On July 15th, 1997, famed fashion designer Gianni Versace was gunned down outside of his opulent Miami home by 27-year-old Andrew Cunanan. Versace’s death swept through the media like a wildfire. I was eleven at the time, and while I didn’t pay attention to the specifics of the case, I remember the incessant news coverage playing out in my periphery. A crazed fan murdering a celebrity? That was a straightforward narrative I was familiar with due to trashy talk shows and scandalous entertainment news programs. Such a simple rationale was all the thought I’d put towards what turns out to be a much deeper and more horrific tale of a sociopathic young man intent on being a “somebody,” even if that person were falsely manufactured of his own corrupt invention. All of those in his life would each fall victim to his destructive nature and pay emotionally, if not, ultimately, with their own blood. His story would become a mirror for the rampant homophobia of the 90s in America and an antecedent for the celebrity-obsessed culture we find ourselves in today. At least, that’s the truth as presented by season 2 of Ryan Murphy Hit #125, better known as “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.”
To follow up the massive success of season 1 (“The People vs OJ Simpson”), Murphy along with screenwriter Tom Rob Smith turned to a true crime novel entitled Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History written by Maureen Orth. “The Assassination…” premiered its first episode on January 17th and has already raised the ire of the Versace estate who protest numerous details as presented in the series. They’ve labeled the show as being riddled with fabrications based on vicious gossip. Speaking with EW, Murphy had this to say in the show’s defense:
“[The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story] was based on a non-fiction book by Jeffrey Toobin. Versace is based on a non-fiction book by Maureen Orth that has been discussed and dissected and vetted for close to 20 years. She worked for Vanity Fair. Maureen Orth is an impeccable reporter and we stand by her reporting. Our show is based on her reporting so, in that way, it is not a work of fiction, it’s a work of non-fiction obviously with docudrama elements. We’re not making a documentary.”
Their main beef concerns whether or not Gianni ever actually came into direct contact with his killer, Andrew Cunanan. Orth who was following the murderer’s trail prior to the death of Versace, claims it’s “on the-record reporting.” The two men existed within similar social circles, that of the gay nightlife and a seedy subset – male escorts. Versace and longtime partner Antonio D’Amico were known to hire third-parties to join them in their bedroom on occasion, and Cunanan had an intense drug habit which was supplemented by often selling his body. No matter what the stone-cold truth may be, Murphy and co are crafting undeniably captivating television by using the sordid details of a star-studded murder case to spin off into alternating moments of emotional pathos, timely social commentary, and suspense-filled horror.
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is a bit of a bait and switch. The advertising lured viewers in with the promise of Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace in a fierce (likely memeable) performance as the grieving sister to Edgar Ramirez’s Gianni. We also got to see a dusted off Ricky Martin proving that he still has what it takes to shake his bon-bon. The down-south neon Miami glitz was placed front and center in what looked to be a stylish, sexy, sensationalized telling of the true story. And, that is basically what the premiere episode delivered. Of course, there was also Darren Criss as the charmingly deceptive dandy, Andrew Cunanan. The brilliance of the show so far is that, after that first episode, each hour has focused more on Cunanan and the months leading up to Gianni’s death. This isn’t the Versace story, it’s the Cunanan story. The narrative weaves in and out of the events immediately following Versace’s death as the cops continuously bungle the investigation, mostly due to ignorance of the homosexual lifestyle they refuse to understand, and the exploits of Cunanan.
On “Glee,” Criss showed a lovable charisma as “the boy next door.” Here, he takes that built-in expectation and flips it on its head. Criss’s Cunanan can walk into a room and captivate an entire crowd as he weaves one unbelievable tale after another. From stories of building sets in Mexico for the upcoming film Titanic to loving recollections of his time spent in the Philippines working at his millionaire father’s pineapple plantation, Andrew has never met an alternative fact he didn’t like. But underneath his pearly white smile lies a soulless snake ready to poison those whose company he’s tired of. It’s a complex character whose murderous inclinations, as of so far, haven’t fully been explained. Nonetheless, it’s Criss’s portrayal that makes it seem believable even if the motivations has yet to crystallize.
One moment we may see Andrew’s jealousy leading to the death of a victim. The next corpse might be due to a sense of betrayal. Cunanan is constantly a threat to those around him, and any moment a potential danger. The highlight so far, though, comes in the third hour when he visits Chicago to spend the weekend with a frequent john, Lee Miglin. Miglin was a real estate tycoon married to an equally savvy businesswoman in her own right, Marilyn (played by an award-worthy Judith Light). The episode begins as she comes home to find the front door ajar, a baked ham left out on the counter, and a deadly silence greeting the calls for her husband. Instinctively, she knows something is wrong. What follows is an intense back and forth as we follow Cunanan greeting the elderly, closeted man for a weekend while Marilyn is out of town, intercut with Marilyn relying on local police and a friendly neighbor to search her home for any sign of her husband. We know at some point they will find his body and we know at some point Andrew will be the one to kill him. It’s a fine display of Hitchcockian suspense that proves this “Crime” story isn’t afraid to go for the “Horror” prevalent in that other Ryan Murphy show.
The climactic moment of brutality is all the more upsetting for the reasoning Andrew provides. He isn’t content just to kill Lee Miglin, he needs to destroy his legacy. An upstanding “pillar of the community” is to be found dead with sex toys and gay porn scattered around his body, skull crushed from a bag of cement and stab wounds all over his chest. In this period of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (also dealt with devastatingly in a later ep) and a general stigma of depravity associated with homosexuals, the idea of being “outed” is more terrifying than death itself. Marilyn copes with the discovery with a sense of denial even if she knows the truth. That truth, she fears would destroy everything she’s built with Lee over the years.
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is powerful television that brings to mind the gut punch psycho-thrillers of the 80’s such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Maniac. Much like those films placed their psychotic villains as central characters in order to reflect the societal temperament of the time, so too does this season’s “American Crime Story.” And, while Ryan Murphy might exist as a polarizing storyteller who often allows excess of style to outweigh his narratives, “The Assassination…” just might be the perfect marriage of his trademarks. Awash in sex and violence but with a greater commentary at play, this is one serial killer thriller you don’t want to miss.