“Do you even know Gianni Versace?” – Naomi Campbell
When the news surfaced that American Crime Story’s debut season would tackle the O.J. Simpson trial, adapting Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life, Ryan Murphy hardly seemed to be the ideal shepherd, given his long standing penchant for sensationalism, debauchery, and razor’s edge manipulation of stereotypes, for the most polarizing criminal trial in living American history.
Against all odds and conventional wisdom, the season was a spectacular success that the set the stage for the re-litigation of every media sensation of the 1990s from the Menedez Brothers and the rivalry between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan to the subject of the long awaited second season: the murder of Gianni Versace. Key to The People Vs OJ’s success was the diminishment of Murphy’s sensibilities in favor of black voices, like director Anthony Hemmingway, and most notably in “The Race Card” episode helmed by John Singleton and scripted by Black Panther screenwriter Joe Robert Cole. The episode contributed more than any other towards a recontextualization of the trial and the racial dynamics of post Rodney King Los Angeles for the generation grappling with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The debut of The Assassination of Gianni Versace is, in essence, a complete inversion of what made The People Vs OJ a success. From the shifting focus from suspect to victim to swapping LA for Miami, and a central figure who evaded identification with the marginalized group he was a part of to a central figure within it, the discontinuity is striking. What amplifies that effect and makes The Assassination of Gianni Versace a truly distinct entity from The People Vs OJ is that instead of holding his natural inclinations back, Murphy has found the ideal canvas for his masterpiece.
Instead of employing stylistic tics or callbacks to create a sense of continuity or familiarity between the two seasons, Murphy enacts a hard break by employing Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma as the foundational influences that Murphy subverts and ultimately queers. The story of Gianni Versace, as seen through the eyes of Murphy and his collaborators is as much a meditation on the myth of the American dream as The Godfather and Scarface, both of which they leverage in constructing the fashion mogul’s world.
The first episode opens with Versace waking up, ensconced by a rococo inspired decor, clothed in a bright pink robe, and accompanied by a swelling, operatic score. The camera lingers over the architecture that shifts to a procession of more typically Italian styles reaching back to the neo classical. Versace is constructed in all the same grandeur using all the same devices as Coppola used to lift the Corleones into mythic status, but the preponderance of crane shots and the ostentatiousness of it all are where De Palma emerges in the episode’s visual grammar.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace is explicitly an Italian-American immigrant story evoked through the iconography of his home country that Versace wove into his home and business, but it’s also the end of a rapid ascent into the dizzying heights of the American dream whose cartoonishness frequently equals Scarface‘s Tony Montana, the peak of 1980s hyper consumption as a film aesthetic. Instead of Montana’s infamous neon lit globe, Versace’s ego expresses itself as his famous Medusa headed logo, working it and its border into every aspect of his life, from the elastic band on his briefs and his slippers to the tiled floors and wrought iron gates of his home.
Before he died, Versace harnessed America to reinvent himself as a modern figure equal to a Medici, but despite the lavishness of his interior life, he’s depicted as a provincial, nearly anonymous lord in public, shedding the robe and slippers for nondescript sunglasses, a black top whose embossed logo is barely visible, and shorts. It’s a construction of Versace himself as a microcosm, but it also goes on to define the public/private bifurcation of queer life that held sway over the 1990s.
Darren Criss, as Versace’s murderer Andrew Cunanan, embodies the most dangerous of all possible outcomes of the twilight existence of queerness in the 1990s, an iteration of the charismatic con man that has been a staple of gay narratives from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley to Steven Jay Russell, the subject of the Jim Carrey vehicle I Love You, Phillip Morris. Criss as Cunanan is an embodiment in line with the former, taking on the role of a chameleon who “tells people what they want to hear,” or as a frustrated lover claims, tells gay people he’s gay and straight people he’s straight, leaving the impression of being a complete artifice.
Cunanan’s disturbing fixation on Versace leading up to the murder, told in successive flashbacks, is where the other element of the De Palma influence comes into play as Murphy weaves their tightening orbit into his own queering of the quintessential De Palma erotic thriller typified by Body Double, Dressed to Kill, Raising Caine, Femme Fatale, and Passion. It’s a queering that Murphy has honed more or less in parallel to Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller.
Criss, despite being part of a star-studded cast whose crown jewels are Edgar Ramirez as Versace and Penelope Cruz as his sister and ostensible heir Donatella, unquestionably delivers the breakout performance, more or less playing a different character in every scene. It’s a remarkable evolution for an actor best known for a banal stint on Glee, fleshing out a musical supervillain pioneered by Neil Patrick Harris, and copyright infringing musicals executed with his college classmates. What elevates Criss’ performance isn’t that he leans into every fraudulent identity that Cunanan adopts, its how he tackles the ebb and flow of Cunanan’s manic swings, throwing himself bodily into it.
