Ryan Murphy’s anthology series tells the whirlwind tale of glamour, lies, half-truths, fake IDs, closet cases and cover ups – and it’s set to be a hell of a ride
(WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS)
Opening to the unsubtle pangs of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Ryan Murphy casts a gilded pall over Gianni Versace, played in an uncanny resemblance by Edgar Ramírez. We see him laying in bed beneath a heavenly fresco at Casa Casuarina, his Miami compound. In a momentous two-hander sequence, we watch Versace and his killer, Andrew Cunanan, begin their day leading up to Versace’s tragic murder. Versace rises from bed in his Greek-key-waistband boxer shorts and steps into a pair of black velvet Medusa slippers. He swallows a couple of prescription pills and puts on a pink silk robe, before stepping out on his rococo balcony to survey the rollerbladers on Ocean Drive below. The imagery isn’t subtle: he is the king of South Beach. Nearby, fugitive Cunanan (Darren Criss), sits on the beach, the pauper to Versace’s prince. He stares out into the void of dawn, scratching an open wound on his leg. He wades into the ocean fully clothed, and screams. Gianni takes a glass of orange juice from a manservant in his courtyard, while his boyfriend Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin) prepares for a tennis lesson. He strolls to a nearby newsstand to pick up copies of Vogue and Vanity Fair. Andrew downs a JOLT! Cola and shoves a grimy copy of Conde Nast’s biography, The Man Who Was Vogue into his backpack. Inside, we see a handgun.
Everybody knows what happens next.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace marks the second season of Murphy’s anthology series American Crime Story, following last year’s prizewinning The People Vs. O.J. Simpson. It’s based on Vanity Fair reporter Maureen Orth’s 2000 book, Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History...at least, partially. Chronicling Cunanan’s troubled upbringing in San Diego, California, through his time spent in the Bay Area, and following his killing spree from Minneapolis all the way to the amphetamine motels of Miami Beach, Orth spoke to over 400 corroborating friends, witnesses, and acquaintances of Cunanan’s to craft a spellbinding and disturbing portrait of how a young, bright, closeted gay man became one of the most evasive and least cunning serial killers of the late 20th century. While the Versace family appear at the end of the book and are discussed at various points throughout, they are minor characters in the larger saga, which means much of the show’s research into the Versaces has most likely come from outside sources. (Donatella and the company have released a statement decrying the series as "fiction.")
The road leading to Versace’s murder was a bloody one, filled with lies and half-truths, fake identities, closet cases, and cover-ups. In April of 1997, Andrew Cunanan murdered his former best friend Jeffrey Trail with a claw hammer. Discovered by another friend, David Madson, Cunanan threatened Madson into becoming his unwilling accomplice, before murdering him and disposing of his body in a lake outside Minneapolis. From there, he went to Chicago and met a 72-year-old real estate mogul, Lee Miglin, whom he killed with a hacksaw and a screwdriver (mercilessly) before stealing his car and randomly selecting a fourth victim, cemetery caretaker William Reese, of New Jersey, in order to swap vehicles yet again. By that point, Cunanan had made the FBI’s Most Wanted List and had inspired all points bulletins across radio and television. But despite the fact that he was hiding in plain sight, authorities bungled the investigation and let him escape time and again.
“Police and F.B.I., clueless about gay culture, ignored leads and witnesses that could have led to his capture. The media sensationalised each crime with homophobic glee”
Families of the victims, some unaware of their loved ones’ homosexuality, refused to believe they’d be involved with Cunanan. Police and F.B.I., clueless about gay culture, ignored leads and witnesses that could have led to his capture. The media sensationalised each crime with homophobic glee, depicting the killings often as sadomasochistic sex rituals gone wrong. Misinformation was rampant. While it will take further viewing to parse the totality of Murphy’s vision, the show’s first episode indulges in these elements of confusion, blurring fantasy and reality to delectable melodramatic effect.
We see Cunanan and Versace on a romantic date, sipping champagne amid candelabras on stage at the opera after a performance. This most certainly never took place, according to Orth’s investigation, but Cunanan did regale many of his friends of meeting the designer at the Colossus gay club on Folsom Street, where Versace and D’Amico would often go. For years, Cunanan would repeat the line "I told him, if you’re Gianni Versace, then I’m Coco Chanel!" – a line he says on the show, to his friend, Liz Coté. Once, a witness named Doug Stubblefield alleged seeing Cunanan in a chauffeured car on Market Street with Versace and the socialite Harry de Wildt, although de Wildt has vehemently denied the account. For 20 years, Versace has maintained that the two never met.
Obsessed with high society and desperate to escape his station in the slums of San Diego’s La Jolla, Cunanan had ambitiously educated himself about art, design, architecture, publishing, and fashion, in order to blend in with the more elite teenagers from the county’s prep schools. Charming and loud, he was known for his pathological lying, which amused and revolted his peers in competitive measure. Later, Cunanan would go by a series of aliases, most notably “Andrew DeSilva,” and find himself drifting from abject poverty, selling stolen drug store merchandise out of his car for extra cash, to the lap of luxury at the expense of his sugar daddies, and back again.
By the time he made it to Miami’s South Beach, with Versace in his sights, Cunanan was an out of shape, broke, meth-addicted prostitute, holed up at the derelict Normandy Plaza Motel. In the role of Cunanan, Darren Criss is sublimely creepy. As the narrative jumps around in time, we see him both at the end of his rope, as well as at the peak of his prowess, before any of the killings unfolded, lying to his friends and cutting a dashing figure in Matsuda sweaters.
It’s a good 40 minutes before Donatella Versace arrives, shown descending from a private jet in the Miami dusk. As Donatella, Penélope Cruz gives a showstopping performance, embodying her subject’s fragility, courage, and style, not to mention the stormy Italian accent that is her signature. Immediately getting down to business ("It’s a bit crazy, no?" she demurs), Donatella delivers the episode’s most captivating monologue: “He was a creator. He was a collector. He was a genius. This company was his life. When he was sad, it made him happy. When he was sick, it kept him alive. And my brother is still alive as long as Versace’s alive. I will not allow that man – that...nobody – to kill my brother twice."
“One can’t help watching and thinking of how much Cunanan would love to see himself dramatised on cable, played by someone with washboard abs and a chiseled jawline”
Murphy’s artistic license with these events – dramatic highlights include Cathy Moriarty as a mouthy pawn shop owner and a swarm of demented extras seizing upon Gianni’s crime scene like fashion vultures – relishes the spectacle of Versace’s death as much as the drama of the manhunt. But are the show’s creators glamorising Andrew Cunanan a degree too far? At the close of the episode, Cunanan strolls up to Versace’s favorite newsstand to purchase all of the papers with his latest slaying splashed across the front. He’s in clean khakis, a yellow polo shirt, baseball cap, and Versace shades. A far cry from the fiending, homeless, desperate fugitive Cunanan was purported to be in his final days. One can’t help watching and thinking of how much Cunanan would love to see himself dramatised on cable, played by someone with washboard abs and a chiseled jawline. When Criss puts his hand over his mouth, feigning a gasp as his crime is splattered over the network news, his eyes water with ecstasy, making it all the more obvious and deranged.
Moving forward, the show intends to go backward in time, tracing Cunanan’s steps toward infamy in step with Versace’s ascendance to fashion royalty. Hopefully we will continue to see themes explored of homophobia in law enforcement, the media’s role in bungling investigations, the gay community’s involvement, the shadow of self-made identity, and the spell of consumerism that leads some people to commit murder. As long as Murphy and the show’s directors continue to pull no punches from the soap opera playbook, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.