The Assassination of Gianni Versace and I, Tonya Interrogate a Moral Gray Zone

The Assassination of Gianni Versace and I, Tonya Interrogate a Moral Gray Zone
From TIME - January 11, 2018

The new FX series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story has a famous fashion designer in its titlebut the show is much more interested in his killer. Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), before he goes to kill Versace in Miami in 1997, spends his young life in pursuit of status and material wealth. Hes fascinated by operaor at least claims to be to meet rich menand the association fits: the forms unironically bold emotions seem to suit Cunanans roiling inner life, and its lavish stagings are a reminder of all he wants but cant access when the curtain falls.

Versace wants to be an opera too. The show, cribbing from recent-enough history to build a narrative of increasingly high dudgeon, is rigorous about its devotion to aesthetic and to its big ideas about culture and society. Along with the new movie I, Tonya, its among a recent wave of entertainment that repurposes the half-forgotten scandals of the 1990s into morally righteous art. Even when the result falls flatwhich it often doesthe impulse to create it makes sense: at a moment when offscreen life feels particularly unsettled, the media scandals of two decades ago are as suitably perverse a place as any to try to find something clear and certain.

Theres plenty of certitude in Versace, which is unabashed about underlining its theses over and over. One of these is the idea that a borderline-malicious lack of interest in gay men on the part of the police led them to miss out on apprehending Cunanan before he made his appointment with the doomed Versace. But the shows bigger point is that the concept of the closet is a sickness that hurt Cunanan and hurts our culture on every level. Between their separate story lines, Cunanan and Versace (dgar Ramrez) take a sort of Forrest Gump tour through every milestone for the gay community in the 1990scoming out, the AIDS crisis, high society, crystal meth and Dont ask, dont tell.

All of that could be argued to be part of the saga, but how much of it is really part of this particular story? The military policy on gays, for instance, arises in a lengthy digression about a gay naval officer (Finn Wittrock) who falls under Cunanans sway. Elsewhere, another victim (Mike Farrell) is imagined as a closeted fellow besotted with Cunanan even as he hates his own gay impulses. We do not know whether this victim knew Cunanan in real life, or what the nature of the association was. Choosing to make the victim a heartsick, tragically closeted man is the easy choice in order to garner sympathy from an audience thats come a long waythough hardly all the wayon the issue of gay rights. Sure, people in the 1990s (as now) withered away in the closetbut everyone Cunanan encounters seems burdened by their urges. The fact that Cunanan tends to see the world according to his own strict-if-warped moral code becomes less character trait than understandable way of dealing with the world around him. After all, everyone he meets seems punishingly aware of their own shortcomings. But what a shame: these men were already murder victims. Must this series force them to play the victim in life too?

Meanwhile, Versace lives his life, unaware of the creature coming his way. His sections of the story are stronger: Versace is just a man, in thrall of pleasure but just about the only person onscreen who is not toxically addicted to it. (That hes portrayed so evenhandedly suggests fealty to the Versace name, or a minor miracle.) The story is tragic, certainly, but it also can be read as a lurid one-liner: monster kills star, motive unknown. Morals suggest themselves in the spaces between what is known, but airing them at great length seems a disservice to the story we actually have.

Of course, the true-crime genrewhich often speculates about the unknowns in cases like Cunanansis nothing new. But theres a special fascination with a story of this particular timing, one thats old enough to be history but recent enough to allow us to feel shocked at just how much has changed. Pop culture has always worked on a 20-year nostalgia cycle; here, that seems in part motivated by the degree to which the audience can give itself a nod of approvalwere much more enlightened now than they were not so long ago. Things really were simpler then, and retro entertainment like Versace gives us the double comfort of understanding that weve got it all figured out now and escapism from our growing existential fears that we dont.

What made The People v. O.J. Simpson, the previous installment in producer Ryan Murphys American Crime Story franchise, work was the effortlessness with which it found resonance between Simpsons case and our lives in the present. That storys elements of class, race, gender and celebrity needed no massaging to fit into a narrative urgently relevant to our lives in the 2010s. It succeeded because the details of that trial are so widely known as to make excavating the real figures from behind the headlines possible, and endlessly interesting.

Cunanan, a shadowy figure even to journalists whove tried to understand his story, is knottier, and less easily understood. Reducing him to a morality-play story of a boy warped by his secrets is unsatisfying. Its enough to make it relevant to an empathetic contemporary audience, but its not enough for a drama that uses the names and personae of people who really lived.


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