Let’s just get this out of the way upfront, since the comparison is inevitable: The Assassination of Gianni Versace doesn’t quite reach the heights of The People vs. O.J. Simpson. But so what?
The second season of FX’s American Crime Story was never going to be as richly textured as the first, if only because Simpson’s “trial of the century” was so much more significant as a cultural event. The verdict was a defining American moment, the kind where you remember where you were when you heard it. So through no fault of its own, Versace never really stood a chance against its Emmy-winning ACS sibling. And yet, on its own merits, Versace makes for addictive, phenomenal television. I was hooked from the opening scene, in which director Ryan Murphy and series writer Tom Rob Smith dispense with the titular murder, getting it out of the way early before working their way backwards, tracing how this tragic crime came to pass.
Much like how the first season of ACS wasn’t really about O.J. Simpson, neither is the second season really about Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace. Instead, it inverts the first season’s formula and shifts its focus from the courtroom to the crime spree and the man behind it, Andrew Cunanan. This creative choice isn’t necessarily what I was expecting given Versace‘s marketing materials, which from the very start, have trumpeted the casting of Edgar Ramirez as Gianni and Penelope Cruz as Donatella. And yet it proves to be a wise decision, since to be honest, the power struggle within the House of Versace isn’t half as interesting as the walking question mark that is Cunanan.
So let’s talk about the actual star of the show, Darren Criss. I know Criss is a big TV star thanks to Murphy’s earlier hit Glee, and he has two million Twitter followers and he’s a very famous guy. But I’m a professional entertainment consumer and I’d never seen him in anything before (though I almost rented Girl Most Likely once), so as far as I was concerned, he felt completely new to me, as I imagine he will to a lot of people who didn’t watch Glee. I suspect that those who did watch it won’t recognize ‘Blaine’ once they see Criss covered in blood, a crazed look in his empty eyes. He’s simply excellent here as Cunanan, a gay serial killer in the vein of Matt Damon’s talented Mr. Ripley, but of course, this manipulative sociopath with a 147 IQ is hardly a work of fiction. Criss is absolutely chilling here, and there’s a haunting sadness to his carefully calibrated breakout performance. I can’t say enough about Criss’ work, which will force you to look at the actor in a completely different light.
As for Versace, he’s reduced to a supporting character in his own story, not that I’m arguing, given how satisfying all of the Cunanan scenes are. In fact, the episodes that solely focus on Andrew are the best of the bunch, and the Versace thread tends to interrupt their momentum. Ramirez is magnetic as the formidable fashion designer, but he also plays Versace with a certain softness that serves as a nice antidote to Cunanan’s craziness. You really believe Ramirez and Cruz could be siblings when Gianni and Donatella spar over her role in his budding empire. You can see Donatella is tired of living in her brother’s shadow and eager to carve out her own identity within the fashion world, and Gianni sees this as well, offering her up to the cameras in an attempt to placate her ego. Ricky Martin plays the third wheel of this co-dependent relationship, Gianni’s longtime partner Antonio D’Amico, and while the pop singer does a fine job, their relationship is just dressing on the Cunanan salad.
The series endeavors to depict Versace and Cunanan as two men on opposite ends of a spectrum. Versace came from nothing and built his life into something of meaning. Cunanan had a reasonably happy childhood, and yet, his life quickly fell apart once he struck out on his own. That parallel is reflected in one of the episode titles, “Creator/Destroyer,” which presents the men as two sides of the same ruthlessly ambitious coin. The difference between them is that while Cunanan desperately wanted to lead the life of luxury that Versace enjoyed and most people only read about in magazines, he wasn’t willing to put in any of the hard work to actually earn it.
Cunanan may have been added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list prior to the Versace murder, but he didn’t become infamous until he killed the fashion designer, relegating the rest of his victims to “other” status. That’s how they’re initially presented, too, since we don’t get to know what these people meant to Andrew until after we’ve learned he’s killed them, so it’s not until later that we come to understand how and why Cunanan could’ve done what he did. That’s if you can understand the killer’s warped thinking to begin with, given his knack for telling tall tales. The more lies Cunanan tells his friends, the more we realize he’s lying to himself, and he has no idea of who he really is anymore. He has lost his own sense of identity, drifting from one to the next as he zigzags his way across the country towards Versace’s opulent home in South Beach. For Cunanan, the greatest sin is to be boring and forgotten. Told all his life that he’s someone special, he’s stunned when others don’t see it, and Criss plays those moments of rejection quite beautifully.
The fourth episode of the season introduces Cunanan’s former lover, David Madson (hugely talented Australian actor Cody Fern, a real find) and David’s current beau, Jeffrey Trail (AHS alum Finn Wittrock), and you can’t underestimate their roles in this story, as the latter was Andrew’s first victim, the one who launched his multi-state crime spree. Trail gets his own half-episode (pointedly titled “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”) dedicated to the (mis)treatment of gays in the military, and while this statement of a subplot adds some context to how authorities (including the cops chasing Cunanan) regarded homosexuals 25 years ago, it also feels a bit shoehorned in. Like, what does this really have to do with Versace or Cunanan? ACS tries to make that connection, using cultural homophobia to explain law enforcement’s delayed search for Cunanan, but it feels a bit forced, though it’s clearly something that interested Murphy in the first place.
