The title of this second in the series of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story is slightly misleading. Gianni Versace is the hook, the celebrity name that’s dropped to grab your attention. The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story is partly about the famous fashion designer, but it is mostly about Andrew Cunanan, the manipulative, narcissistic fantasist with a fatal charm who killed Gianni Versace on the steps of his South Beach villa on July 15th 1997 in the final act of a murder spree. Everyone knows about this murder or remembers where they were when they heard that Gianni died. But few realised that Cunanan was a serial killer who killed four other men. That story was in the shadows. In this series, the victims are the central characters, with stories that deserve to be told.
Andrew Cunanan’s misadventures before the spectacular finale on the steps of the Versace mansion did not go completely unnoticed at the time. Journalist Maureen Orth read a newspaper article about a 27-year-old gay man from a posh private school in La Jolla, California, who was on the lam, wanted for four murders in three states. Her profile for Vanity Fair was about to be published when news broke that Cunanan had killed Versace. Suddenly, Cunanan, and the spectacularly failed manhunt for him, which ended with his suicide eight days after Versace’s murder, became a national obsession. Orth’s article for Vanity Fair was expanded it into a book: Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History and became the basis of the series.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace is essentially a series of tragic vignettes about what it was like to be gay in America in the ’90s. It starts with the killing of Versace and moves backwards telling the story of Andrew Cunanan’s cross-country murder spree, in which he kills Jeffrey Trail, a closeted ex-marine in the age of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” who was a friend of Cunanan’s; David Madson, an ex- boyfriend that Cunanan referred to as the “love of my life”; Lee Miglin, an elderly closeted married Chicago real estate developer who was one of Cunanan’s sugar daddies: William Reese who was in the wrong place at the wrong time; and finally Gianni Versace with whom Cunanan was obsessed.
The series delves into the mind of Andrew Cunanan who had a promising start in life. He was intriguing and human in his early years, but gradually descended into addiction and murderous madness. He transformed from a compulsive teenage liar into the monster who would go on to murder five innocent men. Cunanan was driven by the desire for fame and for revenge. He was a gifted and spoiled son of an accused-embezzler father and a victimized, mentally ill mother. He was star-struck by Versace whose fame and lifestyle he craved and felt he deserved. He was a good looking, charming social climber who succeeded in penetrating the closeted upper classes. He got used to the expensive wardrobes and lavish holidays given to him by the older, rich men whom he dates. But things started falling apart for him and he snapped.
Darren Criss, who is brilliant as Andrew Cunanan says that he was “someone who had the potential to do so much more. How does that person become synonymous with something so sad, violent, or scary? It’s a story about the have and have-nots, the ultimate creator and the ultimate destroyer.”
The Assassination of Gianni Versace is also a story about being gay in America in the 90s: the seclusion and loneliness of the closet, the pain of thwarted desire, denial, the necessary accumulation of lies, and the confusion of a post-Aids-crisis in an intolerant society before Will and Grace made gays undeniably visible. The Assassination of Gianni Versace depicts the poisons of systematic homophobia. The true horror and sorrow of this series comes from the fact that Andrew Cunanan and the brutal crimes he committed were entirely stoppable, yet no one was paying attention to the community that needed help the most. Queer lives did not matter much to law enforcement.
The series is visually stunning and the acting is superb. Edgar Ramírez as Gianni is commanding and quietly tortured. Fame and celebrity are no panacea for the closet. Ricky Martin is Antonio D’Amico, Gianni’s boyfriend. Penélope Cruz does a pretty good impersonation of Donatella Versace, but she is too beautiful to be totally convincing. She does not come over as likeable. She was totally against Gianni’s coming out in The Advocate magazine and it is little wonder that the Versace family disapproved of this film. Darren Criss is definitely the star. His portrayal is simultaneously endearing and creepy. He is undoubtedly as much a victim as his own victims, though this in no way excuses his actions.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace is as much and American Horror Story as it is an American Crime Story. Producer Ryan Murphy could have gone either way.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story can currently be viewed in South Africa on Netflix.