In his 2003 true crime novel, The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson states the following regarding Daniel Burnham, the famous architect, and H. H. Holmes, the infamous serial killer, the two figures at the heart of his story: “Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow.”[i]
Such a dichotomy forms the core of the second season of FX’s true crime anthology series, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which profiles both the famous fashion designer, Gianni Versace, and his infamous murderer, Andrew Cunanan. It is also its most emotionally and thematically successful attribute. Beautifully shot, immaculately designed and featuring Darren Criss‘s instantly iconic performance as the sociopathic Cunanan, Versace will make any fan of the genre salivate. The series bites off a bit more than it can chew, however, when it attempts to use its tragic story as a way to indict certain aspects of 1990s society. On this note, key through lines are only partially developed, restricting Versace from becoming the sociological gut punch that it clearly aspires to be.
On July 15, 1997, Gianni Versace (played by Édgar Ramírez) was shot and killed outside his mansion in Miami Beach by Andrew Cunanan. The first episode of Versace begins with this explosion of violence, moving backwards in time with each subsequent installment and eventually covering nearly 20 years of back story. These episodes serve to chronicle and critique the forces that set Cunanan down his bloody path to oblivion, a horrific journey that took the lives of five men – including Jeff Trail, David Madson, Lee Miglin, WIlliam Reese and, of course, Gianni Versace – across the United States and eventually ended with Cunanan’s suicide. With the exception of William Reese and, to some extent, Lee Miglin, Versace also explores both Andrew’s relationship with his victims and their individual lives and struggles.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace is a story of murder, but it is also a story of ambition and creativity – which were present in both Versace and Cunanan. Throughout the show, the character of Versace is frequently depicted as an unstoppable creative force, whose “mind is always moving” and is driven to produce one groundbreaking design after another. Versace conveys this through its scripts and its overall aesthetics and design. In the episode “Ascent,” for example, he expresses immense frustration while trying to inspire his younger sister, Donatella, to design a dress with him that is “bold” and “new,” and that will “give confidence.” The eventual design – a dizzying array of fabric and belts – is nearly identical to the real dress the Versaces created back in 1993 and certainly exudes those attributes. Following a successful debut with Donatella herself actually wearing the dress to a red carpet event, Versace once again expresses his creative passion when a company bean-counter tells him that the dress isn’t selling well. Upon suggestion from Donatella that he modify the dress to make it palatable to more modest consumers, Versace flies into something approaching rage. He destroys the dress, screaming the whole time: “Is it normal enough?”
The creative power of Versace is also inherent in the circumstances of his own life and his own identity – even in something like the design of his home in the United States. The series opening episode, “The Man Who Would be Vogue,” captures this with great efficacy, with long shots gliding through Versace’s massive home overlooking Miami Beach. The design of the Versace home resembles an aristocratic villa and is covered with the iconography of the mythological figure of Medusa, melding together the Hellenic traditionalism of the old country with the dynamic nature of 1990s Miami Beach. Such aesthetics speak to Versace’s Herculean efforts to remember where he came from while simultaneously embracing the modern contours of a changing world necessary to his personal and professional brand.
Ambition and creation are also deeply felt in the arc of the Cunanan character, particularly in the episodes “Descent” and “Ascent.” In the later episode, we find Andrew working a banal job as a clerk in a convenience store. He lives in a claustrophobic apartment with his mother and exhibits a hair-trigger temper. For instance, he flies into a rage when his mother buys store brand ice cream instead of Häagen-Dazs, screaming, “I want the best!” in a way that parallels Versace’s own outburst in the same episode.
What is also similar to Versace is how Andrew is able to engage in his own acts of self-creation. Following the disappearance of his father and his graduation from high school, Andrew chooses to shun the rigors of higher education and a career. He dabbles in becoming a male escort, only to find that he is dismissed due to his Filipino heritage. In response to this, he creates a guise for himself, an alias to help ingratiate himself in the domestic trappings of the moneyed elite of coastal California. Taking the name of Andrew DeSilva, a PhD holder from a wealthy family, Andrew weasels his way into becoming the partner of a significantly older and wealthy man named Norman Blachford (played warmly by Michael Nouri). Through these efforts Cunanan is able to reap material rewards and obsessively pursue the love of the young, doomed architect David Madson (Cody Fern). And striking another parallel to Versace, he even figures out how to convince Norman to buy a ostentatious house near the coast of California, creating a domicile that echos (in terms of size and style) the one owned by the man he would eventually murder.
With episodes like “Descent” and “Ascent,” American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace powerfully parallels the shared sense of ambition and creativity between Cunanan and Versace. Yet while the show does speak to the similarities between the two men, it is even more potent when it comes to exploring the important points – such as upbringing, identity, the ability to make space for others and work ethic – where they radically diverge.
