Sunday, May 19, 2019

Our May Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman -- THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE: American Crime Story

This 9-part FX series (which follows the celebrity of The People vs OJ Simpson of 2/2016) has considerable depth despite initially not comparing favorably with the starry OJ saga, the first in the American Crime Story series produced by Brad Simpson and executive produced by Ryan Murphy, both of whom helmed Glee. It ended up winning an Emmy for best limited series, beating Picasso, Patrick Melrose, and Godless (my favorite) among others. Now on Netflix (the OJ story is too), the Versace case probes issues that merit attention: the role of ‘nurture’ in causing mental illness and the comparatively secretive (except in major cities) gay world of the 1990’s.

Versace, at the height of his fame, was murdered on July 15, 1997, age 50, at the door of his palatial South Beach, FL, villa by Andrew Cunanan, then 27 (Darren Criss, below), who killed himself 8 days later to prevent being taken by police.

The malignant narcissism of this young killer screams for notice in 2019, his mental disorder being flagrant in the person of Donald Trump, whose own version of compulsive lying, self-aggrandizing, and denial of reality is as toxic and and likely more murderous (if not one-on-one with a gun) than Cunanan’s. (Below, Darren Criss, l, Andrew Cunanan high school photo, r.)

The series title deceives in that The Assassination of Gianni Versace is not a biopic of the designer; it is Andrew Cunanan’s story ending in five murders during a several-month killing spree. Screenwriter Tom Rob Smith (London Spy) used journalist Maureen Orth’s 1999 book, Vulgar Favors, about Cunanan, as a source. Smith, however, used the life and career of Versace to contrast the youth of the two men, providing the viewer with a thought-provoking scenario that works harder than just the seedy tale of a narcissistic desperado. The screen story makes the implicit case here for ‘nurture’ or ‘environment’ as a main ingredient in the failure of one life versus the success of another.

Here were Versace (Edgar Ramirez, immediately above) and Cunanan (behind him), two gay men with wildly different trajectories, both having had to accommodate before homosexuality gained the degree of equality and acceptance that exists today. Versace was helped through youthful bullying by his dress-maker mother who affirmed his talents, supported, and taught him the value of hard work. As an adult we meet him in a committed relationship, and although HIV positive from the random-sex the partners engaged in with others, Versace was nevertheless imbued with the joy of his own creative process and enormous success. (Below, left, Ricky Martin, playing Antonio D’Amico, shown at right, Versace’s partner for 11 years).

In contrast, Andrew, with a genius IQ, the most promising of his siblings, was adulated and spoiled beyond common sense by his parents; they filled him with outlandish dreams of his own perfection until he became unable to tolerate rejection or failure — he was an exhibitionist and prolific liar by his teens (below, Cunanan, r., Criss, l). In the last year of his life he began to lose it — the world was not adoring him, the man he loved was afraid of him, and others saw through his lies. “Andrew was beaten by things other people overcame” said Smith —“it became a very interesting counterpoint” portrayed on screen with contrasting views of their childhoods.

Born to an unhappily married Filipino father (Jon Jon Briones) and pious Italian-American mother (Joanna Adler), it was Andrew, the youngest of four, awarded the master-bedroom of the family home in San Diego, sent to an exclusive private high school, and indulged with a sports car.

His father, Modesto, was a fabulist, seeing in Andrew the genius he attributed to himself, the child who would bring him glory. He succeeded as a stock-broker until he failed, having robbed clients and avoided arrest by fleeing to Manila, abandoning wife and children and leaving them destitute. Andrew’s disastrous visit to Modesto must have been a turning point in dealing with life-as-it-is. Seeing his father’s degraded circumstance in Manila (below) in contrast to the pretense of success in the states, worsened Andrew’s downward spiral in an already peripatetic life; he grew needier, more manipulative, and directionless. Obsessed with fame, he supported himself as a prostitute/drug dealer in which he courted older gay men who bought him the appearance of wealth he craved, the success Modesto falsely role-modeled.

If there are diagnoses for Modesto or his wife’s mental status in some doctor’s file, they do not figure in this telling; Andrew’s parents are shown having raised a pampered prince, unfit for life’s vagaries. And as he reckoned with the contradiction between his sense of entitlement and the cards life was dealing, he began to murder.

First was his friend, Jeffrey Trail (Finn Wittrock), a former U.S. naval officer, who was in recovery from the difficulties of being a gay officer in the service, the episode offering a deeply embarrassing look at don’t-ask-don’t-tell exigencies in the navy. Andrew’s former lover, architect David Madson, was next (below, Cody Fern). Madson was then achieving success as an architect and rejecting Andrew, but still easily manipulated by him. Madson was free to run but imprisoned in a no-escape Stockholm syndrome.

Then 72-year-old Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell), a Chicago property developer who paid Andrew for sex, was stabbed and throat slit after which Andrew stole his car (below with insert of Miglin). Next to last and most random, he shot a 45-year-old man in New Jersey for his red truck. Andrew then hid in plain sight in Miami for two months, stalking Versace whom he had once met, the most enviable target he had chosen to punish for his own failure; Versace was not just rich and famous but an artist. 

Andrew had eluded arrest thus far because of the relative secrecy of gay life in fly-over country. By the time Jeff Trail and David Madson were found in Minnesota and Miglin in Chicago, Andrew was long gone. Death of the beloved icon in Miami, however, focused the mind of law enforcement and Cunanan was found — dead.

The series begins with Versace’s murder and then unfolds in reverse order until the childhood influences on Versace and Cunanan come into focus as unsurprising ‘aha’s’ near the series conclusion. Criss, a product of Glee and half Filipino like Andrew, has blazed into stardom with this heavy-weight lead role, winning an Emmy and Golden Globe last year. Criss’s Andrew dazzles, charms, and mesmerizes his prey and us, his audience.

A few other actors were memorable: Australian Fern’s deer-in-the headlights affect as Cunanan’s lover-cum-victim, David Madson, stays with you, and Judith Light’s portrayal of Lee Miglin’s wife, for which she received an Emmy nomination. Marilyn Miglin never knew what hit her, that her marriage was not peaches-and-cream, or that her husband hid a secret sex life that would lead to his being bound with tape and stabbed to death. Marilyn was the oblivious, blond-helmeted business-woman who sweet-talked her own line of ‘pheromone’ perfumes on a TV home shopping network. Ms Light created Barbie doll’s perfect grand-mom in a perfect pink suit until Andrew Cunanan fowled the whole picture perfect.

On team Versace, Penélope Cruz does a compassionate, loving Donatella (below, top r). Some Spanish language undertones to the Italian-accented English of the Versace entourage were perceptible — never mind, one still followed with interest the glamorous but day-to-day ordinaries of the family business and relationships. But no hedging the obvious — this was multi-talented Darren Criss’s show, fulfilling every fantasy of success that his character dreamed of. He carries the entire star-filled tragedy like a dazzling quarterback. He is one to watch.

The above post was written by 
 our monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

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