Actor Ron Vawter thinks of Roy Cohn and Jack Smith as chameleons: men who changed the color of their skin to avoid being eaten.
Cohn was a powerful right-wing lawyer who rose to prominence as the hatchet man for Joseph McCarthy, the redbaiting U.S. senator who bullied the political Establishment in the ‘50s. Smith was a performance artist whose 1962 avant-garde film “Flaming Creatures” featured cavorting drag queens. But what made these two “chameleons” vulnerable was their homosexuality. And as a diptych of their respective colorations, Vawter’s solo show “Roy Cohn/Jack Smith,” which opens at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art on Thursday for a four-week run, is a meditation on the pathology of self-hate.
“I did this as a cautionary tale,” said the 43-year-old Vawter recently, in a mid-town Manhattan restaurant, drinking margaritas and drumming on a pack of cigarettes. “It’s a warning both to gays and to society at large. On the one hand, if gays hide their true feelings, either by being closeted or being flamboyant to the extreme, they’ll stunt their full human potential. And if society insists on repressing homosexuals, they will give rise to monsters.”
The openly gay New York actor describes the work--which he began developing two years ago and which was performed last winter in Ohio, Minnesota and New York--as “a comedy of repression.” The humor is largely ironic. In the first 40-minute section, Vawter takes the stage as Cohn, nattily dressed in a burgundy dinner jacket to deliver an after-dinner speech to the American Society for the Protection of the Family. Both the speech (written by novelist and playwright Gary Indiana) and the organization are fictional. But the dramatization is based on an incident recounted by Cohn’s chauffeur in the Nicholas Von Hoffman biography “Citizen Cohn.” In the late ‘70s, the chauffeur apparently drove the lawyer and his male lover to a conservative fund-raiser where Cohn delivered a blistering attack against gay rights. Then the couple went off to Studio 54, the popular dance palace steeped in drugs and sexual ambiguity.
Cohn’s homophobic harangues of the first act--"The people of this country don’t want to hear about Adam and Steve’s honeymoon!"--are balanced in the second with Jack Smith’s adulatory odes to Maria Montez and denunciations of underground filmmaking as “the French Foreign Legion of Interior Decorators.”
The mystifying text is drawn largely from “What’s Underground About Marshmallows?” Smith’s 1981 performance work. Cohn’s dinner jacket is doffed in favor of Salome-like veils, Pharaonic ropes and bands of jewelry and glitter makeup. Reclining amid a junk pile of Ali Baba tinsel, Vawter, as a seemingly stoned-out Smith, fusses with script pages while in the background we see slides of him squiring a stuffed penguin around Amsterdam. The lush strains of music from B-movie melodramas swells and ebbs between his cryptic declamations: “Olive sun was blazing in the cream-cheese sky.”
On their own, these back-to-back sketches are fascinating studies of how the public personas of these men were effectively shaped by their private proclivities. Adding resonance to the portraits is the fact that both were eventually to die of complications of AIDS--Cohn in 1986, Smith in 1989. Vawter, who himself recently learned he has AIDS, observed that while the manner of their deaths ultimately united these polar opposites, he purposely set the play just before AIDS cast its pall over the homosexual community.
“I wanted to expose something which I felt was just as destructive to homosexuals,” Vawter said. “AIDS and repression are two separate malignancies, but because the virus has loomed so large over the last 10 years, I wanted to remind people that there have long been other forces at work leading to another kind of death--a spiritual death.”
Vawter said he was suffering from an identity crisis when he found a redemption of sorts in the avant-garde theater of the early ‘70s.
Born into a highly conservative Catholic military family in Albany, N.Y., Vawter initially pursued a military career. Planning to become a chaplain for the Green Berets, he was put on reserve status while he studied for the Franciscan priesthood for four years, where he said he first encountered homosexuality among both the priests and the candidates. Sexually confused, he left the seminary and became an Army recruiting officer in Manhattan. The route to his office led him past the Performing Garage, an experimental theater collective that would evolove into the Wooster Group, out of which emerged such talents as Spalding Gray and Willem Dafoe.
Attending performances there was an eye-opening experience for Vawter. He found the improvisational work “liberating and exciting,” he said, and he soon left the military to work with the group, first in administration and then as an actor.
While appearing in the company’s productions, including “LSD (Just the High Points),” “Frank Dell’s Temptation of St. Anthony” and “Brace Up!” (a multimedia version of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters”), Vawter intermittently took on more conventional parts in movies. His stentorian voice made him a natural for such roles as the psychiatrist in “sex, lies, and videotape,” Andy Garcia’s boss in “Internal Affairs” and a Justice Department official in “The Silence of the Lambs,” the Oscar-winning film by Jonathan Demme, who along with Kristi Zea is slated to co-direct Vawter in the movie version of “Roy Cohn/Jack Smith.”
“I generally get to play these Establishment types who have some sort of corruption of the soul,” said Vawter, his somber, ascetic features breaking into a smile. In fact, he had earlier spent the day working on his latest role, as an American political handler in the BBC-TV production of “Buying a Landslide,” also starring Griffin Dunne and John Mahoney. Vawter can also be seen in three upcoming films: as a prissy gallery owner in Tom DeCillo’s “Johhny Suede"; the mad doctor in Peter Sellars’ silent film “The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez"; and the prosecutor in “Swoon,” Tom Kalin’s retelling of the Leopold-Loeb murder trial.
“Ron is incredibly disciplined and attentive to detail,” said Gregory Mehrten, who has lived with the actor for the last 11 years and who directs him in this, his first solo show. “Both Smith and Cohn were very large, strong personalities and so is Ron. Although he’s much more subdued, the ego is there and so is the self-confidence.”
As a young man coming out as a homosexual in his early 20s, Vawter said, he found both Smith and Cohn to be “terrifying” as potential role models.
“I thought to be homosexual, you had to be either Roy Cohn or Jack Smith,” he said. He had personally met Smith, but he knew of Cohn only as a dashing public figure. Like most of his generation, he had grown up with the picture of the ambitious young lawyer whispering into McCarthy’s ear during the infamous Senate hearings, little knowing that Cohn was already involved with longtime lover David Schine.
Later, Vawter became aware of the stories of the lawyer and his entourage of pretty boys and hustlers. Cohn rarely bothered to keep them out of sight, even when entertaining such clients as mobster Carmine Galante. He often took along a good-looking male companion on his visits to the White House during the Nixon and Reagan years. People actively colluded in the masquerade.
“If confronted, he simply denied he was homosexual or that these young men were lovers,” Vawter said. “Galante told Von Hoffman that he just thought the boys were part of the servants staff. And nobody in the Reagan White House wanted to bring up the subject of gays. There were so many around.”
For Cohn, hiding his homosexuality was not just a matter of privacy but an essential adjunct to power. Long before “family values” became the mantra of presidential politics, Cohn wrapped himself in its protective aura.
In fact, Vawter maintains, in a desperate bid to protect his power, the Jewish lawyer was not only homophobic but also anti-Semitic, proudly working with the prosecution team in the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the Jewish couple convicted of spying for the Communists and sentenced to death. Refuting that Cohn’s perceived anti-Semitism could simply be explained as anti-communism, the actor said that his zealousness in prosecuting the Rosenbergs stemmed from his embarrassment of being a part of minority held in deep suspicion by the political Establishment.
“He didn’t see himself as a chump,” Vawter said, “and to him, gays and Jews were chumps. He needed to pass as whiter than thou, more straight than thou, more Aryan than thou. If Cohn didn’t exist, I’d have invented him to show the perniciousness of the kind of self-hate generated in a repressive society.”
On the other hand, Vawter praised Smith as a highly influential artist--"the anarchic granddaddy of performance art” who counted among his disciples Andy Warhol, Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson. He added that Susan Sontag’s famous essay on camp humor stemmed from her participation as a witness in the 1964 obscenity trial for “Flaming Creatures,” brought by the State of New York. Yet he believes that the performer was equally tragic. While Cohn was suckered into believing that lying would save him from becoming a pariah, Smith allowed himself to be marginalized.
“Jack was a rather nasty, angry person to be around,” Vawter said. “Rather than hide his homosexuality, he pushed it forward to such a ferocious and exhibitionistic degree that it became another form of hiding. People just let him alone. I often wondered what would have happened to him if he’d used his really amazing talent less as a reaction to the forces around him and more as a creative statement.”
However, Vawter acknowledged a debt to them at least in one regard. As a person with AIDS, he said that “Cohn/Smith” had given him the opportunity to demonstrate to people, particularly those who have tested seropositive to the virus, that he is not living under a death sentence. “There is hope,” he said. “I’m not a victim. I don’t want to be pitied. I want medical treatment and the opportunity to work.”
When Vawter is asked what he might say to either Smith or Cohn if he could, the former seminarian paused for a long while and finally said, “Forgive us.”
He explained further: “They were both products of a society who continually told them that what they were, in the very depth of their being, was bad, wrong, immoral, twisted. It’s little wonder they grew up warped. I’m always amazed that we homosexuals are doing as well as we are. Despite those signals from society, whatever is there is going to come out, either in a healthy way or in a destructive way. I just pray to God that it will be positive.”