This is a spoiler-free review.
American Crime Story could be titled American Dream Story. The country’s national myth, dating back more or less to the Declaration of Independence, is a paean to individualism in a fiercely competitive world, to equality of opportunity, that living well is theoretically available to all. Today, the American Dream is really about the pursuit of celebrity, notoriety, money, sex and power.
In both seasons to date, exploring the OJ Simpson trial and Andrew Cunanan’s killing spree, Ryan Murphy’s series gives us the American Dream turned to ashes. OJ Simpson’s entitlement became warped by accruement of wealth and fame. Cunanan’s was instilled in him almost from birth, his existence of lies constructed around make-believe riches, and fame is very much what he wanted. While tackling different themes – Season 1 is about race and Season 2 is focused on homophobia – both American Crime Story entries to date dovetail perfectly, because each represent specific 1990s real-crime sensations that changed the country’s approach to sensationalist, rolling content, the very type Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) keenly satirised. OJ Simpson’s trial cynically piggybacked on discussions about race relations in Los Angeles and social justice in America, while Cunanan’s crimes shone on a light on homophobic attitudes in society at all levels. The stories are national tragedies atop personal tragedies, reflecting uncomfortable facts and provoking soul-searching questions, yet simultaneously feeding our demand for juicy stories with monstrous men at the fore.
Class has emerged as a major ingredient in American Crime Story, too. From the projects of San Francisco, Simpson journeyed to the refined world of Brentwood, LA. He earned his way to the top by being genuinely gifted as an athlete, becoming a star and personality off the back of his footballing achievements. Behind the sunny persona and bonhomie, however, Simpson (aka. The Juice) was a man crippled by jealousies and slights, both real and imagined. He was a guy who thought he was so unique, so different, he had transcended his African-American roots. He once exclaimed in all seriousness: “I’m not black, I’m OJ.”
As counterpoint to Simpson’s rags-to-riches tale, Andrew Cunanan went to a private school, lived well enough, until his father’s fraudulent career as a conman was exposed, and his special talent was for BS. Handsome, funny, well read, Cunanan turned into a pathological liar. Even when people knew he was talking crap, he did it in such charming fashion, so amusingly, friends forgave him or brushed it off as just one of his quirky insecurities. All the while, Cunanan was edging further and further towards murderous schemes. Cunanan, as depicted in The Assassination of Gianni Versace, is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great pretender, Jay Gatsby, crossed with American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. He’s like a great white shark prowling San Diego and San Francisco, posing as a harmless Nemo. He dreamed of living in the lap of luxury, but he didn’t want to work for it. Fortitude and hard graft were alien to him. Cunanan’s life disappointments eventually manifested as an obsessive fixation on Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, who journeyed from relatively humble origins in a dirt-poor region of Italy (Calabria) to international superstardom.
Season 2 is a more intimate and experimentally plotted affair than its predecessor. American Crime Story creator Ryan Murphy and collaborator Tom Rob Smith used Maureen Orth’s investigative non-fiction book, Vulgar Favours (1998), as the text off which to springboard. Across nine episodes, we get Versace and Cunanan’s life stories played out on screen. But, like in an experimental film, it is plotted unexpectedly. There has been criticism of the show’s narrative structuring (chiefly: the plot is unnecessarily convoluted), yet it moves well and demonstrates how daring television is becoming, how it can borrow from cinema and literature to tell a captivating story out of chronological order and do so with fine results.
At the heart of The Assassination of Gianni Versace is a triumphant performance by Darren Criss. In snobbier times, critics might well have declared it ‘too good for television’, but in a veritable golden age of small screen entertainment, any such critique is a bust. As Cunanan, Criss delivers a magnetic and layered portrait of a psychopath far away from dog-tired movie clichés. Cunanan was a mercurial personality, jocular and kind or a moody, preening, spoilt brat at the flip of a mental switch. He breathlessly lied and stuck steadfastly to his made-up nonsense, as if by force of will he could change reality and manifest his fibs into being. The genius in the acting comes from Criss’s ability to make ‘Andy’ not only likeable, but in making us feel sympathy for a devil. It shouldn’t be transgressive to acknowledge monsters can love; it’s just they love monstrously, selfishly and destructively. The final couple of episodes are especially heart-wrenching. What Criss does so well is craft a performance based on a very complicated person and allows such complexity full rein before our eyes. The effect is astonishing.
Criss dominates proceedings so totally that it’s easy forget the cast includes Édgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace and Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace. The script poignantly documents two people almost aloof from everyday reality, as well as a brother-and-sister dynamic made of love and fiery rivalry, of two artists sometimes forgetting they’re related, because the empire they’ve built is much bigger than either of them. Donatella emerged from under her brother’s shadow in the worst circumstances, and their interactions are peppered with a sense of competitiveness, the older brother telling his little sister to up her game, stop thinking so commercially and take more chances artistically. It doesn’t matter Cruz and Ramirez are Spanish-accented actors playing Calabrese, especially when the former gets Donatella’s distinct mumble down to a T. Presenting the pair as virtual demigods among mere mortals cleverly taps into our febrile celebrity culture and Cunanan’s own obsession with Gianni Versace and a world dripping with gaudy riches. Ramirez has the aura of a doomed saint, while Cruz’s Donatella is granite-hard, refusing to appear vulnerable, although she’s deeply wounded by her brother’s murder.
One of Season 2’s most powerful aspects is the examination of institutional homophobia (in police departments, the FBI, the media and the military). The Matt Bomer-directed episode (Ep 5 – Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) is set against the backdrop of the US army’s policy to portray the hideous experiences of Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock), a former navy officer and one of Cunanan’s victims. But it’s also embedded in little scenes – a cop’s embarrassment of questioning Versace’s partner, Antonio (played by Ricky Martin), and clumsily insinuating the fashion designer was murdered because of his lifestyle choices. Another police officer wisecracks to a colleague she got the case to hunt down Cunanan because she’s a lesbian (inferring she can understand gay people). In its presentation of a world lacking all empathy towards the murder victims and their families, while the news coverage feasts on every scrap of info it can dig up, American Crime Story stings with horror and truth.
Both seasons make for essential viewing, with The Assassination of Gianni Versace taking the show into masterpiece territory. John Travolta’s comeback role as Robert Shapiro reminded us all a guy who has spent a decade or so coasting in a range of B-movies still could deliver the goods. Darren Criss, best known as a Glee cast member, presents the shock of the new. His powerhouse performance is unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry.
American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace is available to buy and download as a box set.