Last year American Crime Story found critical and popular acclaim under the helm of Brad Falchuk, Nina Jacobson and Ryan Murphy with account of “The People Vs O J Simpson”. They are back now with season two, which has recently finished its run in the US and midway through its UK stint, to provide us with another account of a uniquely and peculiarly American crime story. This season’s tale recounts the horrific and mysterious assassination of Gianni Versace.
Gianni Versace was shot on the steps of his Miami home on 15 July 1997 by Andrew Cunanan who had in the three months prior murdered four other men. The show examines why Cunanan decided to shoot Versace that day. This question is shrouded in a haze of ambiguity and we will never get an objective answer from the killer himself. However, from second-hand accounts and Maureen Orth’s controversial book on the matter, the show runners piece together a plausible account of Cunanan’s descent into evil. However, this is not the only story that the show tells. In its portrayal of these particular crimes the show exposes certain narratives that governed American society in the ‘90s and arguably still today. Just as “The People Vs O J Simpson” exposed America’s attitudes to race and class, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” examines homophobia, mental illness and our relationship with success and fame. These are issues that are universal yet also particularly American. The show has its faults but the discussions it raises and the exceptional performances of its main cast mean it is still a compelling watch.
The narrative structure of the season is daring and sometimes this is effective and other times it falters. One of the strongest criticisms of this season is that for a show with Gianni Versace in the title, said titular character does not feature as much as you might expect. I myself was disappointed by the absence of the Versaces in many episodes. The sheer fabulous vision and voice of Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace leaves an unfillable void whenever the show leaves their side. The show is far more about Cunanan’s history than it is Versace’s, and it is probable that the title was a decision made for the sole purpose of bringing in more viewers. However, perhaps there is a deeper, less cynical reading of this decision. Even though Versace’s role in the show is relatively small, that name and all it has come to represent is critical in the show. Cunanan is possessed by fame, success and glamour. He clamours after these images of people he ought to be and people he thinks he deserves to be. It also mirrors the reaction of the time. A celebrity being murdered brings the world shuddering to a halt whereas the murder of four unknown gay men barely has us feather the brakes. Fame and image are two notions that still have an immeasurable impact on how we live our lives and thus makes for valuable discussion in this show. Many of the episodes are dedicated to unpicking the tragic ends of Cunanan’s other victims. We are also given an insight into the stories of these people and the challenges that marked their lives independent of their tragic ends.
The season is also an exploration of homophobia in the ‘90s and a troubling picture is painted that draws parallels with today. Antonio, Versace’s partner, is subjected to many violations and microaggressions throughout the season. It is a nuanced portrayal of a homophobic society that is not necessarily explicitly egregious to gay men but does so much to deny them equal rights that they are left floating in an ether knowing that there are no safety nets beneath them. One of the most harrowing concepts to come to terms with in the season is that Antonio’s grief is never validated and so he has a crucial part of his personhood slowly chipped away by the people around him.
As well as encapsulating pertinent issues of the time and forcing us to reflect on their relevance today, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” also boasts some amazing cinematography and a brilliant soundtrack. Dreamlike sequences with saturated colours help to convey visually the subjectivity of Cunanan’s narrative. The musical choices help to immerse the viewer in the time period and play into the sometimes melodramatic tones of the season. The narrative arc is ambitious. Beginning and ending with Cunanan’s final crime and in the in-between taking us all the way back to his childhood and back again. Branching off from this are the stories of Cunanan’s victims and their families. At times this vision does not pay off and certain important moments lose their power; however, this weaving allows the show to encompass more issues that make it America’s crime story and not just Cunanan’s. It is also refreshing to see a show break away from formulaic ways of storytelling.
“American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace” provides us much to unpack in its nine episodes and each is well-crafted with excellent performances. The show presents itself as an object for reflection and it is worthy of our attention.