Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn.

Where’s my Roy Cohn? – Donald J. Trump

This quote above is actually in the title of another doc that came out in 2019 about Roy Cohn, a man who at the very beginning of his legal career was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel, and instrumental in the brutal sentencing of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair for espionage.

An outrageously psychopathic political fixer of the darkest talents and highest litigious caliber is now growing in posthumous infamy with each new month of Trump presidency, as he was Donald J.’s longtime lawyer and mentor, and everything the real estate developer, turned reality star, turned the 45th president of the Unites States learned about wielding power came from Machiavelli himself (with apologies to the actual Niccolò).

Let me sum it up for you: you win, at all costs. 

Peter Manso, who interviewed him for Playboy magazine, sums it up too – Roy never had a single relationship in his life, only allegiances. The key ones which this doc delves into, even the closest ones, never really got to know anything about him as a human being except the minutia of their immediate transactions, and the current currency of their loyalty.

He was complex, but in a way that seems to fit with an overall idea of psychopathy, all surfaces no substances, a cool, eloquent, courteous, charming veneer with seething primal, raging emotions hidden deep underneath. Which seldom bubbled over, but when they did, they immediately translated to anger and vindictiveness before even reaching a possibility of maturing into anything else – affection, fear, sorrow, and probably, most of all, shame.

It seems that Roy Cohn, primarily, must have hated himself, as he was everything that he seemed to attack in public – he had a Democrat family, of Jewish background (his father was a judge), he was a closet homosexual, yet he was unusually liberal with his proclivities. Cohn was the ultimate hypocrite, however, this was the trait he professed to most despise in people. Here was a guy that legally represented Studio 54, was a lawyer to the mob, while being Ronald Reagan’s first point of call when negotiating in an emergency, as well as the spokesperson for the Archdioceses of New York.

To me the most interesting thing he claimed was that everything he did has to be true – he would never say anything publicly that he could not repeat under oath. Shades of his uncle Bernie who ended up in Sing Sing because of a savings and loan scandal, whom he swore he would never end up as.

Cohn was also a party animal, an introverted extreme extrovert, seemed to have only dated hustlers, carried a bag of cocaine with him (apparently) wherever he roamed, almost invented the term ‘dodging taxes’, was notorious for not paying his bills or his dues, and at the same time was the face of conservative America.

The title of this film – Bully. Coward. Victim. – comes from the quilt he had been allocated at the Washington AIDS memorial, the filmmaker’s family stumbling upon it on a visit.

This is a doc by Ivy Meeropol, the granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, and as a companion piece to her 2004 Academy-shortlisted Heir To An Execution, it centers on Cohen’s involvement in the ruin of her family most, and their fight for delayed justice, albeit with a willingness to delve deeper into Cohen’s personality and life trajectory. And it does just that, although a lot of it whizzes by perhaps too quickly, as mere afterthought to his McCarthyist days. But in a life as chock-full of allegiances as Cohen’s was, and empty of actual human interactions, this seems to be an unfortunate inevitability.

The only humorous, lifelike highlight of his story was that one time Cohen seemed to have been outplayed by someone as sleazy, manipulative, and determined as himself. But not quite.

Essentially, Cohn’s life, as high-powered and star-studded as it appeared to all from the outside, seemed to be pretty simple: he was lonely, screwed people over, partied hard, and died of a horrific illness he tried to conceal because he was ashamed of it.

By John Waters‘s account, he was so overwhelmingly disliked in the community, an owner of a gay bar he patronised used to spit in his soup.

Before he died, he was also disbarred over an unpaid loan, which, as Nathan Lane, who plays Cohn in Tony Kushner‘s Angels In America, dryly observes, probably hit him harder than his diagnosis.

A former landlady at Provincetown beach made an observation of Cohn’s final days, while he was dying of AIDS, a thought which stayed with me most after watching this doc last night. And that was that he seemed never to be alone, except when going for a swim. Always surrounded by people, always in a crowd, never in self-reflection. How important it is, she says, to spend time with yourself.

Eventually, you would have to glance at a mirror.

Most of his illustrious, high society friends deserted him when he became ill, for Cohen, most hurtfully of all, Donald Trump.

Who would have thought, Cohen’s life, as existential tragedy. The man about whom most interviewed straight up called pure evil, and with good cause.

★★★✩✩

Author: © Milana Vujkov

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