HOLLYWOOD — Back in 2016, when Matt Tyrnauer was cutting his documentary “Studio 54,” he was steeped in archival footage from the late 1970s of the Dante-esque disco.
One boldfaced name popped off the screen.
“So I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is a great character for a film, why has no one done a Roy Cohn movie?’” Mr. Tyrnauer recalled, sipping champagne with ice in a huge glass on the terrace at the Chateau Marmont, amid a starry crowd that included Billy Idol, Jon Hamm and Bill Hader.
“The whole narrative of Studio and the demise of Studio are intertwined with Cohn because he was the lawyer and he was sort of losing power at that time,” he continued. “And he kind of screwed up the defense of Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. And he also was the lawyer for Mafia dons, an array of business tycoons and Donald Trump, so that the whole milieu of New York at that time was inextricably linked together.”
But Mr. Tyrnauer had no sooner decided to make Mr. Cohn his next documentary subject than he dismissed the idea, telling himself that “it will never be financed because Donald Trump is not going to win the election. And the only real reason to make this movie would be if Trump wins because then it would be very pertinent and we would get financing in an instant. But thank God, Hillary is going to win and we’ll never have to think about Roy Cohn again and he will be consigned to ‘Angels in America’ and that’s how the world will know him and we’ll sail off happily into the sunset of a Hillary Clinton presidency.”
Then the world turned topsy-turvy. “I was in a hotel room on Madison Square and the first thing I did was go to Shake Shack and get an enormous ice cream sundae,” Mr. Tyrnauer said. “The second thing I did was open my room wine, which I never drink.”
The next day, he wrote the treatment about the relationship between two of the most infamous and transactional New Yorkers ever, experts in drilling into the darkest parts of the American psyche and igniting paranoia.
It was a yarn Mary Shelley would have appreciated.
“Roy Cohn did the impossible,” Mr. Tyrnauer said. “He created a president from beyond the grave. I don’t think there’s any disputing that. The basic lessons that Trump learned from Cohn were: Never apologize. If someone hits you, hit them back a thousand times harder. Any publicity is good publicity. And find an ‘other.’”
He said that the origin of Mr. Cohn’s career in the 1950s was dooming the Rosenbergs to the electric chair, Jews as Bolsheviks and fifth columnists, and going after gay people in the State Department.
“With Trump, the other is Mexicans, Latinos, Muslims, I mean, fill in the blank,” he said. “The lesson of this from history is: Pick your other. That’s what a demagogue does. Trump’s kind of an empty vessel. I think he’s eerily similar to Joe McCarthy in that way. I think it basically comes down to something Ken Auletta said in the film: What a demagogue does is throw out an untruth or a lie and then stands back and watches as that fills the void.”
A longtime Vanity Fair correspondent, Mr. Tyrnauer turned one of his features for the magazine, a portrait of Valentino Garavani and his business partner and lover, Giancarlo Giammetti, into his first documentary, 2008’s “Valentino, the Last Emperor.” The film was a hit, except with its subjects.
“‘Hate’ is really too light a word to describe their reaction,” Mr. Tyrnauer wrote in The Daily Beast. But an ovation at the Venice Film Festival melted the designer, who cried and embraced the filmmaker.
As befits a Boswell of Valentino, Mr. Tyrnauer was fashionably L.A. casual in a black T-shirt, a bespoke midnight blue workman’s chore jacket made in Rome, moleskin khakis and navy blue suede Prada moccasins.
After Valentino, there was a string of shorts and documentaries on subjects including Jane Jacobs’s battle for Greenwich Village against Robert Moses and the salacious but not entirely provable tale of Scotty Bowers, who ran a mobile bordello for closeted stars out of a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard.
Mr. Tyrnauer frames his films as unconventional love stories: Valentino and Giancarlo; Jane and the Village; Scotty and his wife, Lois. As for this latest, titled “Where’s My Roy Cohn?”: “I would say it’s a love story between Roy Cohn and himself,” the filmmaker said.
Offered Shrimp Cocktail
Rooting through archival footage is fun for Mr. Tyrnauer, 51, who grew up in Los Angeles watching his stepfather, a writer for “Ellery Queen,” “Columbo” and “Murder, She Wrote,” watch the NBC Nightly News on a little red TV set in the kitchen.
“I became very interested in news and current events that way, and there was something incredibly romantic about that,” he said, talking about the man he refers to as his father. “Also, my father was a page at NBC in the golden age of television, so he was hanging out at Hurley’s bar, which used to be at the base of 30 Rock,” the building where the television studio is based.
“He would tell me these stories about Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and Edwin Newman going to the bar between the newscasts and I was completely mesmerized. That’s why I moved to New York, because of this romantic portrait from the ’40s and ’50s.”
Matt started volunteering for political campaigns as a teenager, working for the Mondale and Dukakis campaigns. He was charged with driving and buying liquor for campaign officials before he was even old enough to legally do either. After working for Graydon Carter at Spy and The New York Observer, Mr. Tyrnauer followed Mr. Carter to Vanity Fair.
One of his earliest assignments, at 23, was to go to Mar-a-Lago to report on the birth of Tiffany Trump.
Of her father then, he said, “I spent a day with him going around the house, which was un-redone, and he was, as many people who spend time with him say, very charming and not unpleasant to be with. There were things that happened that day that were unforgettable. One is that in every room, he would stop and put his hand on my shoulder and say, ‘Hey, buddy, are you O.K.? Can I get you anything to eat? You want a shrimp cocktail or something?’
“Here I am underfoot with a tape recorder and a notebook and a pen in my hand and I’m trying to write down every baroque detail of the room I’m in and I keep thinking, ‘How am I going to eat a shrimp cocktail?’ And then we go to the next room and he’s like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want a shrimp cocktail?’”
Mr. Tyrnauer said that when he talked to Marla Maples’s mother, who was helping out with the baby, she confided about the still-unmarried couple: “I told Marla if she doesn’t marry him quick, then she’s making a big mistake.”
And, Mr. Tyrnauer said, when the fashion editor dispatched from Vanity Fair ruled out Mr. Trump’s choice of a canary yellow cashmere sweater, they had to cut Mr. Trump out of it with scissors to save his canary coif for the photo shoot.
In the documentary, Mr. Tyrnauer interviews one ex-lover of Mr. Cohn and three cousins, including the writer Anne Roiphe. They described Mr. Cohn’s mother, Dora Marcus, as a domineering woman who, when a maid in her employ dropped dead, stored the body under a serving table in the kitchen while she continued Passover dinner.
When Gary Marcus, a cousin, asked the first question of Passover, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Dora blurted out, “Because the maid is dead in the kitchen.”
Dora, who came from a wealthy family connected to the Lionel Train company, the Van Heusen shirt company, Bank of United States and Q-Tips, and who was married to a Bronx judge, obsessed about her only son so much that she got him a nose job when he was young.
“She tried to correct his nose, and it was botched and he got a scar,” Mr. Tyrnauer said. The footage also shows a later face-lift that left additional, horrendous scars. “Roger Stone himself says that Cohn got a cut-rate face-lift.”
The documentary paints Mr. Cohn as a sulfurous hypocrite who attacked Jews, even though he was Jewish, and who attacked gays, never admitting that he was gay, even as he became infatuated with G. David Schine: a friendship that spurred the Army-McCarthy hearings and led to Lillian Hellman’s immortal line that the three men were “Bonnie, Bonnie and Clyde.”
Mr. Cohn continued to deny that he was gay as he withered away from AIDS, getting secret treatment at the National Institutes of Health with the help of the Reagans. He pretended at times to be engaged to his lifelong friend Barbara Walters.
Flamboyant and ruthless met flamboyant and ruthless when Mr. Cohn collided with a young builder named Donald Trump at Le Club sometime in the ’70s.
The descriptions of Mr. Cohn by those who knew him in the movie, which opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 20, could easily apply to Mr. Trump: Roy Cohn understood the political value of wrapping himself in the flag. He made good copy. He knew how to manipulate the press and dictate stories to the New York tabloids. He surrounded himself with gorgeous women. There was always something of a nefarious nature going on. He was like a caged animal who would go after you the minute the cage door was opened.
Mr. Trump, Mr. Tyrnauer said, “swallowed Roy Cohn whole.” (Or, as new resistance fighter Anthony Scaramucci put it, it’s “as if Roy Cohn and Joe McCarthy got together and had a baby and it ended up being Donald Trump.”)The flashy developer loved Mr. Cohn’s unapologetic defiance. When the federal government sued the Trumps in 1973 under the Fair Housing Act for refusing to rent apartments to black people, they hired Mr. Cohn, who filed a countersuit for $100 million for defamation.
Mr. Cohn eventually slipped from his perch of dark allure and became embroiled in an embezzlement scandal and the seamy case of a death connected to a mysterious fire on a yacht. In his final months, when he was decimated by AIDS, Mr. Trump dropped him.
Mr. Cohn may have emanated “the presence of evil,” as someone says in the movie, but he was loyal to his friends. He learned the hard way that his protégé was not. “Donald pisses ice water,” Mr. Cohn reportedly said before his death.
I asked Mr. Tyrnauer why there has not been a moment with President Trump, as there was with Senator McCarthy (Mr. Cohn cleaved to his side) when the bully definitively gets called out for having no decency, sir, and the giant out-of-control balloon is punctured.
“There were only three networks at that time, so that moment could really land,” Mr. Tyrnauer said. “I think Mueller was the closest thing to Joseph Welch that we have because he’s a straight shooter and looks the part. But his delivery didn’t land. And the media landscape is so fractured now.”
When “Studio 54” screened at Sundance in 2018, the audience hissed every time Mr. Cohn’s saturnine image flashed on the screen. And Mr. Tyrnauer knew he had made the right choice for his new documentary.
But wait, there’s more!
Confirm or Deny
Maureen Dowd: Bill Barr is Donald Trump’s Roy Cohn.
Matt Tyrnauer: He wishes.
In the case of Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohn, the student has surpassed the master.
Mr. Trump gifted Mr. Cohn with knockoff cuff links.
So I’ve heard.
President Trump is considering making Mr. Cohn’s townhouse a national monument.
Once he covers it in mirrored glass.
You convinced I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson to dress as buildings they designed (the Louvre Pyramid and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass buildings, respectively) for a Vanity Fair photo shoot.
During the Mondale campaign, you drove the campaign chairman, John Reilly, around California when you were only 15 with merely a learner’s permit.
You had to go to the Combat Zone in Boston to get the vodka for the senior campaign staff of the Dukakis campaign but had to ask strangers to go in and buy it for you because you were too young.
In 1996, when you covered the New Hampshire primaries for Vanity Fair, you stayed at the Ritz in Boston and had a limo take you out to the hustings.
Who is your source on that? I don’t recall but probably confirm.
For your first day as an intern at Spy magazine, you wore a linen suit with spectator shoes.
Your former editor Graydon Carter bought you a bespoke Anderson & Sheppard suit for your birthday and overruled you on your choice of belt loops vs. suspender buttons.
Confirm. I wanted loops. But talk about the golden age of Condé Nast!
The Trump era needs a Spy reboot.
Merv Griffin, whom you profiled for Vanity Fair, made you watch “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” with him late at night at his ranch near Palm Springs while he was wearing a djellaba.
Merv, who produced those shows, was upset that one of the puzzles on “Wheel of Fortune” had too many R’s.
You’re the authenticator for all of the furniture of your friend and mentor, Gore Vidal.
Only for the pieces that Jeff Klein wishes to buy at obscure auction houses.
You ran out of money so many times while filming the Valentino documentary that you had to take out three Capital One cards.
You almost made a documentary about Lee Radziwill but you decided not to because she wouldn’t talk about Jackie.
Confirm. She said to me, “There’s only one thing we can’t talk about in this movie: my sister.” The project ended at that moment.
You have a great love for the second half of the 20th century.
Finally, we hear you have a great Valentino impression.
Confirm, my darling!