COMPULSIVE HUMILIATION

Single most damning issue about Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianna Versace is FX taking eleven weeks to air the nine one-hour episodes. Requiring build, this miniseries needed quick succession taking no more than one week. Starting by the third week and lasting until the closer, ratings and interest fell precipitously. “I couldn’t get back into it” was frequently heard. Tied strongly to that complaint is the decision to tell the story of murderer Andrew Cunanan nonlinearly; after the opener, the story goes back, not from the beginning of his life but incrementally to the previous murder, and then to the one before that and so on (he killed five in total) until he’s back in high school and then grammar school. Within episodes are flashbacks and flash-forwards, repeats of events told from different perspectives, studiously imagined insertions attempting to explain the psychological progression of everything spiraling out of control. What a load! I almost didn’t make it through. FX would repeat it as a one day binge, which I felt required to view, and it’s the preferable mode to see what most of you missed.

The Miami and New York press wrote a lot about the Cunanan puzzle in the immediate aftermath of Versace’s death, providing surface details and guesses about what triggered him to become a serial killer, whose murders except one were slaughters. Other than his acknowledged desire for the high life, for social status to compensate for the disaster his sociopathic father left the Cunanan family in, and the unstoppable pathological lying as supportive evidence of shame, insecurities and eventual doom, there are few chunks of absolute certainty. Maureen Orth, ill-famed for her alleged one-sided reporting against Woody Allen, resolved to investigate Cunanan’s life for Vanity Fair, leading to her book Vulgar Favors (two words lifted from a line in the Richard Strauss opera Capriccio), from which Murphy and teleplay writer Tom Robin Smith extract a compelling base for the series. Jammed with facts, factoids, incidentals, interviews, Orth doesn’t shy away from attempting some psychology—using what’s vogue in dysfunction—and mostly stays clear of invention of scenes, except as enquiry into possible scenarios. Ryan and Smith go much further: every succeeding episode “psychologizes” Cunanan and they’ve been upfront about the risks. With the principles dead, they had to perceptively and with sensitivity choreograph his activity, speculate on motives and fabricate credible conversations. Armed with Orth’s informational arsenal, they slow-fire a portrait of a somewhat gifted young man with an IQ of 147 disappointed in his progress as a social climber. But he didn’t function as prodigiously smart; he was the “life of the party,” an impressive glossy interested and conversant in clothes, furniture, architecture, famous places and the beautiful people, hungrily wanting to be one of them. His hugest assets—the scrubbed-clean look mixed with his flippant stylishness and his skillful research of his intended marks—gave him entrée into and made him catnip for the sugar daddy circuit. Never for long: excelling in shallowness, Cunanan’s a fantasizer who doesn’t put the “reality” pieces together because it appears he hasn’t much practice in reasoning, unable to gauge even his borderline successes—for example, having found a mega-accommodating benefactor—because he keeps impatiently upping demands that, instead of quelling his discontent, increase it. He keeps sabotaging himself, which produces within him quick outcries over his erratic disordered aggression that he just as quickly recovers from, perhaps aware that his downward slide into meth and violent sex are means to escape his irrational repeats while speeding up the process of murderous revenge, more onto himself than his victims.

Ryan Murphy, who The New Yorker calls the current TV golden boy, had only one candidate in mind for Cunanan—Darrren Criss. He resembles him in looks and physique, and both share Filipino ethnicity. To succeed as this kind of whackjob, an “innocuous” attraction has to play him. Criss is the one consistently sinless of performers from Ryan’s Glee, a menagerie occasionally fun to watch, sometimes a bore, and often challenging to accept in premise: no integrated zoo any of us ever went to was this type of fantasia of education. At the show’s conclusion, he gleamed as the happiest survivor and easiest to like, in spite of qualms about his chosen mate. When he sang—goodies like “It’s Not Unusual,” “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay,” “Teenage Dreams,” “You Should Be Dancing”—he delivered joy; he made it impossible not to have a crush on him. To put it bluntly, he’s very fuckable (as he is in the quirky Girl Most Likely, aka as Imogene, with Kristen Wiig) and this partially fuels his performance as Cunanan. If James Corden seems to be inordinately turned on by the swish dance moves in bikini underwear during one hell of a scary sequence—you can see his panting over at youtube—it’s the effortlessness in Criss’s capture of those moments and the grotesquery elsewhere that grabs the caution in rest of us to the hazards of ignoring the not-so-silent pathologies in sciolism and, currently, the widespread narcissism facilitated by cellphones.   

The beginning episode sets Cunanan up as another nova-like burst among the growing list of berserkers perfect for media consumption and to a degree incentivized by the media’s “if it bleeds it leads” mantra. Our American serial killers are near-doubtless influenced by the fame media can provide for them, even if recognizing they’ll die—and maybe prefer to as remedy—in the process of flaming out. This is the other part that feeds Criss’s interpretation. He’s on to Cunanan’s avoidance of self-examination, never betraying the detour as journey of flashy superficiality accompanied by the lies and irrational acts to cover up his failures and compulsive behaviors. Criss, as actor and up to a point, empathizes with Cunanan’s formative experiences: “Do you know what it is to feel like you’re not good enough? Or know what it is to want something so desperately that you’re not allowed to have? Do you know what it’s like to feel marginalized? It’s a very Shakespearean thing. You find the universal truth in all this. And that’s what I did with Andrew...at what point could this have been me?” Having seen myself in much of Cunanan’s early period, recognizing the cornerstones built on a maladaptive family—I had my own warped “Modesto & Mary Ann Cunanan” years with the resulting ridicule and clashes—the memories are extremely unpleasant to relive. Although I haven’t butchered anyone.

