I remember the day that Gianni Versace was gunned down by Andrew Cunanan. It was July 15, 1997 and I had mono. There I was, lying on the couch wrapped in blankets, my eyes fixed on CNN. The O.J. Simpson murder trials from a few years before had set off a similar media frenzy, but Versace’s death and the ensuing eight-day manhunt for Cunanan, the gay escort turned spree killer, struck closer to home.
Throughout the ’90s, I was obsessed with all things Versace, from the designer’s runway shows featuring one-name-only supers like Linda, Naomi and Cindy, to the gaudy but good barocco and animalière prints featured in ad campaigns and magazine shoots, which I’d rip out of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and tape to the wall above my bed. Now one of my OG fashion heroes was gone, executed mob-style on the steps of his South Beach mansion.
The events leading up to and after Versace’s death are what play out over nine episodes in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, the second season of executive producer Ryan Murphy’s true crime anthology, which debuts Wednesday, January 17 on FX. The good news: things kick off with a resounding bang in the first episode, which cuts between gritty and glitzy scenes of the murderer and his famous victim the morning of that fateful day—Cunanan on a beach picking at a meth scab on his leg and pulling a revolver from his backpack; Versace walking through his servant-filled courtyard, pink silk robe fluttering behind him; Cunanan vomiting into a dirty toilet in a public bathroom with “Filthy Faggots” written on the stall; Versace getting stopped by tourists for an autograph en route to his favourite cafe. The bad news: by episode three, the series loses a lot of its spark and starts to sputter. Here, we break down the best—and worst—of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.
Più Versace, per favore! (Translation: more Versace, please!)
The title of the source material, Maureen Orth’s 1999 book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History, gets the protagonist order right—and in this faithful TV adaptation, Cunanan gets the most screen time, but for a series that is about 80 percent Cunanan and 20 percent Versace, Murphy’s title is misleading. Clearly, he’s trying to capitalize on the current nostalgia for all things ’90s, including Versace—even Donatella’s latest collection revisited Gianni’s archives from 1991-95. There’s also the moral question of why spend so much time bringing to life the backstory of a sociopath who murdered five gay men and document the killings in such brutal detail? One gruesome sequence shows Cunanan, played by Glee’s Darren Criss (more on his performance later), suffocating, smashing the ribs and then stabbing his third victim, the 75-year-old real estate developer Lee Miglin. Brutal, to say the least. Even for true crime enthusiasts, the series could benefit from more of the designer’s storyline and less screen time for his murderer.
Penélope Cruz sizzles as Donatella Versace
Penélope Cruz’s transformation into Gianni’s younger sister Donatella is impressive, with the requisite oversized sunglasses, Janice the Muppet hair and a closetful of black leather. There are times when she struggles with Donatella’s thick Italian accent (likely the result of the false teeth she’s wearing, which sometimes make her sound like she’s got a wad of gum stuck to the roof of her mouth), but Cruz is one hell of an actor and her scenes opposite Édgar Ramirez, who plays Gianni, are moving. When her brother falls ill after being diagnosed with HIV in 1994 (something that was only known by his family and closest friends), Donatella is forced to run the atelier and ultimately the company. There’s a cheesy, but still amazing moment, particularly for a Versace nostalgist like me, when Gianni demonstrates to his sister the transformative power of fashion by cinching a thick belt around the waist of her black dress, then removing his own and fastening it around her neck like a choker, creating a prototype for his famed Miss S&M collection from 1992.
Darren Criss is uneven playing Andrew Cunanan
Criss excels playing the disturbing side of Cunanan and Glee fans will shudder to see Kurt’s love interest bludgeon his first victim, ex-Navy lieutenant Jeff Trail, with a hammer, or years earlier, fly into a rage because his mother didn’t buy him Häagen Dazs, yelling, “because I want the best” after smashing the ice cream container on the kitchen floor (a not-so-subtle hint at the rage to come). But Criss falls short in capturing the charisma of a man who lied compulsively—depending on who he spoke to, Cunanan was either a pilot, a Fifth Avenue aristocrat or a Philippine royal—and effortlessly climbed his way up the social ladders in San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area, racking up sugar daddies, designer duds and an Infiniti sports car along the way. Criss, who physically resembles the real-life Cunanan (both are Filipino-American), comes across as a bitchy know-it-all rather than charming and clever (Cunanan had a reported genius-level I.Q.). Unfortunately, Criss’s portrayal makes the men seduced by Cunanan seem pathetic and shallow, only obsessed with youth and beauty, which is a seriously outdated stereotype about older gay men.
Revisiting the Miami police’s major screw-up
Speaking of gay stereotypes, I remember when Versace’s murder first hit the news there was a lot of talk of Cunanan’s propensity for S&M—as though it was a gateway to becoming a mass murderer. Even in Orth’s original Vanity Fair article, which was the basis for her book, there is a good deal of attention paid to Cunanan’s and his victim’s sexual interests. Most disturbingly, the series suggests that homophobia contributed to Versace’s death. Miami police failed to distribute FBI Most Wanted posters or alert local gay bar owners and community leaders about Cunanan potentially being in the area. In the days leading up to Gianni’s July 15 murder, Cunanan frequented Miami gay bars and beaches, allegedly even telling a patron of the popular Twist nightclub, “I’m a serial killer!” Even the way investigators questioned Antonio D’Amico, Versace’s lover of 15 years, played affectionately by Ricky Martin, was insensitive and discriminatory—not understanding what “partner” meant and asking him if Versace paid him for sex.
The final verdict of The Assassination of Gianni Versace
D’Amico, and more recently the Versace family, has come out against the film calling it “total fiction” in a statement. Heinous acts like Cunanan’s not only take lives but devastate families, even 21 years later. The Assassination of Gianni Versace, just like a lot of Murphy’s projects, falls somewhere between fact and fiction, with a good amount of camp and social commentary thrown into the mix. It makes for decent TV, but for a more riveting take or more informed viewing, it’s best to read Orth’s original article, which is truly fire.
The Trailer For The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story is Here!
Because We Don’t Want to Leave the House Either, Here Are Winter’s Best New Shows
Ricky Martin Put a Ring on It! + 22 Other Secret Celeb Weddings