TOBIN: Kathy, did you ever watch the Home Alone movies?
KATHY: Of course. I am human.
TOBIN: I think we're of the right age where, if you watched those movies as a kid, you became very convinced that at any moment Joe Pesci was going to break into your house and try and kill you. Like murder you.
KATHY: It was supposed to be lighthearted though.
TOBIN: Go back and watch those films.
TOBIN: Young Tobin had a real paranoia about being home alone, if you will -- the titular problem.
KATHY: OK. OK.
TOBIN: So the first time my parents left me at home alone...
TOBIN: ...I was like "I'm cool, I'm cool, I got this." And then just like, little sounds around the house I convinced myself that someone had broken in and that I was about to get killed.
KATHY: Oh no.
TOBIN: And so I went and I grabbed a lamp and I stood with it over my head, ready to strike whoever was coming around the corner.
TOBIN: And I stood like that for probably another half hour.
KATHY: Oh my god!
TOBIN: And then when my parents came home, they always describe finding me in front of the TV with just a circle of blunt objects surrounding me.
KATHY: I can't remember a specific moment when I was left home alone because it was all the time.
[THEME MUSIC STARTS]
VOX: From WNYC Studios this is Nancy.
VOX: With your hosts Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[THEME MUSIC ENDS]
TOBIN: So Kathy.
TOBIN: I know you didn’t really grow up with Disney movies.
KATHY: Wait was Robin Hood a Disney movie?
KATHY: OK, that is the only one that I loved, truly loved.
TOBIN: That's a weird one to pull out of the ouvre.
KATHY: Ugh, I watched it all day, every day.
TOBIN: Good, but weird. Anyway...
TOBIN: Disney movies were basically how I learned about the world.
TOBIN: And not just me. I would say they were super formative for so many kids.
KATHY: I mean I guess that's true.
KATHY: Because everybody wants to be a prince or a princess.
TOBIN: Right. The happily ever after.
KATHY: Happily ever after. Which is all crap. But you know, straight people love it.
TOBIN: Oh my god, it's so straight. But, there is one part of the Disney canon that is pretty queer.
KATHY: I know where you're gonna go.
KATHY: Elsa. Frozen. Lesbian.
TOBIN: Up for debate!
TOBIN: What I'm actually talking about is the bad guys.
[CLIP] THE LION KING
SCAR: Life’s not fair, it it? You see I… well I shall never be king. Huh. And you shall never shall see the light of another day.
TOBIN: There’s this thing Disney does, and once you notice it, you cannot unsee it. Basically all their villains are all super queer. Like, you’ve got the aristocratic, flamboyant characters like Scar or Jafar.
Jafar: Oh Princess, there’s someone I’m dying to introduce you to.
Aladdin: Jafar! Get your hands off her!
There's Hades from Hercules, who is fabulously vain and sassy, essentially an aspiring gay best friend to Meg.
HADES: I can’t believe you’re getting so worked up about some guy.
MEG: This one is different. He's honest and he's sweet...
MEG: He would never do anything to hurt me.
HADES: He’s a guy!
TOBIN: And maybe the most epic villain of all, Ursula, from The Little Mermaid.
[CLIP] THE LITTLE MERMAID
URSULA: My dear sweet child, that’s what I do. It’s what I live for, to help unfortunate merfolk like yourself. Poor souls with no one else to turn to.
TOBIN: Walt Disney apparently based her on the iconic drag queen, Divine.
KATHY: I really think that they should get Lea Delaria to play her.
[CLIP] THE LITTLE MERMAID
URSULA [SINGING]: Poor unfortunate souls! In pain, in need. This one longing to be thinner. That one wants to get the girl. And do I help them? Yes indeed.
KATHY: But Tobin, Disney's a family friendly company. Why would they do that?
TOBIN: First of all, I disagree with the idea that queerness is not family friendly.
KATHY: [LAUGHS] Thank you.
TOBIN: You set me up for that, I appreciate you.
TOBIN: The other thing is like, Disney used these queer stereotypes to make their characters seem not gay, per-se, but more to seem different from the movie’s straight romantic leads. You know what I mean?
KATHY: Mhmmm, mhmm.
TOBIN: And even if you didn't get what they were alluding to, these characters had a distinct otherness.
[CLIP] THE LION KING
SIMBA: You're so weird.
SCAR: You have no idea.
KATHY: And like what you were saying, movies can be really formative for people. They tell us how we treat each other, how we understand each other. And it can have really powerful messages about how we understand ourselves. And it’s not always positive.
MEREDITH: Hi, I'm Meredith Talusan, and I'm very excited to be on Nancy.
KATHY: Meredith is the executive editor for Them.
MEREDITH: Which is Conde-Nast’s queer platform and I’m also an author and journalist and a general muckety-muck.
KATHY: And she says that for trans women like her, there’s a certain storyline that gets played out over and over again, where they're put in the spot of being a villain just by being themselves.
[CLIP]: THE CRYING GAME TRAILER
[SINGING] I know all there is to know...
TOBIN: We're gonna start by talking about a very specific film.
[CLIP]: THE CRYING GAME TRAILER
CHARACTER: It's funny the way things go, never the way you expect.
NARRATOR: The Crying Game. 1993 Academy Award winner for Best Screenplay. Coming to video July 1st.
TOBIN: First of all, for people who haven't seen it, what's like the short Wikipedia, this-is-the-plot-of The Crying Game?
MEREDITH: Oh my god, this is like the hardest thing to do because it's a very convoluted plot. It's not an easy movie to...it's not, like....it's not Bring It On...
MEREDITH: ...when it comes to like summarizing the movie. It's set in Ireland with IRA operatives and this character gets kidnapped.
[CLIP]: THE CRYING GAME
JODY: So if I ran, there's way I could beat you, is there?
FERGUS: You won't run.
JODY: But if I did?
MEREDITH: And through various complicated reasons this character...
MEREDITH: ...ends up being instrumental in having the boyfriend of this woman Dil...
JODY: Don't do it...
FERGUS: [blast, musical flourish] Jody!
MEREDITH: So basically he ends up seeking out Dil, and eventually falls in love with her, and the first time they have sex, he discovers that she is trans.
DIL: You did know, didn't you? Oh my god.
MEREDITH: And ends up...
MEREDITH: ...hitting her and then...
FERGUS: Jesus, I feel sick.
MEREDITH: ...throwing up...
MEREDITH: ...and then leaving the room in this sort of big dramatic scene.
DIL: Don't go, say something!
MEREDITH: I remember being in the movies and everybody like [GASPS], you know just like recoiling in shock.
DIL: Jesus. [DOOR SLAMS]
TOBIN: That moment where there's this reveal and everyone gasps around you.
TOBIN: Do you remember what your individual reaction was in that moment?
MEREDITH: Oh yeah, I mean I gasped along with them. Like I was, I myself was just like very shocked about it. I didn't recognize her character as trans and I didn't really think much about the movie in relation to trans identity at the time. I just remembered it as like a super, super, fascinating, psychological thriller, right?
MEREDITH: And that was, you know, like almost a decade before I transitioned. I identified as a gay man at the time, you know like it was not within the compass of my knowledge of myself that I was trans when I first saw the movie.
KATHY: So you saw the movie again recently...
KATHY: How was it?
MEREDITH: While I was in early transition I was just like expecting, fully expecting men to reject me, to have this really strong reaction to the fact that I was trans. But the really interesting thing is that, as difficult and problematic depictions of this particular trans woman was in that movie, it was also actually the most positive. There were movies that were so much worse.
TOBIN: So you pointed to this trope in a piece you wrote, you said this trend really had its first big moment in the 90’s in movies like Ace Ventura.
[CLIP] ACE VENTURA
ACE VENTURA: If the lieutenant is indeed a woman as she claims to be, then my friend, she is suffering from the worst case of hemorrhoids I have ever seen!
MEREDITH: The trans person and the trans woman specifically becomes this sort of, like, deranged killer mastermind who at the very end of the movie is revealed to have a penis. And this just proves her derangement. And then there is the beta male character who gets duped into having sex with a trans woman and has this like really kind of like huge reaction.
T: Yeah, like in The 40 Year Old Virgin:
[CLIP] THE 40-YEAR OLD VIRGIN
ANDY: Hiring a transvestite prostitute isn't helping me, man!
JAY: What? Ain’t nobody hire no damn transvestite!
ANDY: She really nice incidentally!
JAY: If that sister was a transvestite, that was the Mona Lisa of transvestites.
ANDY: Do you guys even like me? Or is this some sort of cruel joke that you're all in on? Because I'm not a freak. I'm a good person.
KATHY: So like, what do you think these movies did condition how you think about dating situations?
MEREDITH: Trans people are consistently made to feel like they're being deceitful and terrible when they don't say, "Oh hi, I'm Meredith, I'm trans.” You know, like, “I can tell that you're attracted to me, I'm trans." And it took me a long time, especially because I didn't have other models to base my behaviors off of, to actually reflect and just be like, actually, no, like I don't have an obligation to tell you, especially immediately. Like I remember in early transition, one of the things that I had to just sort of combat was this perception that somehow me being trans was a sign of my mental instability and had to constantly just be like "No, actually…” You have to counter that with these pieces of evidence. Like, "Actually I hold down a respectable job and I have fancy degrees," in order to prove that, rather than just being like, "Oh, like I'm trans."
TOBIN: Could you help us, like, design a non-problematic trans villain that you would love to see?
MEREDITH: Well, I was gonna say, do you remember that moment in Mean Girls when Regina George says she can't wear halter tops because she has man shoulders? In my head, I was just like, well, you know like, what if Regina George was trans, right? What if she is projecting her insecurities onto other people?
TOBIN: Oh that’s a really interesting thought. Meredith, thank you so much for coming in.
MEREDITH: Thank you, thank you it’s such a pleasure.
[SFX: PARK AMBIANCE]
TOBIN: If you were a villain, what would your backstory be? Like, why are you evil?
VOX: Because I’ve been disconnected from the injustice of the society. My heart has turned tough.
VOX: I’ve just given up on having faith in humanity and I just was like okay I’m going to have to be a villain, do things the bad way. But deep down I’d be fighting for the light.
VOX: Nancy will be back in a minute!
TOBIN: We are back in the studio now with Matt Collette, Nancy producer.
MATT: Hello guys!
KATHY: Matt! What brings you to this side of the studio glass?
MATT: Well, since we’re talking about villains in this episode, it got me thinking about this play I just saw called Angels in America.
TOBIN: I think I should preemptively assure you, Kathy, that this is not a musical.
KATHY: Ugh. Thank god!
MATT: It is a show on Broadway right now though.
TOBIN: A two part, seven hour Broadway show.
KATHY: Oh. My. God.
MATT: No like, I promise it is super interesting, though. It is all about religion and politics and the AIDs crisis and gay life. The full title is technically, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.
TOBIN: I also have a joke that I love where you can add that subtitle to literally any Broadway show and it works. So like, Hello Dolly: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Mean Girls: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Bruce Springsteen on Broadway: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: A Not-So-Gay Fantasia on National Themes.
MATT: Honestly that last one just feels really directed at me. But anyway, Angels in America came out twenty five years ago and it still feels super timely. And that’s because even though the show is about all these fictional characters, there’s this one real person at the center of it. This guy, Roy Cohn.
TOBIN: Oh, who’s played in this production by Nathan Lane.
KATHY: I love him.
MATT: Kathy, I hate to break it to you. In Angels in America, Roy Cohn is just a terrible, terrible guy.
TOBIN: And Matt, since I sit next to you and I know your spirit, I’m gonna guess that you’ve suddenly become obsessed with Roy Cohn.
MATT: I’ve suddenly become obsessed with Roy Cohn.
KATHY: Classic Matt.
MATT: But like seriously, he is not only this complicated, corrupt, villainous guy, he was also a like deeply closeted gay man. And on top of all that, he’s the person who, maybe more than like anyone else, made Donald Trump the man he is today.
INTERVIEWER: Here’s a man that everybody is going to enjoy meeting. He’s Roy M. Cohn, who is confidential assistant to the United States Attorney General.
MATT: This is a 1951 interview with the Roy Cohn. He’s wearing a light suit with carnation in his lapel. He’s slight, with short hair and this incredibly intense stare. Just 24 years old, he’s already famous for his work with the Justice Department.
COHN: The Communist Party’s most important work is that of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.
MATT: He made a name for himself prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were accused of spying for the Russians, and Cohn got them executed in one of the most famous cases in American history. But to get that sentence, he allegedly threatened key witnesses so they’d lie on the stand. Then he went to work for Senator Joe McCarthy, and was his right hand man throughout the infamous Red Scare.
COHN: One thing that we have to understand at the outset is that the Communist Party is not a political party. It’s a criminal conspiracy.
MATT: He got this reputation for being McCarthy’s brutal and ruthless attack dog. And it wasn’t just Communists. Cohn also worked with McCarthy to antagonize gay people in what’s now known as the Lavender Scare. That was this mass firing of gay people from government jobs, the idea being that their sexual orientation made them more susceptible to communist blackmail.
MATT: All of this was deeply ironic work, because Roy Cohn was a closeted gay man himself. Of course he wasn’t out publicly, and he would go on to spend his entire life denying it. McCarthy ultimately fell, and spent the later years of his career in disgrace. But Cohn managed to emerge from the whole mess relatively unscathed. He left DC and moved to New York where he started a private law practice, which had a particular aesthetic.
BERNSTEIN: He operated out of his townhouse. And he was known for kind of being a son of a bitch.
MATT: This is Andrea Bernstein. She’s a reporter here at WNYC.
BERNSTEIN: He would sometimes meet with clients in his bathrobe. And his clients were people from the Archdiocese of New York. Mafiosos. And eventually Donald Trump.
MATT: Andrea, by the way, is pretty much our in-house expert on all things Trump.
BERNSTEIN: I’m the cohost of the Trump Inc podcast, which is a podcast from WNYC and ProPublica that digs into the secrets of the Trump family business.
MATT: And the Trump family business was very good for Roy Cohn. He first started working for them in the 70s, when the federal government accused the Trumps of renting apartments to white tenants but not black ones. Cohn ultimately got the Feds to back off, and the Trumps were able to settle without admitting guilt.
BERNSTEIN: So Roy Cohn comes together with Donald Trump and it turns out that not only is he a pit bull of a lawyer, but he's completely politically connected.
MATT: Trump loved Cohn’s ruthlessness. He even started to adopt a lot of Cohn’s tactics as his own.
BERNSTEIN: And it was a prototype of the kind of businessman that we've seen Donald Trump to be and in some ways the kind of president that we've seen Donald Trump to be. So this is who he wanted, somebody who would fight to the death for him and take any shortcut necessary to represent what Donald Trump saw as his interests.
MATT: Despite all their apparent misdeeds, both men were embraced by New York society. They were regulars at Studio 54 and and in the gossip columns. And this whole time, it was basically an open secret that Roy Cohn was gay. He even went to the Reagan White House with a boyfriend, though he didn’t call him that. In fact, he insisted he was straight whenever anyone asked him.
MATT: But things started to change for Roy Cohn in the early 80s. If you just looked at him, you could tell he was incredibly sick, just skin and bones. Cohn insisted it was liver cancer, but people weren’t buying it. In 1986, he went of 60 Minutes and talked with Mike Wallace:
WALLACE: When I talk to friends and tell them I am doing a profile of Roy Cohn, they say: Ask him this please. And I’m sure you know what they tell me to ask you. Do you have AIDS?
COHN: Oh, no. That’s easy to answer.
WALLACE: The reason I ask is that, in researching...
COHN: Is there really that much public curiosity to whether I have AIDS?
WALLACE: That is the question that everybody asks.
MATT: Cohn’s illness derailed his career. His clients and friends stopped taking his calls, and his enemies took the opportunity to pounce. They filed ethics complaints against him and moved to have him disbarred. And six months after denying it on national TV, Roy Cohn died of AIDS. But that wasn’t the end of it.
[CLIP] ANGELS IN AMERICA
ROY COHN: Hello! Yes, sorry to keep you holding, Judge Hollands. Or Mrs. Hollands...sorry dear, deep voice you got. Enjoying your visit?
MATT: Just seven years after his death, Roy Cohn rose again, as a main character in the Broadway production of Angels in America. This is the actor, Ron Liebman, who plays Cohn as repulsive yet undeniably magnetic.
ROY COHN: She sounds like a truck driver, he sounds like Kate Smith, very confusing! Nixon appointed him, all the geeks are Nixon appointees. Yeah yeah yeah...
KUSHNER: I knew that I wanted to write about gay men living in the mid-80s which is when I started the play, which meant that I had to write about AIDS because that’s a central fact of gay life now.
MATT: This is playwright Tony Kushner speaking in 1993 right after he won the Pulitzer Prize.
KUSHNER: And I knew that I wanted to write about Roy Cohn, he’d just died of AIDS, and I had been fascinated by him since I was 10 years old and first started reading about the McCarthy period. I think because he was Jewish and I could tell from the way people were writing about him that he was probably gay. And then by the time he died I knew that he was.
KOIS: When Roy Cohn died of AIDS, he became part of the gay community, whether the gay community wanted him or not.
MATT: This is Dan Kois. He’s co-author of an oral history on Angels in America. He says that for Tony Kushner, Roy Cohn was a puzzle that he was desperate to solve.
KOIS: And he became infatuated with the idea of this die-hard right-winger, a truly evil person, responsible for the deaths of some and the bankruptcies and ruination of many others, yet who himself had this secret life that he could not reveal.
MATT: There’s a scene early in the play when Roy Cohn is at his doctor's office. The doctor tells him he has AIDS, and Roy explodes.
[CLIP] ANGELS IN AMERICA
ROY COHN: It afflicts mostly homosexuals and drug addicts.
HENRY: Mostly. Hemophiliacs are also.
ROY COHN: Homosexuals and drug addicts. Then why are you implying that I’m…what are you implying, Henry?
ROY COHN: I’m not a drug addict.
HENRY: Oh, come on.
ROY COHN: Come on, Roy, what! Go on Henry, it starts with an H!
HENRY: I’m not gonna…
ROY COHN: With an H, Henry! And it isn’t hemophiliac. Come on!
ROY COHN: Say "Roy Cohn you are a homosexual" and I will proceed systematically to destroy your reputation and your practice and your career in New York State, Henry. Which you know I can do.
BUTLER: So that's an example of the kind of rage and power that he has in that world. And then over the rest of the play he slowly but surely declines until by the end of the play he's dead.
MATT: This is Isaac Butler, the other coauthor of that oral history.
BUTLER: You can feel Tony Kushner drawing on a rich, centuries-long dramatic tradition of stage villainy, you know? Roy Cohn, there's a lot of Richard III in Roy Cohn. There's a lot of Mephistopheles from Faust in Roy Cohn, you know? He's drawing on that tradition of stage villainy, of having the guy who's sort of the worst person on Earth also be the most entertaining person on Earth.
MATT: Roy Cohn is the kind of role actors dream of. He's arguably the play's funniest, most charismatic character, and he has this giant, dramatic fall. Plus, spoiler alert, he gets not one but two death scenes. After Cohn’s death, Angels in America grapples with what he left behind. There’s this incredible moment late in the play, and also here in the HBO movie version.
[CLIP] ANGELS IN AMERICA — HBO MOVIE
[LOUIS BEGINS PRAYING]
LOUIS: This is silly, Belize, I can’t.
[ETHEL PICKS UP THE PRAYER, AND THEY CONTINUE PRAYING]
MATT: We’re in the hospital. Roy has just died. And now a handful of characters gather around his bed to recite the Jewish mourner's Kaddish. It's this small act of kindness, a sort of reclaiming of Roy.
KOIS: The history of the play is full of audiences not knowing what to do during that scene.
[CLIP] ETHEL AND LOUIS FINISH THE PRAYER.
ETHEL: ...you son of a bitch.
LOUIS: ...you son of a bitch.
BUTLER: There's no repentance on Roy's part, he doesn't have some deathbed conversion toward being a good person or anything like that. But what we do see is the play kind of claim him as part of the community of those that we've lost and to reckon with what that means.
KOIS: In the play he is given a kind of dramatic, graceful, and, in fact, slightly comic death, of the sort there's no evidence he had in real history.
MATT: Angels in America lets us imagine what’s going on inside Roy Cohn, all these insecurities and conflicts a whole lifetime of stuff the real Roy Cohn never revealed.
SPINELLA: I understand a lot of what Roy is doing. I understand his internalized homophobia. And I don't have to do a lot of futzing around in myself to play.
MATT: This is Stephen Spinella.
SPINELLA: I’m an American actor—theater, film, television.
MATT: 25 years ago, Spinella played the hero of this play, Prior Walter. Now he’s returned to play Roy Cohn in the other big production of Angels happening right now, at Berkeley Rep outside San Francisco.
SPINELLA: I barely had to work at learning Roy's lines. You know there are aspects of it that are difficult, but boy there are aspects of this character that just fit like a glove.
MATT: At first, Spinella struggled to understand the character of Roy, to square him with this famous historical villain. And then he landed on this one thing:
SPINELLA: In the play, loyalty is something that is profoundly important and there's something admirable about that. There's something to be admired in that.
MATT: Loyalty is also the most important thing to Cohn’s protege, Donald Trump. He talks about it constantly, it’s something he expects of everyone in his orbit. Of course, it’s also gone the minute you aren’t useful to him anymore.
BERNSTEIN: Before he died, he asked Donald Trump to pay for a hotel room for his boyfriend. And Trump agreed to get him a hotel room, but then he sent the bill to Roy Cohn.
MATT: At the end of his life, Roy Cohn didn’t have power, or influence, or anything. And without that, he wasn’t a villain. He was just a sick, gay man killed by a disease more cruel than he could ever be.
KATHY: Alright, that’s our show. Credits!
KATHY: Matt Collette and Alice Wilder!
TOBIN: Sound designer…
KATHY: Jeremy Bloom!
KATHY: Jenny Lawton!
TOBIN: Executive Producer…
KATHY: Paula Szuchman!
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS]
MATT: Oh I’m Tobin Low, and I’m Kathy Tu and we’re so great at podcasts! Haha! We’re gay! Da-da da!