"The Assassination of Gianni Versace" Was a Rejection of Glamour
"American Crime Story" wasn't about Versace, fame, or fashion at all. It was about something much darker.
Photograph courtesy of FX.
“When I first started in television, they only gave me thirty minutes to make an impression,” says Lee Miglin’s widow Marilyn, in the final episode of American Crime Story—which by now, in its ninth hour, has had 540 minutes to do the same, and which has revealed itself in increments to be far less about Versace than about queer lives, and queer death. The impression that it leaves is somber, and funereal, and its slow-burn voyeurism ends up feeling like an act of violence.
More than Gianni Versace’s ghost, the show is haunted by the specters of injustice, prejudice, complacency, heteronormativity, et cetera, et cetera; these are the spooks that make it just as much an American horror story as a crime one. Miglin’s widow is brought back, somewhat unsubtly, as a heart-rending reminder of the chaos Andrew Cunanan has caused throughout the season. When she talks about her marriage to Cunanan’s former john-turned-murder victim, Lee, as being like “a fairytale,” we’re meant to hear the “fairy” part a little louder. Mirrors are a motif in this final hour, so that when Andrew, on the run and hiding on a houseboat in Miami, is about to blow his brains out, he can’t help but turn and look at his reflection. In his mouth, the gun looks phallic; and because the gun looks phallic, it is hard not to assume that Cunanan is seeing himself (for the last time, no less) as the “faggy” kid his father mocked, “a sissy boy, with a sissy mind.”
“It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head,” David Foster Wallace said. “They shoot the terrible master.” With one shot, the sissy mind is violently evacuated, and the sissy boy that murdered all those men is dead. The true identity of the “terrible master” in this case is unclear: hours before the suicide, Modesto, Andrew’s father, is on TV offering up exclusive rights to the story of his son’s wild murder spree. The television screen, another mirror, shows Modesto’s callousness to Andrew, and shows us the son and killer’s face in fragments when Andrew Cunanan furiously smashes it and turns it black. A further dark obsidian mirror in Gianni Versace’s tomb will later throw back the distorted face of his distraught and grieving sister, Donatella, overlaid on a baroque medusa’s head. The line is blurred between man, woman, and inhuman monster.
Being a heterosexual woman born in 1988, I’ve had the luxury of being surprised by just how far American Crime Story’s real-life twists and turns have been informed by attitudes towards gay men that seem, to me, completely prehistoric. (I believe this is called “privilege”—although if you would prefer to call it “ignorance,” I would not necessarily correct you.) When the cops detain and interview a drug-addict named Ronnie who has previously sheltered Andrew, his despairing monologue sums up the season’s heaviest message: Andrew Cunanan did talk about Versace, Ronnie shrugs, but then, “We all did. We imagined what it would be like to be so rich and so powerful that it doesn’t matter that you’re gay. The other cops [before Cunanan killed Gianni]—they weren’t searching so hard, were they? Why is that? Because he killed a bunch of nobody gays? The truth is, you were disgusted by him long before he became disgusting…. People like me, we drift away; we get sick, and nobody cares. But Andrew was vain. He wanted you to know about his pain. He wanted you to hear. He wanted you to know about being born a lie. Andrew is not hiding. He’s trying to be seen.”
I looked up the difference between “murder” and “assassination,” and it turns out the dividing line is fame. American Crime Story turns out to be not much interested in fame or in famousness at all, but in the stories and the histories of queer men: the sons like Andrew Cunanan, yes, but the fathers, too—the closeted gay husbands of bored housewives, and the would-be husbands of out gay men who were not allowed to marry. Several times in the show, two men discuss the possibility of marriage; and in every instance, one man says, “We can’t,” and means it literally. Ronnie sneers in his big, heavy-handed monologue that men like Cunanan are “born a lie.” In fact, the lie is thrust upon them. The truth is the thing that dogs them, and that haunts them, for no reason other than the fact they’re told they should be haunted by it. (Who is saying this? The terrible master—as informed by Daddy, or by God, or by society, or by fear of the self.)
In a write-up of the second episode, I mentioned that the show avoids Milan Kundera’s definition of true kitsch—“the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word”—by showing us the ugliness, the evil shit, straight off the bat. “Shit happens,” I wrote then, “and then you die; a lot of this shit is unearned, unfair and brutal. A lot of this shit is painful and undignified, and it kills.” Since that week, a great deal more grim shit has happened onscreen. Many more have died. The death toll stands, eventually, at six, which is not much compared to something like The Walking Dead, but is a fairly heavy number for a true-crime series with nine episodes.
Andrew Cunanan dies ignobly on the houseboat, having been surrounded; Gianni Versace, so rich and so powerful it did not “matter” he was gay, is shot and killed; Antonio, his lover, is first excommunicated from the Versace family, and then tries to overdose. Andrew’s mother opens up the door to the FBI, and simply asks if they have killed her son. Modesto, sleazily, remains there in Manila trying to monetize his son’s horrendous crimes. Not happy to reject kitsch’s denial of all shit and leave it there, American Crime Story goes one further and—having first teased us with its possibility, and its seductiveness—rejects all glamour. It is its own slick obsidian mirror, gallows dark and too reflective. It’s affecting, and it’s hard to finish. There’s no other way to put it: what it shows us is entirely too much shit.