcist, called The Devil And Father Amorth.

MT: I'm a big fan of his but I've never seen it.

AKT: Somebody interviewed in the film warns, be careful, the more time you spend working on the devil, the more dangerous it gets. Did you feel that the "presence of evil" in making this film had an effect?

MT: I feared when I started that I would be in a bad mood when I was making it. Because, you know, it takes a while to do these things, at least a year usually. And I've never made a film about someone so dark and diabolical and, I think it's fair to say, evil. So what would that be like?

AKT: You always had lightness to some extent in your films.

Matt Tyrnauer's Studio 54 poster
Matt Tyrnauer's Studio 54 poster

MT: That ends up being true. And this was the one that I thought would be all dark and I think it is. It turned out that it didn't bother me, because he personally is so strange and there's so many crazy quirks. And there's so many aspects to the larger story that involve politics, money, crime, society. It just was endlessly fascinating.

And then in the end, I think if we're doing a good job, we all learn while we're doing these things. You learn something while you're writing a book, you don't know it all when you start. You learn something when you're making a movie. I ended up understanding so much more deeply the way everything connects.

AKT: Yes, you show it.

MT: You call it the power grids. There's a dark grid and a light grid. And the dark grid is organised crime. The light grid is government when it's functioning properly in a Republic. Cohn, I think, was the person who sat between those two worlds and was the gatekeeper between the underworld and the overworld of politics and money and power.

AKT: Gatekeeper is a good word. I can hardly think of a film where I liked the omissions that much. All the things you didn't spell out.

MT: Oh, thank you. I like not to spell everything out. Tell me what in particular stood out?

AKT: You didn't make parallels explicit. You leave the audience so much room to think and to connect the present to the past. One lovely edit [by Andrea Lewis], for instance, is when you cut to an image of waves and the year 1951. While we look at the waves what was heard before sinks in, about "the darkest parts of the American psyche."

Roy Cohn was the lawyer for Studio 54 co-founders Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager
Roy Cohn was the lawyer for Studio 54 co-founders Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager

MT: The film is an oblique indictment of current politics. It focuses mostly on the past but I wanted every minute to resonate for our present moment.

AKT: Why else make it?

MT: Well, exactly. That's correct. But how to make it? So you could do a point counterpoint. You could do a vintage point and a present point and you could bring it back to Trump and you could have had a lot of Fox News footage. And show what the demagoguery that Cohn taught Trump how to practice looks like in a - still to me unthinkable - present. I mean, I overhear people say: "I still wake up and can't believe Donald Trump is President." I agree with that. Almost every day I have to pinch myself and wake up to reality. And it's a really really sad reality. The film is about that and it is to explore in an enlightening way what Gore Vidal called "the United States of Amnesia."

AKT: All the Gore Vidal clips are absolutely wonderful. As always, the best.

MT: He was prescient and brilliant. And he nails Roy Cohn on TV in the early Seventies. He kind of gets to him and few people did.

AKT: About Cohn's mother you have this incredible quote: "She was the ugliest girl in the Bronx."

Roy Cohn whispers to Senator Joseph McCarthy at the Army-McCarthy hearings
Roy Cohn whispers to Senator Joseph McCarthy at the Army-McCarthy hearings

MT: You know, this is from a cousin. Whenever you hear a kind of hard charge like that, a really kind of personal charge in the film, it comes from someone who is related to him. There are three cousins who appear in the movie, and that in particular was Anne Roiphe. Anne Roiphe, who is a noted writer and memoirist, is related to Roy Cohn, and she knew Dora Cohn, the mother. And Anne Roiphe quotes her own mother saying Dora was the - and I quote - "ugliest girl in the Bronx".

AKT: Externally, on the photos, she's not so bad. She looks like Wallis Simpson a bit, I thought. We can't tell from that about the ugliness of her heart, though.

MT: It's overkill, I agree. I think the point Anne Roiphe's mother was making is that Dora was unattractive physically and had a bad personality. And it was very hard for her, it seemed, to get married. Now, to be an upper class Jewish woman in the Twenties and to be unwed after a certain age was a "Schande".

AKT: So the family bought her a husband.

MT: Yes, so they bought her a husband.

AKT: In exchange for making him a judge.

Where's My Roy Cohn? poster at Sony Pictures Classics
Where's My Roy Cohn? poster at Sony Pictures Classics Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MT: In the family this was the premise. Because the family is horrified by their relationship to Roy Cohn by and large. That theirs was a loveless marriage and they produced one son. And he was an evil seed because he was the product of a loveless marriage.

AKT: And the son collected frogs, of all things.

MT: Yeah, frogs. I can't say where it comes from, but they were not only frogs, they were plushy toys and figurines.

AKT: I have a theory.

MT: What is your theory?

AKT: The Brothers Grimm. The Frog King.

MT: Oh, interesting.

AKT: The ugly frog who transforms. The wish for metamorphosis into a beautiful prince. In the Grimms' version, by the way, the frog transforms after being thrown against the wall. In America, it morphed into a kiss. There's another Grimm connection I made with your title. Where's my Roy Cohn? isn't explained in the film.

MT: Right.

AKT: The Grimms were part of the Göttinger Seven, a group of professors at the University of Göttingen, who in 1837 refused to swear allegiance to the new king, Ernst August, who ordered all professors, all civil servants to swear an oath to him personally. They were fired. Later he annulled the constitution. The question of your title made me think of that - as in, "who swears unequivocal allegiance to me"?

MT: I like your frog thing!

AKT: Take it, for all it's worth. Thank you.

MT: Thank you, it was a pleasure.

Read what Matt Tyrnauer had to say on Ian Schrager and Studio 54.

Read what Matt Tyrnauer had to say on Valentino Garavani, Scotty Bowers, Citizen Jane, Michael Jackson, Ron Galella and Tom Hurwitz filming Studio 54.

Matt Tyrnauer will be doing Q&As on the opening weekend of Where's My Roy Cohn? in New York after the following screenings: Film Forum on Friday, September 20 at 7:00pm and Saturday, September 21 at 4:50pm - Landmark at 57 West on Friday, September 20 at 7:45pm and Saturday, September 21 at 7:00pm.

Where's My Roy Cohn? opens in the US on September 20.

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