Roy Cohn/Jack Smith: Ron Vawter in Theatrical Piece

(Multi-media performance art color)

Toronto Film Fest 1994–Ron Vawter, an icon of the New York downtown theater who died of AIDS in April, delivers a mesmerizing tour-de-force performance in Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, a splendid theatrical piece that examines the lives of two infamous homosexuals. This challenging, thought-provoking, avant-garde picture begs for major art-film 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 back-room politico, and Jack Smith, the notorious underground filmmaker, had nothing in common except for being white homosexuals, who lived in an oppressive society, contemptuous of any sexual deviation. Yet the fact that both died of AIDS (in the late l980s) lends an ironic as well as tragic note to their opposing lifestyles.

Cohn, who’s also a central figure in Tony Kushner’s seminal drama Angels in America, was a closeted homosexual who went out of his way in his thundering against the “Sodom and Gomorrah” of openly gay life. In diametric opposition, avant-garde filmmaker Smith (Flaming Creatures) flaunted his homosexuality in public, and even established a fleeting fame as a result of it. 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 gave at a banquet for the American Society for the Protection of the Family. As the lecture’s exact text couldn’t be retrieved, writer Indiana takes some liberties, but always stays true to the essence of the man. Smith, often credited as a founder of performance art, unabashedly mixed flamboyant drag, fragments of Arabian Night kitsch, and B-movie camp which called attention to the artifice of both theatrical pieces and movies.

Pic was entirely shot on location at the Kitchen, a noted theatrical space, on October 31 and November 1, l993. Director Godmilow (Waiting for the Moon) uses subtle intercutting between two pieces that in the theater were presented as separate acts, allowing Vawter to change costume and make-up. The material’s revelatory richness and Vawter’s magnificently modulated portraits make both sections unusually entertaining, containing such campy lines as Smith telling his audience, “cheap jewelry is always crumbling off of me,” or Cohn confessing, “I’m a lifelong bachelor whom luck has eluded in finding the right partner–I’m told the matchmakers have given up.”

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

Whether intended or not, this film serves as a most eloquent tribute to Vawter, a founding member of the Wooster Group, whose post-modern, deconstructionist works have revolutionized the theater world.


A Jonathan Demme presentation of Good Machine, Pomodori Foundation, and the Laboratory for Icon & Idiom production. Produced by Ted Hope, James Schamus, and 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. Camera (Eastman, color), Helen Kuras; editor, Merrill Stern; music, Michael Sahl; sound, Larry Loewinger; associate producer, Anthony Bregman, Mary Jane Skalski; assistant director, Anita Thacher.

Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 13, 1994.
Running time: 90 minutes.


Roy Cohn/Jack Smith…Ron Vawter
Chica………….Coco McPherson