American Camp Story: Did Versace’s Murderer Really Kill That Dove, Too?
In our first recap of "American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace," Philippa Snow questions whether that poetic dove was really assassinated alongside the designer.
Photograph by Pari Dukovic for FX, courtesy of the network.
“The world of the heterosexual,” Aunt Ida shudders in John Waters’s justifiably straight-hating magnum opus, Female Trouble, “is a sick and boring life.” American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace is not heterosexual programming, thank God, which means it’s neither sick nor boring—only deeply stylized, so that it succeeds in making murder look like the narrative focal point of a perfume commercial. Like all good stories, it begins with a location card reading "Miami Beach, Florida." Like a number of good films, it has the beach’s signature electric lushness, its too-lurid color: red lights, blue skies, green palms, a candy-pink silk-satin robe.
Ryan Murphy’s latest season of his pop procedural anthology, American Crime Story, covers the 1997 shooting of Versace in nine fifty-minute episodes; and yet so un-boring is the pilot that we see the murder seven minutes in. The twinky killer, Andrew Cunanan, is a fantasist played with a cold and twitchily unreal demeanor by the android-perfect Darren Criss. Introduced as an unreliable narrator, then a Ripley-esque savant at social climbing, he creates two big impressions: one in a scene that shows him covering his mouth in a pantomime of horror when he’s really smiling, and another that’s a bona fide showcase for his ass. He’s closeted around his straight friends, gay around his gay friends, and completely unashamed to say out loud that his objective is to “tell people whatever they need to hear”—a primo marker for a sociopath. By July of 1997, he has killed five people in a span of six months, one of whom is Gianni Versace, and he is a very wanted man.
The timeline leaps from the murder scene to 1990, and the killer’s would-be-courtship of Versace—whom he tells about his plan to write a book, provoking one of the all-time greatest burns on the laziness of writers ever televised: “I wish I had the patience to write a novel, but my mind is always moving"—and then back again. (Whether the two men actually met at all before the shooting has, I ought to say, been subject to debate: last week the writer Maureen Orth, whose book about the killing, Vulgar Favours, is the inspiration for the show, insisted: “There is no doubt in my mind that those two met.” What we see here is that lack of doubt played out for the very best angle; so that what might be erotic, a seduction at the opera, only ratchets up the audience’s dread.) We’re introduced to Penelope Cruz as Donatella circa 1997, stepping off a jet in mourning leather and affecting a faultless accent, less Italian than idiosyncratic Donatella-ese.
Because the Versaces are a family represented by an image drawn from the myths of ancient Greece, it’s fitting that they’re rendered at an also-mythic scale for television: murder, feuds and three-or-more-ways figure heavily immediately. That famed Medusa branding, says Gianni in the pilot, came to pass because as children, he and Donatella “used to play in ancient ruins where we grew up, and one day I saw the Medusa's head…. I know that many people call it pretentious, but I don't care. How could my childhood be pretentious?” Versace's use of the Medusa head has always seemed to me deliciously ironic, since the myth of the Medusa is that she began her life as a beautiful woman, and was turned into a monster to repel men. No Versace woman ever knowingly repelled a man; where fashion in its highest form is these days happy to perform like a Medusa spell—to make the wearer into something hard to see for heterosexual male suitors—Versace is a brand where simple sexuality, the nakedly extrinsic, rules.
The show so far is likewise fascinated with both architectural interiors and personal exteriors, equally baroque. It’s fascinated with Versace’s Greco branding as a visual signifier: of the dead man’s love of glamour, his association with locales that, culturally, read as sultry and as torrid with both words as synonyms for “hot” and “scandalous.” By minute fifty, we know where we’re going but are unsure as to how we’re getting there, except in style.
A final note on certain accuracies and inaccuracies: when Gianni’s shot, we see a dove shot alongside him, so that the white and pretty bird—a single punctuation mark of red, a single flaw—ends up as evidence. How could a death be pretentious? Evidently, far more easily than one might think: the dove was real, a casualty of Cunanan’s first bullet. Less real is the woman who is seen to soak a print Versace ad in blood from the crime scene, making something both so chic and so immoral, so completely ghoulish and indebted to the capitalist status quo, that it can only be completely perfect; there could not be a more elegant or necessary lie.