By Scott Ross
If Roy Cohn had not existed, I can’t imagine why anyone would have invented him. The best one can do with such a composite figure of venality, avarice, hypocrisy, corruption and ethical rot is what Tony Kushner accomplished: To re-invent him, for dramatic purposes — as a symbol, yes, but as an appallingly human one. The great irony of Cohn’s life is that he should be best remembered as a character in an intellectual playwright’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” How the perfection of that would have rankled him! Kushner’s Cohn is the prefect embodiment of self-loathing squeezed into bespoke Armani, a man who, even as he is stricken with “the gay plague” is able to justify himself to his physician with a monologue that sums up a sense of personal identity breathtaking in its blindness to reality:
“Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels: ‘Gay,’ ‘homosexual,’ ‘lesbian.’ You think they tell you who a person sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that. Like all labels, they refer to one thing and one thing only: Where does a person so identified fit in the food chain? In the pecking order. Not ideology or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Who owes me favors. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call. To someone who doesn’t understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, can’t get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows. Now, Henry, does that sound like me? […] This is not sophistry, and this is not hypocrisy. This is reality. I have sex with men, but unlike nearly every other man of which this is true, I bring the guy I’m screwing to Washington, and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand, because what I am is defined entirely by who I am. Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys.”
Paradoxically, the image of Cohn as something approximating a human being is encased, like a tsetse fly in mass-produced amber, in the kinescopes of the 1954 Army-McCarthy Hearings from which Emil de Antonio and Daniel Talbot concocted their mesmerizing 1964 film Point of Order! I won’t call it a documentary, although it is certainly that, in the demotic sense of a living history. Rather the movie is a chronicle — a modern morality play if you like, one which carried with it the ultimate in unintended consequences. Cohn and Senator Joseph McCarthy, for whom he worked, expected these hearings to vindicate them, and to further their fruitless inquisition into alleged Communist infiltration of the government. That they were wholly unsuccessful in doing so, leaving only suicide and despair in their wake, was of no concern to them. They anticipated the televised hearings as spectacular in which they would star. The maxim “Be careful what you wish for” ought to have been hung over both men’s desks, but their preening arrogance was such that neither foresaw the ultimate outcome: Humiliation for both, and senate censure for “Tail Gunner Joe.”
You can actually see, in the act of hubris that brings about their downfall, the moment when Cohn realized the jig was up: The instantly famous “Have you no decency, sir?” scene — for scene it most assuredly was — played in monologue by the Army’s counsel Joseph Welch. As McCarthy flails in the wake of the spontaneous burst of applause that erupts in the hearing room, desperately attempting to extricate himself from his own, neatly tailored straitjacket, a look of squirming panic crosses Cohn’s features. Whether, as some maintain, he warned McCarthy in advance to not attempt a smear of Welch’s colleague Fred Fisher, the squall of anguish that briefly grips Cohn at least conveys that McCarthy’s young counsel was smarter than his boss. McCarthy blunders on, and on, digging himself in deeper, unable to recognize (or perhaps realize) that he’s lost the entire war in that one moment of “recklessness and cruelty.”
That Welch was fully prepared for his seemingly spontaneous chiding of the Senator seems self-evident. That he was playing, far more expertly than the more seasoned McCarthy, directly to the television audience as well as to the spectators in that crowded hearing room, just as he defined himself, disingenuously, as a “simple lawyer” when he was quite obviously anything but, does not dilute the impact that moment had on its viewers, or indeed the way we respond to it now. If Ed Morrow’s “See it Now” exposé of McCarthy was the first nail in the junior Senator from Wisconsin’s political coffin, Welch’s indictment of him was the final one.
That “simple lawyer” routine’s apotheosis was very likely a bit earlier, when, asked by McCarthy to define what a pixie is, Welch responds, with apparent good humor, “I would say that a pixie is a close relative of a fairy.” It got a good laugh, but there is something unsettling about it, as there was earlier, when Senator after Senator fell over himself to be assured that an Army investigation into “homosexual behavior” on a Southern base was not in his state. A pixie is more closely related to an elf (a characterization that rather fits Joseph Welch, twinkling merrily and making gentle witticisms) but the Army’s counsel surely knew that, in 1954, the word “fairy” would mean something entirely different to his audience. That he made that statement while cross-examining Cohn is telling. Welch may have been more subtle than his adversary, but I don’t think he was any less devious or even — to use his own word — cruel.*
Curiously, close attention to Point of Order! actually causes the alert viewer to realize that, in purely legal terms, McCarthy and Cohn were often correct. More damningly, we are able to grasp, knowing the sort of man Roy Cohn was, that Secretary of Defense Robert Stevens almost certainly perjured himself when he denied that Cohn had threatened him. Stevens dismisses as ridiculous the idea that Cohn could have promised to destroy the President and even the Army itself if he didn’t get his way on the treatment of draftee G. David Schine. Doesn’t what Cohn is alleged to have said sound like him?
The matter of Schine, which brought about the hearings themselves, is practically a Cohn special in itself. Whether he and Schine were intimate, as some have alleged, McCarthy’s counsel certainly took a strangely personal interest in the young hotel chain heir, attempting repeatedly to garner for his protégé cushy Army sinecures and intimating, in the stupidly and easily exposed cropped photo of Schine and Stevens, that the Secretary was obliging.
deAntonio and Talbot were criticized in some quarters for making less a documentary than something else. This is of course perfectly true, but not in the way their detractors meant. These commentators wanted their documentary straight, with point of view, narration, and camera manipulation. What the makers of Point of Order! had in mind was something entirely different: A document that makes its own statement, through the use of un-narrated, un-accented, found footage. It is, for example, surely not an accident that, in sifting through what must, over the six-week period of those hearings, have been hundreds of hours of footage, the then former Attorney General is glimpsed in the background multiple times, his patrician looks and perfect coiffure in notable attendance. The Kennedy acolytes don’t like to admit it, but Bobby worked for McCarthy. In this way his presence reflects the very sort of (also hotly denied) neoliberal McCarthyism which currently has in its manic grip all manner and condition of supposed liberal Democrats.
That the footage excerpted by the makers of Point of Order! is so readily available makes the failures of Citizen Cohn all the more curious. Adapted by David Franconi from Nicholas von Hoffman’s cleverly titled 1988 biography, the HBO movie is so cartoonish and gets things so spectacularly, terribly wrong, that one can be distracted from what’s good in it. But the worst of its excesses is its blatant ripping-off of Kushner’s epic, two-part masterwork. One of the playwright’s most deliciously theatrical conceits lies in the presence, in Cohn’s private hospital room, of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Not content with duplicating this device, Franconi ups the ante, bringing in the shades of McCarthy, Welch, the elder Cohns, and even a black juror from Roy’s 1968 trial on a wide variety of charges. Although Citizen Cohn predates the Broadway premiere of Angels, the first play (Millennium Approaches) was printed in American Theatre magazine in 1990, so Franzoni’s appropriation of the device can hardly be a coincidence. Why Kushner didn’t sue over that one, I can’t imagine.**
Some of the actors (notably Joseph Bologna as Walter Winchell, Lee Grant as Cohn’s mother, Joe Petruzzi as Cohn’s boyfriend Peter and David Marshall Grant as a Robert F. Kennedy sporting a ludicrously, wildly unkempt hairdo) succumb to the cartoon-like quality of the piece, and are lost. Others (Ed Flanders as Welch, Jeffrey Nordling as Schine, Pat Hingle as J. Edgar Hoover, Karen Ludwig as Ethel Rosenberg, Daniel Benzali as that old closet-queen Cardinal Spellman, Frances Foster and Novella Nelson as two women named Annie Lee Moss, and Allen Garfield as Abe Feller) fare considerably better. But it is up to Frederic Forrest (as Dashiell Hammett), John McMartin as a doctor, Josef Sommer as Cohn’s father, Tovah Feldshuh as one of his wronged clients, the wonderful Fritz Weaver (as Sen. Everett Dirksen) and Daniel Hugh Kelly as the Congressman Neil Gallagher who gives back to Hoover in spades what that hypocritical old fascist deals to him, to provide that special thespic something that, to be unutterably prosaic, qualifies as veritable gales of fresh air.
James Woods, as Cohn, gives one of his patented scenery-chewing performances. Ron Leibman and Al Pacino were also… I believe the polite phrase is “larger than life”… in the 1993 premiere and the 2003 telefilm (also produced for HBO) of Angels respectively. And while Pacino looks nothing like Cohn, even eschewing the man’s increasingly bald pate, his performance is so riveting and so true you forgive him everything. There is a smugness about Woods that breaks through his characterizations, and it’s really on parade here, even during the Army-McCarthy Hearings. The Cohn Americans saw on their television screens was, if voluble, quiet and almost gentle, aware of the cameras but never (unlike his boss) playing to them. Woods smirks and mugs to the veriest galleries.
Worse, the director, Frank Pierson, stages the now-infamous Welch cross-examination with utter disregard for how it played out in Washington. He has Cohn, during the “Have you no decency?” exchange, seated, not across from Welch but beside him. All to give Woods a big, showy moment of standing up and stalking out of the hearing room, to the sound of a standing ovation from the spectators for Welch that goes on and on and on, what was in life a brief, shocking explosion is reinvented as the cheers of a first-night audience screaming for an encore.
That isn’t merely bad filmmaking. It’s bad history. It has Roy Cohn written all over it.
*That Cohn also engaged in fag-baiting during the pernicious “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s, helping to persecute other homosexual men, does not mitigate Welch’s snideness.
**I have reason to recall this: At the time, I was working on a draft of a play about national politics and AIDS, and, having read von Hoffman’s book, was keen on writing a Cohn-like character as a sort of mentor to the character based loosely on Terry Dolan. The moment I began reading Millennium, I realized with a pang that this notion was doomed; Angels was, as seemed entirely obvious from that reading, destined to be an important, and talked-about, American play, and that both Kushner and I had arrived at similar ideas was just one of those things I would have to swallow. Fortunately, the draft on which I was working hadn’t progressed very far, and I hadn’t written a word for the Cohn character, so it was relatively easy to re-conceptualize the play, which eventually became A Liberal Education. Besides which, Kushner is a vigorous, dazzlingly well-read intellectual as well as a certified genius, and I, even in my fondest dreams, am neither.
Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross