Producer Bruce Cohen, a best-picture nominee for his work on “Silver Linings Playbook,” has been obsessed with the Academy Awards since he was 8. During a recent interview at his Hollywood Hills home, looking dapper in plaid pants and shoulder-length blond curls , Cohen exuberantly recalled how his grandmothers, who were babysitting at the time, allowed him to stay up late to watch his first Oscar telecast at his childhood home in Falls Church, Va. “It was love at first sight,” he said. “I thought it was the most glamorous, most spectacular thing I had ever seen, and I decided that night that I was going to win an Oscar one day.”
Cohen — who ran away from home, albeit for only an hour, when his parents refused to let him stay up to watch the Oscars a couple of years later — has more than realized his dream. A place of honor in his office is reserved for his best-picture Oscar for 1999’s “American Beauty,” the searing story of two generations of a suburban family in crisis. “It was in the living room for a while, but then I thought that was a bit gauche,” he said.
Cohen’s second Oscar nod came a decade later, this time for “Milk,” the much-lauded biopic about the life of gay activist and San Francisco Mayor Harvey Milk, who was assassinated while in office in 1978. In 2011, Cohen produced the Academy Awards telecast along with Dan Mischer.
And now he is up for his third Oscar, for “Silver Linings Playbook,” David O. Russell’s offbeat comedy-drama about a bipolar young teacher (Bradley Cooper) and his tempestuous relationship with a troubled widow, played by Jennifer Lawrence. But the joy of an Oscar nod never gets old, Cohen said. His response to his own third nomination was “to scream at the top of my lungs,” he said.
When the conversation turned to what helped prepare Cohen, now 51, to become a producer in the first place, he said he honed his political and organizational skills while serving as a leader within the National Federation of Temple Youth, and later at Yale, where he headed the campus’ United Jewish Appeal drive.
A week after graduating from Yale in 1983, Cohen flew out to Los Angeles to take a clerical job at Warner Bros., where he talked his way into an internship run by the Directors Guild of America and wound up working on the set of Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” in the mid-1980s.
But he didn’t go out of his way to meet the uber-director. “I was a pisher, and what I figured out is that not only didn’t he know me, but I didn’t want him to know me just yet,” Cohen said. “My job was to keep my head down and work for the first and second assistant directors.”
But Spielberg did end up noticing Cohen — initially for his work with the children on the set — and a collaboration began that eventually led to Cohen producing “The Flintstones” for Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment in 1994. However, there was one matter of business to take care of before Cohen accepted the job: He felt he needed to come out as a gay man to Spielberg — even though not many people were gay and out in Hollywood back in the early 1990s, Cohen said. Spielberg, it turns out, was nonplussed and said to Cohen, “Why do you think I would care?”
Producer Bruce Cohen Photo by Matt Petit/©A.M.P.A.S.
The following year, Cohen co-founded Out There, which was among the first activist coalitions of gays and lesbians in Hollywood, and it was during the group’s early years that he and fellow member Dan Jinks became producing partners and zeroed in on a screenplay by Alan Ball that would become “American Beauty.”
“It was the best script I’ve ever read, to date, in my life,” Cohen said. “But all the studios initially thought it was too dark, too weird and controversial.” Undaunted, Cohen drew on his relationship with executives at Spielberg’s DreamWorks SKG to push the project, which was quickly picked up by the then-fledgling studio and received a green light within months.
“American Beauty” — Cohen’s first effort as an independent producer — went on to receive not only rave reviews, but also to sweep the Oscars with five awards, including a screenwriting prize for Ball and a best-actor statuette for actor Kevin Spacey.
“Milk” also seemed like a hard sell when Cohen first signed on to the film in the mid-2000s. “It was gay-themed, and about a gay politician who gets killed at the end, which doesn’t fit any of the financial models for a how a movie finds audiences and makes money,” said Cohen, who is now president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is managing and running the California Supreme Court case to overturn Proposition 8. The filmmakers found a solution to that problem by casting the critically acclaimed but bankable Sean Penn in the title role.
Cohen had set up his own production company in 2010 when Donna Gigliotti of The Weinstein Co. invited him to help her produce Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” along with Jonathan Gordon (“Good Will Hunting”). Cohen jumped at the chance because he was a fan of Russell’s previous films, including “Flirting With Disaster” and “The Fighter,” and, he said, he also was riveted by the characters at the heart of “Silver Linings’ ” edgy romantic comedy. “It was ‘boy meets girl,’ but it was the most f----d-up boy and the most disturbed girl you’re ever going to meet — and they’re mean to each other,” he said. “The characters are uncompromising, and they don’t make any concessions to what one might think of as the traditional Hollywood protagonist.”
During the 33-day shoot in Philadelphia and beyond, Cohen oversaw both financial and creative choices, including the decision to tone down Cooper’s bipolar outbursts early in the film. “We found that a little went a long way,” he said.
Cohen said he relates to the marginalized character, in part, as a gay man, in a state where his own marriage is not yet recognized as legal. “On any film, I immediately identify with the characters who are thought of as ‘less than,’ ” he said.