Review: ‘Roy Cohn/Jack Smith’

Ron Vawter, an icon of New York's downtown theater scene who died of AIDS in April, delivers a mesmerizing performance in "Roy Cohn/Jack Smith," a splendid theatrical piece that examines the lives of two infamous homosexuals. This challenging, avant-garde picture begs for major release to unleash its full potential, though it's mostly for upscale, sophisticated audiences and the festival circuit.

Ron Vawter, an icon of New York’s downtown theater scene who died of AIDS in April, delivers a mesmerizing performance in “Roy Cohn/Jack Smith,” a splendid theatrical piece that examines the lives of two infamous homosexuals. This challenging, avant-garde picture begs for major release to unleash its full potential, though it’s mostly for upscale, sophisticated audiences and the festival circuit.

Roy Cohn, the homophobic right-wing lawyer and sleazy backroom politico, and Jack Smith, the notorious underground filmmaker, had nothing in common except for being white homosexuals who lived in an oppressive society. Yet the fact that both died of AIDS (in the late 1980s) lends an ironic as well as tragic note to their opposing lifestyles.

Cohn was a closeted homosexual who went out of his way to thunder against the “Sodom and Gomorrah” of openly gay life.

In diametric opposition, avant-garde filmmaker Smith (“Flaming Creatures”) flaunted his homosexuality in public. Both men were political, albeit in different ways: Cohn used overt politics as a drag (a mask to conceal his sexual orientation), while Smith turned drag into a form of sexual politics.

In this film, Cohn’s tortured personality and hypocrisy emerge during a lecture he gives at a banquet for the American Society for the Protection of the Family. As the lecture’s exact text couldn’t be retrieved, writer Gary Indiana takes some liberties, but always stays true to the essence.

Smith, often credited as a founder of performance art, mixed flamboyant drag, fragments of Arabian Nights kitsch and B-movie camp, calling attention to the artifice of theatre and film.

Pic was entirely shot at the theatrical space the Kitchen on Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 1993. Director Jill Godmilow (“Waiting for the Moon”) uses subtle intercutting between two pieces that in the theater were presented as separate acts. Material’s revelatory richness and Vawter’s magnificently modulated portraits make both unusually entertaining.

Assisted by the sharp, elegant lensing of Ellen Kuras (“Swoon”) and Merrill Stern’s precise and astute editing, “Roy Cohn/Jack Smith” meets the often impossible task of chronicling a theatrical production while making it visually interesting through shrewd manipulation of time, space — and audience reaction. The transitions between Vawter’s rehearsals to his actual performance (of the same lines) are smooth, and they also illuminate the magical quality of his acting.

Roy Cohn/Jack Smith

Production

A Jonathan Demme presentation of Good Machine/Pomodori Foundation/Laboratory for Icon & Idiom production. Produced by Ted Hope, James Schamus, Marianne Weems. Directed by Jill Godmilow. Screenplay based on the plays "Roy Cohn" by Gary Indiana and "What's Underground About Marshmallows" by Jack Smith.

Crew

Camera (color), Ellen Kuras; editor, Merrill Stern; music, Michael Sahl; sound, Larry Loewinger; associate producer, Anthony Bregman, Mary Jane Skalski; assistant director, Anita Thacher. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 13, 1994. Runningtime: 90 min.

With

Roy Cohn/Jack Smith - Ron Vawter
Chica - Coco McPherson
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