Once upon a time, there was a boy who yearned for all the things he believed America had promised him: wealth, respect, access to the finest things and the most sophisticated people. But he had a strange resistance to pursuing the substance of those goals, rather than the appearance of them.
He scorned hard work and legitimate achievement as ordinary, delusions for suckers who couldn’t embrace a workaround. He overvalued himself and then was shocked when the people around him detected that what he presented as gold was actually dross. And yet, despite the increasing risks that he would be exposed, he continued to pursue this gambit to the point of self-destruction.
It may sound like I’m talking about the president of the United States: After all, the defining feature of the Trump administration is a confusion about what’s ersatz and what’s real, and why the distinction matters.
But, in fact, I’m describing Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer who murdered the designer Gianni Versace and four other men, and who is the subject of the latest installment of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story franchise, in which Cunanan is played by Darren Criss (which premiered on FX.)
I didn’t always enjoy watching The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, which is substantially more brutal and substantially less inclined to paint a truly broad social portrait than The People v. O.J. Simpson. But it’s still got a chilly resonance, even if it’s not the one Murphy intended.
Murphy said when the series was in production that he was interested in “More than why (Versace) was killed … was why it was allowed to happen,” something that he attributes to a homophobic reluctance by law enforcement agencies to work with the gay community. He’s also suggested that Cunanan’s murders took on an intellectual quality, that he murdered victims “specifically to shame them and out them and have a form of payback for a life that he felt he could not live.”
Having seen eight of the nine episodes of the mini-series, I’m not convinced that this instalment of the franchise makes either of those cases effectively, or even that homophobia is what the series is actually most interested in. The series is full of deft little sketches that detail how homosexuality made an impact on the lives of Cunanan and his victims. Gayness was something Cunanan lied about, even when it was unnecessary.
Homosexuality was a deception at the heart of Lee Miglin’s (Mike Farrell) marriage to Marilyn Miglin (Judith Light) that became unsustainable after Cunanan killed him and the police struggled to understand the connection between the two men.
The series presents sexual orientation as a source of David Madson’s (Cody Fern) sensitivity and creative insight, qualities Cunanan envied but couldn’t emulate or ultimately lock down by convincing Madson to marry him.
For Versace (Edgar Ramirez), gayness seemed to be a professional obstacle and ultimately wasn’t. Most searingly, homophobia was the factor that ended Jeff Trail’s (Finn Wittrock) Navy career and set him profoundly adrift, leaving him vulnerable to Cunanan, who came to believe that Trail somehow owed him.
The show is most effective when it’s debunking our self-delusion that we’d never be dumb enough to fall for someone so obviously fake and dishonest. Miglin, Madson, Trail and many of Cunanan’s other friends, acquaintances and lovers are all smart, accomplished people.
But they all had something they wanted or needed that Cunanan was, for a brief period, able to supply: He could play a convincing and grateful lover, bolster the confidence of a young man venturing out into the world, provide an introduction to gay bars and gay life, talk about the opera, decorate a house. That they eventually realised the limits of Cunanan’s performance was to their credit; that their good sense and intelligence wasn’t enough to save them from him is a tragedy.
Most of us won’t face consequences this severe on the occasions that we allow ourselves to be taken in. Even on a national level, the fraud we’re presently entangled with is playing out more in terms of collective degradation and a dismantling of the social safety net, rather than ending in a claw hammer to the face. Which is not to say we shouldn’t be profoundly frightened by this present moment.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story is a story about a clash between falseness and authenticity where the former destroyed the latter before being destroyed in turn. Though it has a terrible cost, that’s a more comforting narrative than the one we’re living through. This time around, fakery outflanked reality, and it’s not clear that enough people care to tell the difference.
By arrangement with The Washington Post