Anthology Film Archives


April 19 – April 21

Anthology Film Archives and Electronic Arts Intermix honor the legacy of Ron Vawter, a leading presence in downtown theater, as well as film and video, from the start of his career in the mid-1970s until his premature death from AIDS-related causes 30 years ago, in April 1994.

Born into a military family (his father was a Green Beret and his mother was a WAVE during World War II), Vawter was given enlistment papers for his 17th birthday. Eventually, the Vietnam War-era enlistee discovered LSD and, later, avant-garde theater. Quitting the military, Vawter joined The Performance Group, the downtown theater troupe founded by Richard Schechner, from which The Wooster Group emerged. A founding member of the Wooster Group, Vawter, together with Willem Dafoe, Spalding Gray, Kate Valk, and others, under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, would create some of the most indelible pieces in the legendary experimental theater group’s repertoire. In addition, Vawter performed in theater pieces by Richard Foreman, Mabou Mines, and Jeff Weiss.

Although devoted to theater, Vawter also delivered memorable performances as a character actor in film and television, appearing in groundbreaking feature films by Michael Almereyda, Lizzie Borden, Shu Lea Cheang, Jonathan Demme, Tom DiCillo, Bette Gordon, Tom Kalin, Michael Oblowitz, Peter Sellars, and Stephen Soderbergh – including BORN IN FLAMES, SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and SWOON. He collaborated on many short works as well, with artists and independent film- and video-makers such as Joan Jonas, Ken Kobland, Mark Rappaport, Leslie Thornton, and Bruce and Norman Yonemoto.

Vawter may be best remembered for his innovative and renowned two-part solo performance piece ROY COHN/JACK SMITH, in which he, as a gay man living with AIDS, portrayed two very different queer men, both of whom had recently died due to the virus. In the first part, written by Gary Indiana, Vawter brilliantly embodied the sleazy right wing lawyer Roy Cohn, a chief architect of McCarthyism and later mentor to Donald Trump. The second part saw Vawter uncannily recreate a 1981 performance by underground artist Jack Smith, WHAT’S UNDERGROUND ABOUT MARSHMALLOWS? Directed by Greg Mehrten and created with Clay Shirky and Marianne Weems, Vawter’s groundbreaking ROY COHN/JACK SMITH would become one of the defining artistic achievements of the 1990s.

These screenings at Anthology offer three different entry points into Vawter’s masterwork. Gea Kalthegener and Douglas Ferguson’s documentary portrait FREE FALL follows Vawter backstage during what would be one of his final performances of ROY COHN/JACK SMITH. Video documentation of a 1992 performance of ROY COHN/JACK SMITH captures the legendary piece as it was first seen by audiences. Finally, Jill Godmilow’s 1994 film version re-edits and re-invents Vawter’s theater performance for the cinema. Newly digitized, FREE FALL will screen for the first time in nearly 20 years, while Godmilow’s film version of ROY COHN/JACK SMITH will screen in a new preservation from the Academy Film Archive.

This tribute to Ron Vawter is co-presented with Electronic Arts Intermix, which will host a free screening of Vawter’s collaborations with artists in video.

To see Ron Vawter in work by The Wooster Group, please visit

Special thanks to Douglas Ferguson; Jill Godmilow; Clay Hapaz (The Wooster Group); Greg Mehrten; Sandra Schulberg (IndieCollect); and Mark Toscano & Edda Manriquez (Academy Film Archive).

< Back to Series