LOS ANGELES — Back in 2016, when Matt Tyrnauer was cutting his documentary “Studio 54,” he was steeped in archival footage from the late 1970s of the Dante-esque disco.
One boldfaced name popped off the screen.
“So I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is a great character for a film. Why has no one done a Roy Cohn movie?’” Tyrnauer recalled, sipping Champagne with ice in a huge glass on the terrace at the Chateau Marmont, amid a starry crowd that included Billy Idol, Jon Hamm and Bill Hader.
“The whole narrative of Studio and the demise of Studio are intertwined with Cohn because he was the lawyer and he was sort of losing power at that time,” he continued. “And he kind of screwed up the defense of Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. And he also was the lawyer for Mafia dons, an array of business tycoons and Donald Trump, so that the whole milieu of New York at that time was inextricably linked together.”
But Tyrnauer had no sooner decided to make Cohn his next documentary subject than he dismissed the idea, telling himself that “it will never be financed because Donald Trump is not going to win the election. And the only real reason to make this movie would be if Trump wins because then it would be very pertinent and we would get financing in an instant. But thank God, Hillary is going to win and we’ll never have to think about Roy Cohn again and he will be consigned to ‘Angels in America’ and that’s how the world will know him and we’ll sail off happily into the sunset of a Hillary Clinton presidency.”
Then the world turned topsy-turvy. “I was in a hotel room on Madison Square and the first thing I did was go to Shake Shack and get an enormous ice cream sundae,” Tyrnauer said. “The second thing I did was open my room wine, which I never drink.”
The next day, he wrote the treatment about the relationship between two of the most infamous and transactional New Yorkers ever, experts in drilling into the darkest parts of the American psyche and igniting paranoia.
It was a yarn Mary Shelley would have appreciated.
“Roy Cohn did the impossible,” Tyrnauer said. “He created a president from beyond the grave. I don’t think there’s any disputing that. The basic lessons that Trump learned from Cohn were: Never apologize. If someone hits you, hit them back a thousand times harder. Any publicity is good publicity. And find an ‘other.’”
He said that the origin of Cohn’s career in the 1950s was dooming the Rosenbergs to the electric chair, Jews as Bolsheviks and fifth columnists, and going after gay people in the State Department.
“With Trump, the other is Mexicans, Latinos, Muslims, I mean, fill in the blank,” he said. “The lesson of this from history is: Pick your other. That’s what a demagogue does. Trump’s kind of an empty vessel. I think he’s eerily similar to Joe McCarthy in that way. I think it basically comes down to something Ken Auletta said in the film: What a demagogue does is throw out an untruth or a lie and then stands back and watches as that fills the void.”
In the documentary, Tyrnauer interviews one ex-lover of Cohn and three cousins, including writer Anne Roiphe. They described Cohn’s mother, Dora Marcus, as a domineering woman who, when a maid in her employ dropped dead, stored the body under a serving table in the kitchen while she continued Passover dinner.
When Gary Marcus, a cousin, asked the first question of Passover, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Dora blurted out, “Because the maid is dead in the kitchen.”
Dora, who came from a wealthy family connected to the Lionel Train company, the Van Heusen shirt company, Bank of United States and Q-Tips, and who was married to a Bronx judge, obsessed about her only son so much that she got him a nose job when he was young.
“She tried to correct his nose, and it was botched and he got a scar,” Tyrnauer said. The footage also shows a later face-lift that left additional, horrendous scars. “Roger Stone himself says that Cohn got a cut-rate face-lift.”
The documentary paints Cohn as a sulfurous hypocrite who attacked Jews, even though he was Jewish, and who attacked gays, never admitting that he was gay, even as he became infatuated with G. David Schine: a friendship that spurred the Army-McCarthy hearings and led to Lillian Hellman’s immortal line that the three men were “Bonnie, Bonnie and Clyde.”
Cohn continued to deny that he was gay as he withered away from AIDS, getting secret treatment at the National Institutes of Health with the help of the Reagans. He pretended at times to be engaged to his lifelong friend Barbara Walters.
Flamboyant and ruthless met flamboyant and ruthless when Cohn collided with a young builder named Donald Trump at Le Club sometime in the ’70s.
The descriptions of Cohn by those who knew him in the movie, which opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 20, could easily apply to Trump: Roy Cohn understood the political value of wrapping himself in the flag. He made good copy. He knew how to manipulate the press and dictate stories to the New York tabloids. He surrounded himself with gorgeous women. There was always something of a nefarious nature going on. He was like a caged animal who would go after you the minute the cage door was opened.
Trump, Tyrnauer said, “swallowed Roy Cohn whole.” (Or, as new resistance fighter Anthony Scaramucci put it, it’s “as if Roy Cohn and Joe McCarthy got together and had a baby and it ended up being Donald Trump.”) The flashy developer loved Cohn’s unapologetic defiance. When the federal government sued the Trumps in 1973 under the Fair Housing Act for refusing to rent apartments to black people, they hired Cohn, who filed a countersuit for $100 million for defamation.
Cohn eventually slipped from his perch of dark allure and became embroiled in an embezzlement scandal and the seamy case of a death connected to a mysterious fire on a yacht. In his final months, when he was decimated by AIDS, Trump dropped him.
Cohn may have emanated “the presence of evil,” as someone says in the movie, but he was loyal to his friends. He learned the hard way that his protégé was not. “Donald pisses ice water,” Cohn reportedly said before his death.
I asked Tyrnauer why there has not been a moment with President Trump, as there was with Senator McCarthy (Cohn cleaved to his side) when the bully definitively gets called out for having no decency, sir, and the giant out-of-control balloon is punctured.
“There were only three networks at that time, so that moment could really land,” Tyrnauer said. “I think Mueller was the closest thing to Joseph Welch that we have because he’s a straight shooter and looks the part. But his delivery didn’t land. And the media landscape is so fractured now.”
When “Studio 54” screened at Sundance in 2018, the audience hissed every time Cohn’s saturnine image flashed on the screen. And Tyrnauer knew he had made the right choice for his new documentary.