2019 New York Film Festival review: ‘Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn’

September 30, 2019

By Carla Hay

Roy Cohn in “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” (Photo by Mary Ellen Mark/HBO)

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

Directed by Ivy Meeropol

World premiere at the New York Film Festival in New York City on September 29, 2019.

Roy Cohn will go down infamy as the attorney who helped spearhead U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s political witch hunt of suspected Communists in the 1950s, and Cohn later became a “fixer” for shady clients and powerful criminals, including the Mafia. Cohn (who died of AIDS in 1986, the same year he was disbarred) is the subject of two documentary films in two years, but each documentary is very different from each other.

Sony Pictures Classics’ “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” (released in U.S. cinemas in 2019) from director Matt Tyrnauer takes a more traditional approach of a Cohn biography that’s told in chronological order. HBO’s “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” (which is set to premiere on HBO in 2020) tells a more personal, non-linear story, because director Ivy Meeropol’s paternal grandparents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whose McCarthy-era persecution led to the Rosenbergs being executed for espionage in 1953.

“Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” gets its title from the “Bully Coward Victim” description on Cohn’s AIDS quilt panel that was part of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt displayed in front of Washington, D.C.’s National Mall in 1987. The quilt panel for Cohn was anonymously made. “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” opens with home video that was made 25 years after Cohn’s death. The video shows Ivy Meeropol interviewing her father Michael Meeropol about the Rosenberg case. He says that the family is united in the statement that this tragedy will never happen again.

After Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by electric chair, their two orphaned sons Michael and Robert were adopted by writer/teacher/activist Abel Meeropol and his wife Anne. Because the Rosenberg/Meeropol family history is so intertwined with Cohn’s history, the documentary is partially a biography of the Rosenberg/Meeropol family, because it reveals the devastating and long-lasting effects of the execution. In that regard, “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” is almost like a spinoff to Ivy Meeropol’s 2004 documentary “Heir to an Execution,” which explored the Rosenberg case from the family perspective.

“Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” jumps around in timeline and includes a lot of archival footage and new interviews. The documentary also features Michael and Robert Meeropol’s activism and ongoing fight to prove that their parents were not guilty of the crimes which led to the Rosenbergs’ execution. Although the editing for “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” isn’t as neatly structured as “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” Ivy Meeropol’s documentary has better interviews and packs more of an emotional punch.

For example, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” has some exclusive interviews that are definitely outdated, including interviews with Roger Stone (a Cohn ally and conservative Republican strategist who’s had a fall from grace, due to various criminal charges) and gossip columnist Liz Smith, who died in 2016. “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” interviews an almost entirely different set of people, including Cohn’s former driver Peter Allen, attorney/Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, journalist Taki Theodoracopulos, director/actor David Lloyd Marcus and writer Tony Kushner, whose “Angels in America” about the 1980s AIDS crisis became an award-winning Broadway play and HBO miniseries.

Nathan Lane, who won a Tony Award for portraying Cohn in the 2018 Broadway revival of “Angels in America,” describes Cohn as “nerdy and creepy by lovely” on talk shows, but Lane says that Cohn was very different in private. Gossip columnist Cindy Adams (best known for her work in the New York Post) admits she did favors for Cohn “because he was my friend. It was loyalty.”

Author/journalist Peter Manso, who interviewed Cohn for Playboy magazine in 1981, calls Cohn a “lawless madman.” Meanwhile, attorney John Klotz has this to say about Cohn: “He was not just a lawyer for the Mob, he was an active participant.”

Cohn was a longtime mentor to Donald Trump, who later shunned Cohn after Cohn was federally investigated for corruption and was eventually disbarred in 1986. John LeBoutillier, a Republican former U.S. Congressman for New York, says that in 1983, when Trump and Cohn were still close, LeBoutillier was pressured by Cohn to write a letter of recommendation for Maryanne Trump Barry (Donald Trump’s eldest sister) to become a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. She received the nomination from then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan and was later confirmed for the position by the U.S. Senate.

Early in his career, Cohn had his own Senate hearing that was much more notorious. During the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, Cohn was accused of pressuring the U.S. Army to give preferential treatment to Cohn’s Army buddy G. David Schine, who was rumored to be Cohn’s secret lover. The hearings are part of TV history because it’s the first time that the word “homosexual” was said on U.S. television.

“Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” and “Where’s My Roy Cohn?’ both include descriptions of Cohn (who was never married and had no children) as an eccentric and closeted gay man. However, “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” takes a deeper dive into Cohn’s double life by going into more details about his semi-openly gay lifestyle in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Cohn kept his law practice based in his hometown of New York City, where he worked out of his multimillion-dollar townhouse. In public, he had the image of a high-powered, conservative Republican who had attractive women as his dates for society events. However, Cohn had another life in Provincetown (a popular getaway city for gay men), where he had another home. It was an open secret in Provincetown that he was gay and had a preference for much-younger men and cocaine-fueled parties.

“Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” has interviews with Provincetown locals who were in contact with Cohn. (“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” doesn’t interview these Provincetown sources.) One of them is former hustler Ryan Landry, who says he was hired by Cohn in the 1970s to have sex with Cohn’s younger lover while Cohn watched. Landry says he spent time with Cohn on multiple occasions and was surprised to find out that he and Cohn had similar taste in music.

Anne Packard, an artist who was Cohn’s next-door neighbor in Provincetown, says: “I never saw him alone, except when he was swimming.” The documentary includes several archival photos of Cohn spending time with several “boy toys” in his company. (It’s clear that Cohn and his male friends liked to go on boats.) Openly gay filmmaker John Waters, who remembers seeing Cohn in Provincetown, says in the documentary: “I was appalled that he was here [in Provincetown].”

It’s also mentioned that Cohn would frequently hire his younger lovers to work for him at his law firm, usually as his assistant. One such employee/lover was Peter Fraser, who the documentary says was used as a “cut out” for money laundering. The documentary includes some never-before-seen paperwork that showed how Cohn would put questionable expenses in his law firm’s accounting reports. Money laundering and other corruption charges would eventually lead to Cohn’s downfall.

Toward the end of his life, when it was obvious that Cohn was in failing health, he continued to publicly deny that he had AIDS. The documentary points out that one of the most despised aspects of Cohn was his damaging hypocrisy. He was a gay man, but throughout his career, he actively worked with politicians and other people in power to prevent LGBTQ people from having equal rights. And even though he always publicly denied that he had AIDS, Cohn used his privileged position to secretly get preferential medical treatment when the government needed volunteers for possible AIDS vaccines.

Cohn had a reputation as a tyrant who liked to put fear into his enemies, but the documentary exposes that Cohn wasn’t as fearless as he portrayed himself to be. Cohn’s very public feud with Richard Dupont (a former client of Cohn’s) got so ugly that Dupont ended up in New York State Supreme Court in 1981, for various charges, including harassment and burglary against Cohn. “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” has never-before-heard voice messages of Cohn begging Dupont to stop “tormenting” him.

In the documentary, Dershowitz says that Cohn admitted to him that he “framed guilty people” and that the Rosenbergs were framed. “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” isn’t the vindictive vendetta that people might assume it is. The documentary doesn’t portray Cohn as innocent of his crimes, but it definitely reveals him to be a self-hating bully who took out his hatred on other people. Cohn destroyed countless lives in the process, but he was also his own worst enemy.

UPDATE: HBO will premiere “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” on June 18, 2020.