THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE Review: “The Man Who Would Be Vogue”

AMERICAN CRIME STORY returns to another iconic '90s murder scene.

"I tell people what they want to hear." 

Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) is a liar. He lies about so much that his best friend Elizabeth Cote (Annaleigh Ashford) - whom Andrew lives with, much to her husband's (Nico Evers-Swindell) disapproval - rolls her eyes whenever his next story commences. Oh, you met Gianni Versace last night at a club? And you have a date to go to the opera with him? Sure, Andrew, pass the orange juice. There's a compulsive propulsion with which every single factual distortion rolls off of Andrew's tongue that'd almost be comical if it weren't so cringe-worthy: from his brags to working on his gay father's pineapple plantation in the Philippines, to his own religious heritage (he claims to be Jewish at one point, when he was actually a Catholic altar boy). But this is the "creative" side of Cunanan: a "nobody" - as Donatella Versace (Penélope Cruz) labels him at one point - who constantly re-wrote his own backstory to be anybody but himself. 

Where the first season of American Crime Story used the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman as a jumping off point to examine the politics of race in America - resulting in one of the most dynamic pieces of television in the last decade - its second is utilizing the titular murder of the famous fashion designer (played here by Edgar Ramírez) as a springboard into the deep end of being gay during the '90s AIDS scare. Cunanan's portrayal borders on becoming a stereotype that was minted during this era - the closeted, homicidal homosexual - as his numerous fabrications are obviously products of his own self-loathing. Yet Criss finds a way to tap into the humanity of this tortured soul - alone on a beach, cradling a backpack crammed with a handgun and a copy of Caroline Seebohm’s '82 book The Man Who Was Vogue: The Life and Times of Condé Nast. Per usual, Ryan Murphy's leering lens straddles the line between the grotesque and the humane, allowing his performer to emote while the operatic score swells and the apocalyptic sun burns the back of his neck. 

Where The People v. OJ Simpson refused the audience a glimpse of the actual crime its alleged perpetrator was put on trial for - presumably to keep the ambiguity of Simpson's innocence intact - The Assassination of Gianni Versace begins with the central heinous killing and then works backwards. The opening sequence of the first episode (which was helmed by EP Ryan Murphy) is almost wordless as it traces Versace's daily routine through his palatial Miami Beach home on July 15, 1997; eating breakfast in his pink robe, waving to his live-in boyfriend Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin) before departing to pick up a stack of magazines to consume that day, and then being shot dead on the front steps of his '30s Mediterranian Revival villa. Murphy's camera cranes and swoops, bringing every detail of this time period into focus, right down to the can of Jolt Cola Cunanan chugs before marching toward his target. It's all so opulent and sad. 

As if the bullet acted as some sort of time machine, we're back in San Francisco in '90, as Cunanan descends into the depths of a neon-slathered gay club with his buddy Eli (Caleb Foote). Using a VIP pass, the two are able to get up close and personal with Versace, and Andrew badgers the creator into engaging in conversation with him through tales of his mother's supposed Italian heritage. Later, when he relays the story to Lizzie, it's twisted into Gianni approaching him and wanting to know more; the casual perversion of truth that's quickly established as the brazen killer's calling card. Yet the reality of any situation doesn't get in the way of Andrew's ultimate goals, and here he wants to be adjacent to the most renowned fashion magnate in the world. When the two actually do rendezvous following the opera - a production of Richard Strauss' Capriccio, for which Versace designed the costumes - the mogul is either far too kind to call Cunanan on his bullshit, or is simply enamored with the silly young thing and says, "you’re handsome, you’re clever, I’m sure you’re going to be someone really special one day.”

The "specialness" of Cunanan is debatable, but what isn't is the poignancy with which Murphy - along with screenwriter Tom Rob Smith (Child 44) - paints the aftermath of Gianni's death. Antonio has to tearfully explain to wary investigators why there were so many men - dancers, escorts, strays - in and out of their house on a regular basis, and what the true meaning of "partner" is when applied to a gay relationship. Meanwhile, Donatella flies in to try and handle the financial ramifications of her brother's murder, reminding us that this is a story of two different kinds of "outsiders" in America - homosexuals (who were still labeled AIDS-carrying perverts by many in '97) and immigrants (who came to the United States looking to achieve a dream). “This is not a time for strangers. This is a time for family," Donatella says, rationalizing why she's refused to take the company public as a means to retain control of Gianni's legacy, "my brother is still alive as long as Versace is alive."

There are many factual inconsistencies regarding The Assassination of Gianni Versace - an adaptation of Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favors, which the Versace family claims is riddled with errors - but Murphy & Co. are getting at a soulful recreation of a time that still feels fresh for many who lived through it, while the attitudes toward gays it represents are wholly antiquated. Same-sex marriage is still a dream, and though the AIDS epidemic had died down in the late '90s public consciousness, the lingering fear and distrust of homosexuals remained. What hasn't changed one bit is the way the American public is drawn to carnage, as a scene where two tourists break the crime scene barrier to dip a page from Vogue magazine in Versace's blood illustrates with ghastly clarity. Ditto the incompetence of both local and national police forces, as it turns out the FBI were already on Cunanan's trail for a series of murders, but were too lazy to put the fliers up and alert anyone to his dangerous existence. In Murphy's American Crime Story, the country is a wasteland of bigotry and bumbling, and it'll be fascinating to see how the rest of The Assassination of Gianni Versace's politics are defined. 

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