Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 15, 2018

The Assassination of Gianni Versace

Filed under: Gay,television — louisproyect @ 8:37 pm

My wife and I are huge fans of Ryan Murphy, the gay writer/director/producer who just signed a 5-year deal with Netflix for $300 million that begins after his contract with Rupert Murdoch’s FX expires in July. Murphy is probably best known for “Glee”, an ABC network show about a high school glee club that is a backdrop for various dramas involving gender, race, class and other fragmented identities in American society. My impression is that it had a lot in common with “The White Shadow”, a CBS network show that ran in the late 70s using a racially mixed high school basketball team to offer the same sorts of social commentary.

We originally got hooked on Ryan Murphy after discovering “Nip/Tuck”, a cable TV show that ran on FX from 2003-2010. We only decided to pay for cable TV after we lost our barebones network TV connection as a result of the 9/11 attack taking out the TV transmitter that fed our high-rise.

“Nip/Tuck” used a plastic surgery clinic in the same way that “Glee” used its youthful singers–as a way of commenting on American society, in this instance the foibles of rich people who were never satisfied with their appearance. As I pointed out in my review of Mehrdad Oskouei’s “Nose, Iranian Style”, this is a sad practice that has been adopted in the Islamic Republic.

I made the case for “Nip/Tuck” in a 2006 article:

With enough postmodernist tropes to keep a MLA convention going for an extra week, FX’s “Nip/Tuck” uses plastic surgery as a metaphor for various gender, racial and broader cultural issues. Although not as acclaimed as some of HBO’s marquee attractions such as “The Sopranos” or “Sex and the City,” “Nip/Tuck” is certainly as well written, acted and directed. Now in its fourth season on the FX cable network, which is not a premium outlet like HBO or Showtime, it is a true pop culture achievement. Past seasons can be viewed on DVD as well.

A year after “Nip/Tuck” came to an end, a new Ryan Murphy show began. Like “Nip/Tuck”, “American Horror Story” was laden with Grand Guignol visual effects but this time using a butcher’s knife instead of a scalpel. It borrows elements from the genre involving vampires, zombies, killer clowns, serial murderers, etc. and wraps them in Murphy’s unique comic sensibility, as well as exploiting them for social commentary.

If you haven’t seen “American Horror Story”, I urge you to watch “Cult”, an 11-episode series from last year that can be seen on Amazon and iTunes. The first episode depicted a clash between candidates Trump and Clinton supporters in a small, upwardly mobile town. Two of the main characters are married lesbians who have had a falling out over one deciding to back Jill Stein instead of Clinton. The main Trump supporter is a Richard Spencer wannabe named Kai whose top lieutenant was abducted by the two lesbians and tied to a chair in order to prevent him for voting for Trump. To make his escape, he cuts off an arm. He is played by Chaz Bono, the transgender son of Cher and Sonny Bono originally named Chastity.

The show is not that interested in presenting an MSNBC type commentary (thank god) but much more in examining American cults of one sort or another. Kai is trying to build a fascist cult that will start by taking over the small town the characters live in and using it to catapult him into the presidency with the help of his stormtroopers.

The series incorporates reenactments of infamous cults, including those led by Jim Jones and Charles Manson, who are played by the same actor who plays Kai. Blood flows by the bucketful as the characters become increasingly crazed. It is vastly entertaining.

Once again, a psycho criminal is the main character in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” that is now showing on Season 2 of FX’s American Crime Story. As you may know, this is based on the July 15, 1997 murder of the trendy designer on the front steps of the mansion he owned in South Beach, Florida. The killer was Andrew Cunanan, a deranged gay man who had traveled across the USA, serially killing people one by one to facilitate the mission he was on. To this day, there has never been a satisfactory explanation why he targeted Versace, nor any of the other mostly gay men along the way.

Since my wife and I have always been curious about the Versace murder, having stayed a month in South Beach not far from his mansion in 2009 and sharing a general interest in fashion (she is an adjunct at Fashion Institute in addition to her main gig as a tenured economics/business professor). What we had trouble understanding is how FX and Murphy could have turned this into a 9-episode series since the story could have easily been told in an hour or so, as it was in a documentary we saw some years ago and that can be seen here:

Watching episode 5 titled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” last night, it became crystal-clear why Murphy decided to create a show based on the killing of Versace. He saw it as much more than the tale of a serial killer. It was to be an ambitious epic tale about the state of Gay America in 1997 when equality was still beyond the grasp of gay men and lesbians. In an amazing coincidence, it turns out that the first of Cunanan’s victims was a former Navy officer named Jeff Trail who was an important figure in the struggle for gay liberation.

All this is detailed in Maureen Orth’s “Vulgar Favors” that Murphy’s docudrama is based on. In 1992, Trail was a naval officer on the USS Gridley, a cruiser docked in San Diego, where Cunanan lived. Just by chance, the two met in a gay bar where the  Cunanan approached the still closeted sailor. The two became fast friends, mostly because Cunanan—very much out of the closet—helped him to navigate the gay world that Trail had begun to explore.

If Jeff Trail could not reveal his sexuality on the USS Gridley, he could make the case for gays in the military on a CBS “48 Hours” in 1993. His face was not visible in the interview and his voice was disguised. You can see the interview here: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/02/versace-jeff-trail-american-crime-story-interview

Even though Versace was in an industry that had as many out of the closet men as in ballet, he still kept his sexuality a secret. In this episode, you see him arguing with his sister about being seen too often in gay hangouts. It might alienate men who would otherwise wear his clothing, especially from the macho sports world and among those actors who cultivated a macho identity. The two men’s wrestling with homophobia is interwoven skillfully by Murphy.

In 1995, Versace did an interview in the Advocate, the U.S.’s most widely read gay magazine that can be read here: https://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/2018/2/15/seen-american-crime-story-read-interview-where-gianni-versace-came-out Unlike Jeff Trail, Versace never denied who he was sexually but neither did he advertise it. Over the past 22 years, the struggle has been to make it as easy as possible to be upfront about your sexuality in the fashion industry, the navy and in public restrooms even if that turns off the Christian Right and the homophobic morons in the Socialist Equality Party.

 

 

1 Comment »

  1. Louis, (sorry if this is a bit off topic, but) I would be interested in your review of the film “Give Us This Day” (British title), or “Christ In Concrete” or “Salt and the Devil” (US titles), directed by Edward Dmytryk and released in 1949. This movie was made in England because Edward Dmytryk (director) and Sam Wanamaker (male lead) were both in exile from the Communist witch-hunts in America, and because the story itself – about the difficulties of immigrant (to America) Italian construction laborers impacted by the Great Depression – was not favored by American capitalists. The movie is based on Pietro di Donato’s 1939 novel “Christ In Concrete,” which di Donato was inspired to write after the 1927 executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. I think the movie itself was very good (even with some minor imperfections – mostly verbal – in the recreation of New York’s “Little Italy” of the 1920s, on postwar 1940s English sound stages).

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — February 17, 2018 @ 10:29 am


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