Various controversies are built into the horror story and the more contested is Smith linking up one of Cunanan’s victims, Chicago magnate Lee Miglin, played by Mike Ferrell, as someone who might have met his killer through the sugar daddy circuit in California. (At mega daddy Norman’s swankienda, purchased to please his new bottom, who enjoys sashaying nude on the beachfront patio.) Smith posits that Cunanan even calls Lee to let him know he’s in Chicago, during which is issued an invite to Cunanan to come by after Lee’s wife goes to St. Petersburg, Florida to pitch her cosmetic line on Home Shopping Network. The insistent admonishing by wife Marilyn, essayed through Judith Light, is intimidating instruction to Chicago law enforcement that there would never be a connection of Lee to Cunanan or by implication a secret gay life, that her husband was a renown pillar of society and, after all, a practicing Catholic—the couple even had a small chapel in their luxury Gold Coast abode and we see Farrell’s Lee as a slightly ashamed pushover “praying” for forgiveness as he’s thinking about a romp with Cunanan. Light’s intensity as Marilyn is a super tightrope; with total respect to the real wife, she navigates the expectant if deeply reserved anger and grief over his hideous death while subtly finessing detectable self-doubts as she reads the letters of sympathy from people she knew nothing about who were quietly helped by Lee. Have been a longtime admirer of Light’s work, ever since she appeared in the late 1970s as the plumpy Karen on One Life to Live, a genuine breakthrough for which she justly earned extraordinary praise and two Emmys. (No one who saw her on the stand will forget when she had to confess, as the wife of Llanview’s epitome-of-goodness doctor, that she was being forcibly pimped out by sleazer Marco Dane.) It’s a pleasure to note her evolution as actress since, primarily in supporting roles showcasing her gift for characters in transitions; it’s a long overdue salute that she’s very often tops in whatever she’s in, including Ugly Betty and, my personal favorite, Law & Order: SVU, in which her Elizabeth Donnelly takes no prisoners. (She’s also conquered Broadway, winning back to back Tony awards as best featured actress.) She doesn’t tolerate prisoners as Marilyn, either. Extremely thin, somewhat a mussy-haired Andrea Mitchell doing with stern privilege a Nancy Reagan, reeking with assertion we don’t want to mess with, she manages to keep us from feeling violated by the heavy practice of dubious authority. The real Marilyn would remarry two years after Lee’s demise, only to be widowed just months following the wedding. This news doesn’t make us any more sympathetic.

Cunanan’s murder of Gianni Versace is the peak of his infamy and without it he’d be a single chapter in the chronology of escalating sprees by killers. (Conversely, Cunanan’s choice of boyfriend roughly his own age is a such dullard that I don’t think I’m the only one who, shameful to admit, began to lose interest in his fate due to the mounting ineptitude to save himself.) Did Cunanan ever meet Gianni? Based on Orth’s reporting, he might have in San Francisco, when Gianni was dressing up a production of Capriccio. Cunanan, the insatiable consumer of news on the celebrated, followed Gianni’s career (as he likely did with Norman and Miglin through financial and high society periodicals). Given his presumptuousness it is entirely possible he plotted to find a way to meet the designer, like countless others in pursuit of recognition from the famous people they admire. It’s also easy to surmise he had fantasies of getting involved sexually; Gianni would be the ideal of a prized sugar daddy. Excepting the starter episode, the series grinds to a halt dramatically any time the Versace saga, including sister Donatelli and Gianni’s lover of fifteen years, enters into view. The magic of the makeup artists, hair stylists and dialect coaches used for Édgar Ramirez is transformational enough to say they’ve briefly brought Gianni back from the ashes. The same efforts don’t apply to Penélope Cruz as Donatella; clodhopping as a butchess in heels, she’s barely the drug-hardened masculine face. She has ugly attitude, yes, which is what the real Donatella, who disavows this portrait of her, probably objects to the most: via Cruz, she comes off as petty, vindictive and cheap. Ryan and Smith, who deny making a judgment call, seem covertly intent that we not like her, unlike the way many of us enjoy Gina Gershon’s cuntatella in House of Versace. (These days it’s impossible to avoid Donatellas flagrant appeal to the extortionate gay hunk era in commercials for Versace fragrances, an assembly line of Gianni-desired tricks.) And there’s Cruz’s acquired accent, necessitating she subdue her own charming natural one. Duplicating Donatella’s, it’s appropriately too thick to make intelligible. The simplest, audience-appreciated solution would be to furnish subtitles by default.

Throughout the years, and like millions of others waiting in line to check out at the grocery store, I’ve peeked into the National Enquirer. On one occasion my eyes caught notice of a small black-framed box that was filler for the dreaded space left empty by layout, when copy, pictures and/or ads didn’t quite take up the page. What the box contained has never been forgotten: “Life is one humiliation after another.” During The Assassination of Gianna Versace, those six words flashed as if a neon sign and there wasn’t any way to pull the plug.

 

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ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com  

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