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, then grammar school, and then returning to Miami for the manhunt and summation. 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. Bingeing is the preferable mode to see what most of you missed, via FXNow, Amazon, iTunes, Netflix and a few other VODs.

Reminiscent of the indignities rendered to Rock Hudson back in October, 1985, news coverage from CNN, Miami and New York was unsurprisingly hysterical about Versace’s death on 7/15/1997, with speculation rampant in the immediate aftermath—conjecture on his gay lifestyle, his Ocean Drive palacio, whether he suffered ear cancer or AIDS, the rocky relationship with sister Donatella. The “assassination” would quickly refocus on Cunanan the “assassin,” providing surface details and guesses about what triggered his spree as serial killer, whose murders were varying degrees of slaughter and, initially, treated with indifference by law enforcement. Soon we’d learn about his desire for the high life, for social status to compensate for the disaster his father left the Cunanan family in, and the unstoppable pathology of lies as supportive evidence of shame and insecurities. But other than the actual killings there would be few chunks of absolute certainty. Maureen Orth, ill-famed for her 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, interviews and gossip as factoids, Orth doesn’t shy away from attempting some expedient armchair psychology—using what’s vogue in terms of dysfunction—yet mostly stays clear of invention of scenes, except as inquiry 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 choreograph his activity, intuit motives and 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. He didn’t function as prodigiously smart; he was a flaming “life of the party” jumpsuit, a glossy interested in and conversant about clothes, furniture, architecture, famous places and the beautiful people, hungrily wanting to be one of them. His hugest assets—the scrubbed-clean look blended with his flippant stylishness and 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, seeing himself as “the jewel in the crown of La Jolla gay society,” Cunanan’s a prolific liar who doesn’t put the “reality” pieces together as it appears he hasn’t much practice in reasoning, unable to gauge even his borderline successes—for example, having found a mega-accommodating benefactor in Norman Blachford—because he keeps impatiently upping demands that, instead of quelling his discontent, increase it. He keeps sabotaging himself, which produces within him sudden outcries over his erratic disordered aggression from which he just as suddenly recovers. Orth’s depiction that Cunanan, after being ousted by Blachford, fell deeply into crack and crystal meth, engaging in male prostitution and burglaries for jewelry and money to fund his habit, is related to real issues: his own father is not only a compulsive liar and a stock market embezzler but someone who is, in abandonment of his son, a saboteur. Fraud is the sociopath father’s preferred drug; it can also be a revenge fantasist son’s rocket fuel when his own is embarrassingly exposed and mixed with desertion, speeding up zonked irrationalities while in the throes of murderous rampages.

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, as 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 most of us ever went to had 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 as a straight 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 our attention to the hazards of ignoring the pathology of narcissism, today’s most infectious virus spread by cellphones.   

Framed in chic gayglo colors courtesy of CSI: Miami, the beginning episode sets up Cunanan as another nova-like burst among the growing list of berserkers 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 another 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 crazy acts to cover up his failures and compulsive behaviors. Criss, as actor and up to a point as person, 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, clashes and lasting aftereffects—the memories are extremely unpleasant to relive. Although I haven’t butchered anyone.

Various controversies are built into the horror story and the most 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 police & press that there would never be a connection of Lee to Cunanan or by implication a secret gay life, that her husband was a renowned pillar of society and, after all, a practicing Catholic—the couple even had a small chapel in their plush Gold Coast abode in which 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 complete respect to the real wife, she navigates the expected 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, 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 presumptuousness 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 mass murderers. (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 plight due to the mounting ineptitude to save his own life.) 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, an insatiable consumer of news on the celebrated, followed Gianni’s career—as he likely did with Norman and Miglin but through financial and high society periodicals—and plausibly 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 with Gianni, as he’d be the ideal of a prized sugar daddy, though by all accounts he liked his lovers butch, not mirrors of himself. Excepting the starter episode, the series grinds to a halt any time the tedious Versace saga, with 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 equate 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. (Gesture as decency, Donatella was present at Princess Diana’s funeral in London a mere forty days after both attended Gianni’s memorial service in Milan; in spite of her supposed disdain for her brothers private life and his longtime companion, her appeal to gay consumers by parading hunks as Gianni-desired tricks in commercials for Versace fragrances is calculated indecency.) As for Cruz’s acquired accent, necessitating she subdue her own naturally charming one, it’s appropriately too thick to make fully intelligible. The simplest, audience-appreciated solution would be to furnish subtitles by default. Ryan Murphy’s reluctance to do so also speaks to his overlong productions as a whole—he can’t bare to cut. His People vs. O.J. is two hours of filler too long and Feud: Joan and Bette three. With Assassination, he’s at least one full episode beyond the limit—the overarching propaganda about the first murdered victim’s service in the military.

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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