A series based on a murder spree that included the very public shooting of a major public figure is in some respects an odd, if not outright questionable choice to frame as an erotic thriller in the context of the Pulse shooting in Orlando and the slowly closing fist of the Trump administration, seconded by the man responsible for triggering an AIDS epidemic in Indiana, but such is the uncharacteristic nuance of Murphy and the rapidly evolving conception of queer pain and death in American film and television.
Despite the raging debate around the “bury your gays” trope, queer film has been focused on harnessing and reclaiming and recontextualizing the ravages of the AIDS crisis through And the Band Played On, The Normal Heart, and BPM in tandem with coming of age dramas like Pariah, Moonlight, and Call Me By Your Name. In a sense, The Assassination of Gianni Versace shares tragedy and death as a common marker with contemporary AIDS crisis chronicles, but Murphy and company break away from that emerging movement by framing Versace as a martyr and presenting the show as much as an opportunity to celebrate his impact on fashion and queer aesthetics as it is a mourning of his passing.
In probably the most productive execution of his love of camp and melodrama ever seen, Murphy builds a conception of Versace as a martyred saint of the gay world by mining the Catholicism inherent in Versace’s nationality. The most striking and seemingly absurd example, the simultaneous death of a dove from a bullet fragment, is true except for its whiteness. A mourning pigeon was, in reality, killed along with Versace, but the show exploits the potential symbolism of a snow white dove, laid out parallel to Versace in the morgue, drawing an inescapable symbolic link with the Holy Spirit, frequently depicted as a dove in catholic art and literature. Another key instance is a complete fabrication, Versace’s partner Antonio D’Amico, played by Ricky Martin, holding his limp body in his arms in imitation of the Pieta.
Fighting neck and neck with the dead dove for the most daringly absurd allegory in the episode is a woman who Gianni had previously, politely, turned down for an autograph tearing a Versace ad out of an issue of Vogue and racing under the police tape to sop up some of his blood off the steps before racing back to her husband, expectantly holding open a ziplock bag for it. It’s a heady intersection of the borderline heretical cult of saints in Catholocism and the secular, yet sometimes equally ecstatic cult of celebrity that was truly exploding at the time. The sequence seals Murphy’s case for Versace as a martyred saint, but it may also be the purest distillation of what informs Murphy as a writer and a director, encompassing his fixations on celebrity, ostentatious wealth, the gothic, and religious transgression in a few perfectly structured seconds.
These motifs are the strongest forms of the discontinuity between seasons, establishing the more fanciful, idealized tone relative to The People Vs OJ, but also clearly defining the series as a celebration of Versace as a larger than life figure, rather than a maudlin fixation on the irrationality of his death, placing it adjacent to Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Finland.
The debut episode lays out a rich tapestry with many threads to pull on as the season continues, most notably Penelope Cruz’s arresting, irony free portrayal of Donatella, circling the narrative back around to Coppola’s looming shadow and thoughts of how power, prestige, and family intertwine in the Italian imagination. “Now is not the time for strangers,” she opines at a family meeting addressing the ultimately aborted transformation into a public company, “now is the time for family.” The scene ends with a slow pan out from her fingers wrapped tightly around a wrought iron railing topped with her brother’s dominant motif into the tiled courtyard, signaling that she is just as much a power fantasy as her brother was.
Cruz as Donatella Versace does more than leave a window open for feminine fantasy in the fantastical, fundamentally queer world of the show, however. She serves as a startling and explicit embodiment of the family’s impact, arriving in an outfit that makes plain just how formative of an influence Donatella was on Lady Gaga’s overall look and dominant silhouette long before the two met and collaborated. That metafictional dynamic also comes into sharp and incredibly poignant relief with the inclusion of Ricky Martin as D’Amico, who takes on the role as a publicly out and embraced gay man in 2018, recreating events in the mid to late 1990s when his sexuality was a constant topic of tabloid speculation and cruel homophobic jeers.
What absolutely has to be understood, celebrated, and duplicated about The Assassination of Gianni Versace is that it’s a queer centric exploration of queer culture that is unambiguous and unapologetic in its embrace of itself. As much as the flowering of supporting characters like Riverdale’s Kevin Keller into powerful and consequential figures represent a kind of progress and an outlet that should continue to be pursued, we need to continue to push for narratives that privilege and center queer lives, communities, and modes of being.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace is an unprecedented opportunity to once and for all reject the notion of queer narratives as niche productions, narrow in scope and inconsequential in viewership. It offers the tantalizing chance at a vindication that queer lives and queer culture are as rich, idiosyncratic, and deserving of center stage as its tragic hero was.