In order to understand the immense differences between them, one needs to look no further than the dialectical “Creator/Destroyer,” which serves as the show’s penultimate episode and delves primarily into the childhood of Cunanan. The Cunanan storyline takes place in the 1980s and revolves around Andrew’s relationship with his father Modesto, played by Filipino actor Jon Jon Briones with bountiful charisma and just the right amount of darkness. “Creator/Destroyer” as a whole contains a similar dichotomy. The episode initially paints Modesto, who is an immigrant and aspiring stockbroker, as a paragon of the American Dream. When Andrew is young, Modesto is depicted as also being a doting father: allowing Andrew to sleep in the master bedroom, providing him with top-of-the-line educational opportunities, buying him car once he becomes a little bit older and so forth. However, by the time Andrew is about to graduate high school it is revealed that not everything is as it seems. While Modesto’s initial social rise is apparently fueled by the commanding force of his personality and some amount of genuine work, his magnetic grins and endless platitudes about the greatness of America are gradually shown to be a facade for avaricious, duplicitous and exploitative behavior. He is fully willing to take short cuts to achieve his goals, no matter the cost. And after this behavior has brought down the mask of civility he was wearing, his stance towards Andrew changes radically. He reveals feelings of disdain for his son, denigrating him as being weak and pathetic. Modesto’s treatment of Andrew at this stage undoubtedly creates a complex within the young man, a horrible brew of clashing elements like entitlement, insecurity and self-loathing.
“Creator/Destroyer” is not solely about Cunanan however. The episode vibrates with palpable tension because it also includes scenes of Versace’s childhood in 1957 that stand in stark contrast to Cunanan’s upbringing. These scenes mainly involve his loving relationship with his dressmaker mother and how, with her support, he was set on his path to becoming a world famous designer. One thing that’s immediately clear during this section of the episode is that Versace’s mother’s ethical approach to the world radically differs from Modesto’s. While Cunanan’s father views the world as inherently transactional and people as inherently exploitable, Versace’s mother instills in her son compassion, the importance of hard work and the value of passing on your skills and knowledge. Photographed in sepia-esque tones, the interactions between Versace and his mother in her workspace give off the feeling that this is a memory that the designer cherishes and continues to hold on to. These scenes between mother and son also make lovely use of shadow, particularly the dressmaker mannequin in the workspace. The mannequin is reduced to a silhouette and framed near where Versace is sitting, foreshadowing how these moments with his mother were critical factors in shaping his future career.
The qualitative effect of these formative experiences (on both Versace and Cunanan) is elaborated on in a historically dubious yet thematically-rich scene where the two men meet as adults on a stage after an opera for which Versace has designed the costumes. The milieu of the stage – dressed to look like a wealthy, ornate room – reflects the artifice of the identity Andrew has felt the need to construct. It also speaks to his insatiable desire for immaterial (love and attention) and material pleasures (the finer things in life). Conversely, the stage seems to augment Versace’s authentic behavior and the serenity in which he inhabits his own identity. Unlike Andrew, who seems enamored with the stage and by playing a part (such as Andrew DeSilva), Versace ignores the trappings that surround him and keeps his attention solely on Andrew.
He also speaks openly and candidly about the inspiration for his work, stating, “For me, family is everything. Everything. The first dress I made was for my sister, Donatella. Maybe every dress I make is for her.” This statement is in direct response to a series of lies that Andrew has been telling, such as one about how he is going to write a book by capitalizing on his “crazy family.” These two remarks show how, due to their wildly different upbringings, each man views the world in a starkly different way. Because of his more positive and affirming childhood, Versace is capable of not only being open about who he is but also of viewing art and life itself as being about inspiration, about other people. Andrew represents the inversion of this. Due to a childhood that imbued him with entitlement but also insecurity and self-loathing, he is not only incapable of expressing his authentic self but of viewing the genesis of art and the nature of life as anything aside from pure transactional exploitation. For Andrew, other people lack an intrinsic value unless they are providing him with something he covets – whether it be admiration, adoration or material gain.
Near the end of the conversation on stage, Andrew asks, “What if you had a dream your whole life that you were someone special, and no one believed it? And then what if the first person who truly believed you was the most incredible person you’ve ever met?” In response, the designer simply says, “But it’s not about persuading people that you’re going to do something great. It’s about doing it.” Once again, the differences between the egos of Versace and Cunanan are made clear through their speech. Versace was once told by his mother that he could accept himself because “there is no need to hide.” She also emphasized the importance of the artistic process rather than the end result, stating, “success only comes through hard work [but] that’s what makes it special.” Therefore, as an adult the designer finds himself able to focus on his work process rather than what other people might think about his finished product and, by extension, about him as well. This is wildly different from Cunanan. Because the younger man internally harbors a contradictory mixture of self-hatred and egomania, he can cannot accept the day-in, day-out work critical to producing any extraordinary piece of art. In his mind, he deserves and cannot abide by anything other than instant gratification. Enduring the prospect of being perceived as a work in progress, of people seeing him as anything aside from one who is making special contributions to the world, is insufferable. In short, all that matters to him is image and social capital: the possible rewards of work rather than the work itself.
Upon first glance, the characterization of Versace in the scenes detailed above indicate that the series is trying to somewhat lionize the man, turn him into a sage who was able to utilize a few positive conversations with his mother to foster a zen-like relationship to the world. Thankfully, episodes like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” thwart this type of easy canonization, showing Versace as being shaped – like everyone else – by structural circumstances. The story line of the episode primarily revolves around the story of Jeff Trail (a deeply affecting Finn Wittrock) – a young, closeted naval officer – who decides to speak to the media regarding the armed forces’ discriminatory culture. Trail’s arc in this episode runs parallel to Versace’s, who decides in its first few scenes to give an interview and reveal his sexuality to the world. The difference between the two story lines is profound. While Versace is able to give his interview out in the open sitting next to his partner, Antonio D’Amico (played wonderfully by the seemingly ageless Ricky Martin), Trail is forced to speak in silhouette out of the fear of reprisals. The episode’s editing augments this difference further by cross-cutting between each man’s respective interview, setting up a powerful contrast and establishing how embracing the self and living a more authentic existence is to some degree predicated on one’s social and financial circumstances.
All that is not meant to imply that Versace’s decision to come out in 1995 did not take a considerable amount of guts – far from it. The opening scene in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” features a tense argument between Cruz’s Donatella and Ramirez’s Versace and covers the potential fallout that could occur to the Versace fashion line if the later did indeed reveal who he really is in a public forum. But while the potential risks outlined by Donatella are considerable, they are more detrimental in a secondary or tangential way. They lack the primacy of Trail’s admission, who stands to lose his job and perhaps a concrete sense of physical safety if he is identified due to his interview. For all that Versace is risking, the collateral damage of his admission would take place around him not directly to him. The consequences would be primarily for the brand, not the man.
Another aspect that blunts any attempt to turn Versace into an enlightened saint are the recurring mentions of an unnamed sickness. Throughout the show, Versace is shown discussing his illness on multiple occasions, which is a relevant detail for how these discussions relate to his sister, Donatella, and to his own self-perception and ego. In the episode “Ascent,” we see a Versace who is desperate to empower his sister to take her rightful place in the Versace empire and the creative legacy of the family. The scripting in these scenes between brother and sister – especially when Versace tells Donatella, “The dress is not my legacy. You are,” – is obvious albeit still eloquent, suggesting how the onset of someone’s mortality can somewhat mollify the egomania that is a quotidian aspect of human nature.
FX’s series is based on the verbosely titled book by Maureen Orth, Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History. Despite this multifaceted source material, the series would be more aptly titled as “The Andrew Cunanan Show.” Most of the series’ nine episode run focuses exclusively on Cunanan, refraining from covering the law enforcement institutions and apparatuses devoted to apprehending him.
Yet the show’s fixation on its antagonist is often a boon. For one thing, the singular perspective allows Darren Criss’s incredible performance to dominate the action, and the results are thrilling, disturbing and a bit worrisome. Criss, who first rose to national predominance in Ryan Murphy’s Glee (Murphy is also an executive producer of American Crime Story), gives one of the great performances of a sociopath in Versace. Through him, Cunanan becomes a walking contradiction, a noxious black hole of envy, narcissism and rage hidden behind the charming mask of an affable boy-next-door type. Working from the series’ various scripts, Criss exudes both Andrew’s pathetic neediness and his amazingly buoyant charisma, producing a virtuoso study of someone hell-bent on being seen and accepted no matter the circumstances or the consequences.
Even more impressive is how the show is able to meld both the positive and the toxic sides of this personality through key motifs – one being the physical motif of Cunanan dancing, which occurs in two key scenes in two different episodes. The second time he dances is in “Creator/Destroyer” (which takes place in 1987 – early in the timeline covered by the film), and this scene depicts a still relatively happy Andrew, animated by an infectious, life-affirming yet still attention-seeking ethos. Conversely, the first time he dances in the series’ second episode, “Manhunt, which takes place 10 years later, shows how these various traits have progressed, hardened and stepped over a line. While the 1987 version of Andrew was asking for people’s attention, the 1997 iteration is demanding total control. His late-90s performance encapsulates all of this, and one infers a capacity for malicious and potentially violent behavior even though he is performing similar dance moves.
Despite the superlative-worthy nature of Criss’s work throughout Versace, one can’t help be somewhat alarmed by the sensitivity in which the character of Andrew Cunanan is treated throughout the show’s nine episodes. For nearly ten hours, Murphy and crew dare viewers to not only emphasize with the murderer but even sympathize with his agonized, bloody and ultimately fruitless quest for love and fame.
This approach reaches its apogee in the episode titled “House on the Lake,” which covers Cunanan’s double murder of both Jeff Trail and David Madson in Minneapolis and Rush City respectively. Following Trail’s murder, Cunanan absconds with Madson towards the small town of Rush City. On the way there, they take a break at a roadside bar where a live musical act (singer-songwriter Aimee Mann) plays an acoustic guitar version of The Cars’ “Drive.” The camera focuses directly on Cunanan during this musical performance, and as lyrics like “You can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong” float through the bar, a close-up shows him actually breaking down into tears, as if he has finally realized that his supposed “love” with David is an unrequited delusion, and that his violent, coercive behaviors have instilled nothing in the other man aside from fear, hatred and disgust.
It’s a deeply sad scene, marked by Criss’s skillful acting but also by an emotional tone that strays fairly close to compassion. However, the show is more likely going for simple understanding, a fine line that may still turn some peoples’ stomachs but feels appropriate for a piece of art that is so laser-focused on one particular character. And really, as Darren Criss said during an interview with sentient cadaver Larry King, he is in “the business of empathy,” not in imposing his personal sense of morality on the characters he plays. And while this is probably small comfort to Cunanan’s real life victims, one can see the validity of at least attempting to extend understanding a figure like Cunanan, of aspiring to produce a statement on why someone like him could go so horrifically astray.
On that note, however, it’s safe to say that the series produces mixed results. For as undoubtedly compelling as the show’s myopic focus on Cunanan is, it also partially cripples its ability to critique the cultural circumstances in which the murderer emerged and operated. The series seems to posture that Cunanan’s sexuality (and homosexuality in general) was a precipitating force in both his murders and the inability (or unwillingness) of local and federal law enforcement to mobilize an efficient response. And yet, the former idea receives mere (and muddled) suggestion and the later only superficial treatment: brief, anecdotal scenes rather than a comprehensive investigation.
One such scene takes place in the very first episode, “The Man Who Would Be Vogue.” Directly following the killing of Versace, the police descend upon his compound to interview Ricky Martin’s heartbroken Antonio, exhibiting a dismissive insensitivity that is nearly breathtaking in its cruelty. The following episode (“Manhunt”) takes it one step further, depicting a meeting between the F.B.I and Miami Beach P.D. that suggests how the F.B.I was entirely disconnected from the gay community of the seaside community and unwilling to consider fostering those connections.
One could also perhaps infer that the reason for why it took the authorities so long to catch Cunanan is that he was a gay man who largely restricted his killing to the gay community. Yet the show provides scant evidence to turn this into something that feels more substantial than mere conjecture.
Even without this sociological edge, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace is still very good television. It just isn’t great. Without a doubt, the best true crime establishes that brutality and criminality do not exist in a vacuum. The criminal element and the cultural element are always deeply intertwined; they are not mutually exclusive phenomena.
Although Versace eloquently conveys the dichotomy between Cunanan and Versace, and although it features impeccable aesthetics and performances, its chronic inability to take a more comprehensive view of the social, political, cultural dimensions of the story’s criminality stymie it from becoming a true masterpiece. It also renders it an inferior successor to the series’ freshman effort, American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, which channeled a more holistic and investigatory spirit. In one behind-the-scenes promo, Nina Jacobson, an executive producer of the show, states, “For every season of American Crime Story, what we’re interested in is what makes this an American crime.” And I think it is on that level that one can most acutely understand Versace’s shortcomings. The series’ inability to properly contextualize Cunanan within the cultural framework of America is distressing because the conceptual nature of the character – with his ambition, greed, selfishness and pathological lying – is so inherently American.
At the end of his 2018 memoir, former Obama national security advisor Ben Rhodes speaks directly to this idea. In the memoir’s narrative, he attempts to placate Obama following the election of Donald Trump by stating the following about the then president-elect: “He peddles bullshit. That character has always been part of the American story[.] You can see it right back to some of the characters in Huckleberry Finn.”[ii] Versace misses a major opportunity here, failing to show how its primary antagonist fits into this canon, which now extends from the iconic work of Mark Twain to the office of the President of the United States.
[i] Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2003.
[ii] Rhodes, Benjamin J. The World as It Is: a Memoir of the Obama White House. Random House, 2018.