The premiere episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story boasts style in exactly the grand scale you’d expect from a TV series associated with the doomed fashion icon.
The camera turns its lens on the ostentatious opulence of Versace’s Miami Beach mansion almost as a fetish. The fashion is as late-’90s glamorous and decadent as it is garish and tacky. Sex oozes everywhere, from the sweat of the South Florida beach setting to the lingering gaze on star Darren Criss’ exceptionally sculpted (briefly nude) body.
A hypnotizing, wordless first act, backed by a rousing string-heavy score, gives a Shakespearean start to the whole endeavor, echoed, of course, in the horror of the murder by gunshot that left Versace bleeding to death at the front gate of his home in 1997.
And just wait for Penelope Cruz’s entrance as Donatella Versace, an unveiling dripping with enough melodrama and high fashion to make you gasp. The Oscar-winner, donning what appears to be an upper lip prosthetic to aid in nailing Donatella’s almost indecipherable Italian accent, is perfect—as is the pilot, which thrills as much in its visuals and sensuality as it does in the graphic nature of its titular crime and ensuing manhunt.
Only the first episode of FX’s newest installment of its American Crime Story franchise, the first follow-up to its awards-guzzling People v. O.J. Simpson season, screened Monday night, for a room packed with curious celebrity fans including Glenn Close, Patricia Clarkson, and Andrew Rannells. That’s not enough for a proper review of the new series, which officially premieres Jan. 17. But creator Ryan Murphy, the producers and writers, and stars Criss, Edgar Ramirez, and Ricky Martin were on hand to tease the season and its perhaps surprising greater message.
More than a murder mystery or a lavish look at the life of a fashion legend, Versace will tackle what it was like to be gay in the 1990s.
“Like in O.J., the themes we’re tackling in this show seem so modern to me,” Murphy said, referring to how the American Crime Story found renewed resonance in the identity politics, race and class bias, media circus, and misogyny surrounding the O.J. Simpson trial. “They don’t seem like they’re frozen in amber,” he continued. “They feel very alive and plucked from today’s headlines.”
The Versace season is heavily based on journalist Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace.
Orth had been investigating serial killer Andrew Cunanan (played by Criss in the series) for months before he murdered Gianni Versace (Ramirez) on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion while Versace’s partner (Martin) was inside. Cunanan had evaded police while successfully murdering five men that he knew, the last being Versace. Orth’s reporting revealed a highly intelligent sociopath—he once tested at 147 for his IQ—with tortured feelings about being gay, and perhaps even jealousy that he had all these gifts and promise yet somehow wasn’t succeeding in the same way as these other men.
“We didn’t understand, and you’ll see as the show goes on, that Versace was the last victim, and Andrew had killed people that he knew before this,” executive producer Brad Simpson said. “As we began to unpack the show, we realized this was about the politics of being out in the 1990s.”
Murphy revealed that the season will be telling the story backwards. The first and second episodes deal with the assassination of Versace and the manhunt for Cunanan in Miami, and then the series will head back in time so that, by Episode 8, we are seeing Cunanan as a child. Then the final episode will deal with his eventual demise.
Broad cultural themes will of course be explored along the way. Said executive producer Nina Jacobsen, “I think what we realized during the first season is that we wanted every season of the show to ultimately be about a crime that America feels guilty of, and find a way to sort of explore what is a cultural crime as well as a specific crime, or in this case a series of crimes. In this case, to try to explore and re-conjure what it was to be gay in the ’90s.”
Orth explained that Cunanan was from San Diego, a big military town, growing up while “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was in the news, which created agony for people who were conflicted over how they felt about being gay, whether they could express themselves, or whether they could be publicly out. The parents of two of Cunanan’s victims didn’t even know their sons were gay until after they were murdered, for a sense of the environment.
Equally fascinating was the incompetency of the police and investigators pursuing Cunanan, who struggled with infiltrating the gay community and understanding its nuances, something Orth said didn’t necessarily reflect a homophobia, per se, but an ignorance.
Then of course there’s the ever-resonant idea of fame, and the craven pursuit of it that is very much embedded in the fabric of today’s culture.
“I think the idea that [Cunanan] was willing to kill for fame, there was kind of a trajectory between that and getting famous through a sex tape like the Kardashians and then right down to becoming the president of the United States because you were a reality TV star,” Orth said.
Murphy said that each actor they cast was actually their first choice to play the roles, from Cruz as Donatella down to Martin’s revelatory dramatic turn. “I have a theory that in every singer is a great dramatic actor waiting to come to out,” Murphy said about the music superstar.
Martin, who spends much of the first episode shaken and in tears after discovering Versace’s body, explained that he actually got to spend several hours of quality time with Antonio D’Amico, the designer’s partner of 15 years, who also helped curate the roster of boys they would also be intimate with. “Every time I see this episode I’m just really moved,” he said.
Murphy first dangled the idea of playing Cunanan in front of Criss, whom he had worked with on Glee three years ago, going so far as to call it the role of the young actor’s career.
There’s an uncanny resemblance between Criss and the real-life Cunanan, down to the fact that they are both part Filipino. With just the first hour to judge by, Criss is extremely watchable in a complicated and potentially off-putting role: a sociopathic narcissist, whose gay self-loathing manifests in an unsettling violent streak.
“I think stories that bend people’s sense of empathy are what really interest me,” Criss said. “It’s Shakespearean. Is has this very operatic feel. It’s Greek in scale. I’m a good, old fashioned acting student. Put me in a Greek tragedy or a Shakespeare play. If I get to do that on FX with Ryan Murphy, then fuck yeah, let’s do it.”
For all the talk of broader themes, there’s one specific detail that Murphy wanted to drive home: the unusual experience of filming the series in Versace’s actual Miami Beach mansion. That meant actually recreating his assassination where it really happened, in front of the house that Versace curated every detail of, which still emanates his soul and passion. It “was one of the most emotional, profound, moving, experiences,” Murphy said. “The day we shot that the crew was crying. The actors were crying. It was very intense.”
It wasn’t just that day, but the entire experience that was emotional for Ramirez, who spent months channeling Versace and living with his unnecessary death—and what that death said about the value of a certain demographic’s life at that time in the U.S.
“Me living in Venezuela, I knew about Andrew Cunanan,” Ramirez said. “He was on the news in my country. [I’m disturbed by] the fact that it took so long to get him, because apparently he wasn’t a threat to society because he was killing gay men. I feel very proud to be part of a project that talks about love and family but at the same time, hopefully makes something light out of something so dark.”