Versace is much more successful when it drills down into who Cunanan is, at least as much as one can, given the fact that the guy was a complete cypher of an human being — a gifted chameleon, if you will. A people pleaser, he could be whatever, and whoever, his friends/lovers/targets wanted him to be. That was his skill, if you will. The ability to adapt to any situation… though he also had a need for control. He cared how things looked to other people, and what they thought of him. Of course, to fully understand a man, you have to know where he comes from, and the series soars when it turns its lens on Andrew’s family, particularly his father, Modesto. Filipino actor Jon Jon Briones is utterly fantastic as Andrew’s father, who doted on his precocious child, whom he considered more special than his other kids. You can also see where Andrew might’ve learned his smooth-talking criminal behavior, as Modesto was a stockbroker who bilked people out of their money and abandoned his family when the feds came calling, fleeing back to the Philippines.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent from top to bottom. Mike Farrell and Judith Light are both incredible as slain Chicago real estate developer Lee Miglin and his wife, Marilyn. When Miglin’s body is discovered, no one has to tell her what happened — she knows right away, her worst fears confirmed. Edouard Holdener also deserves praise as young Andrew, and Max Greenfield is unrecognizable in the second episode, which offers a reminder of what he can do with the right part.
This disturbing character study is based on Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favors, and in addition to Murphy, its directors include Gwyneth Horder-Payton, Nelson Cragg, Daniel Minahan (check out his directorial debut Series 7: The Contenders) and Matt Bomer, though costumer designer Lou Eyrich and production designer Judy Becker deserve equal praise for their lavish contributions.
I might as well use this space to address the recent controversy surrounding the series, which according to the Versace family, is unauthorized and full of inaccuracies.
“The Versace family has neither authorized nor had any involvement whatsoever in the forthcoming TV series about the death of Mr. Gianni Versace,” the family said in a statement. “Since Versace did not authorize the book on which it is partly based nor has it taken part in the writing of the screenplay, this TV series should only be considered as a work of fiction.”
I completely appreciate why they would be concerned about the series’ depiction of Gianni, and particularly his health, I wouldn’t describe the series as a work of fiction, though I’d acknowledge that surely, there must be small fictions within the show. Still, I didn’t watch FX’s Simpson series like it was Ezra Edelman’s O.J. documentary, and I’m not taking The Assassination of Gianni Versace as gospel, either. Yes, it’s based on a bestselling non-fiction book, but as a regular viewer of crime shows, I’m fully aware that Tom Rob Smith is allowed some degree of artistic license in bringing that book to the small screen.
I imagine that can be hard to comprehend when you’re as close to the story as the Versace family is, but if they take a step back — and I don’t even know if they’ve actually seen the series they’ve been so quick to criticize — they’d see there’s really no reason to be concerned. Gianni is depicted as a strong leader, one aware of his mortality and a better man for it. The producers, and Ramirez especially, treat him with the utmost respect, and once the Versace family sees the full series, I think their biggest issue will be with how the show sort of manipulates the audience into having sympathy for Andrew, more than it will be about the depiction of Gianni, which is generous and loving.
“There’s always this question of when you’re making and writing this kind of material – you feel like you want to support the fundamental truths. And you are going to get some of the details wrong, or you’re going to have to fill in a gap at some point, where you don’t have access to the reality. I think the only way you are allowed to do that is if you’re supporting the bigger truth… I’m sure there are points where they could correct some of the smaller details, but I think the bigger picture is that this is a figure that we’re celebrating and a figure that we all fell in love with,” Smith said at FX’s TCA panel, noting that that ultimately, “the show is full of love for him.”
He isn’t lying, nor is trying to justify why Cunanan killed, as the fact that he was gay is ultimately besides the point. This show is about a guy who wanted what another man had but didn’t have the skills or tools to get it, so he figured the only way to achieve the immortality he craved was by robbing one of his icons of his mortality, thus ensuring both would live forever, together, in the annals of history. I don’t care how much of this actually happened and how much is artistic license on Smith’s part. All I care about is whether or not it’s entertaining, and on that front, Versace delivers.
This is a fascinating story about the making of a serial killer. A murderer finding his voice. It marks Tom Rob Smith as a major writer to watch, and Darren Criss as a force to be reckoned with. He delivers one of the most terrifying serial killer performance since Christian Bale starred in American Psycho, though Cunanan also reminded me, at times, of The Tooth Fairy from Manhunter and the serial killer in Copycat.
“You know, disgrace isn’t that bad, once you’ve settled into it,” Andrew tells one of his victims. Well Andrew Cunanan may go down in infamy as a disgrace, but The Assassination of Gianni Versace is anything but.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story will air on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief