American Crime Story, The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: A Painful but Necessary Glimpse at Homophobia in the ’90s

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(FX)

Much like its predecessor, 2016’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, FX’s American Crime Story‘s second season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, has impressed me, all while breaking my heart all over again.

From its premiere episode that aired in January called “The Man Who Would be Vogue,” I was apprehensive that Assassination would glorify the killer, Andrew Cunanan (played outstandingly by Darren Criss)- a then 27-year-old gay man who took on a killing spree in the spring and summer of 1997, including the murder of long-adored fashion designer, Gianni Versace- too much, to the point that it took away too much of what made People v. O.J. so special.  What I loved about O.J., is that the series wasn’t really about the accused killer himself- that bastard has already had enough airtime on our television screens- what it really centered on, was how much this trial effected the America in which we live in today: the 24-hour news cycle, sexism, media/fame whores, and all-too-familar devastating racial divides.  Ryan Murphy & Co. purposely did not spend too much time depicting the victims (out of respect), but also because this story was not just about them, and how much their deaths affected their families- the real heart of the show’s story was embedded in how much this trial effected the people who got thrown into it, and whose lives were nearly ruined because of it.  Andrew Cunanan, who has always been described as a fame-hungry young man who was envious of his friends’, peers’, and Versace’s successes that he never had, to the point where he took/destroyed their lives, does not deserve the fame that he has now received posthumously, but his background story and his victims’ stories do deserve attention, and the way that Assassination handled it this season wasn’t always perfect, but still outstanding, nonetheless.

Homophobia makes me furious- it always has.  I, myself, am straight- but I consider myself an ally to the LBGTQ community.  To think that there are people in this country– a country that is supposed to be “free” and “just” “for all”– who look down upon or have issues with those who are attracted to and love those that happen to be the same biological sex as them, hurts me.  After watching this week’s conclusion of Assassination, I’m aware that we have made strides for the gay community since these events that transpired over 20 years ago, however, I have been asking myself: Why didn’t I know more about this?  Why did it take me until a mere two months ago- when Assassination first premiered- to make a dent into heavily researching this case?  How did Andrew Cunanan get away with the murders of five men in a span of three months, all while walking around in plain sight, amongst the bustling Miami streets?  What outside circumstances contributed to Andrew’s motive for his killing spree?  How did this case become the largest failed manhunt in FBI history?

Assassination attempted to provide answers to some of these questions.

Right off the bat in the premiere episode, we cringe, as one particular detective is questioning Antonio (Ricky Martin) after he witnesses his partner Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez) dying on the steps of his mansion.  The cop looks at Antonio, confused, wondering what exactly he means when he refers to Versace as his “partner”.  “By ‘partner’ you mean ?” he asks.  Antonio– sobbing with his murdered partner’s blood stains on his pristine white tennis outfit– explains that his loyal “15 years” spent with Gianni, loving him, was the difference between they relationship that he shared with him, as opposed to the other men they would occasionally bring back to the mansion to have threesomes with.  “You were bringing back other men? For him? You were having sex wit them too?  With him there? Do you see why I’m confused?” The detective asks.  He just can’t seem to wrap his head around the fact that these two men had a loyal, loving gay relationship for over a decade, which wasn’t just about sex.  What does he think?  That only heterosexuals are capable of this kind of committed relationship?  Does it matter that they shared an open relationship?  Hey detective, do you see why we’re confused with you?

By episode two, titled “Manhunt”, we feel enraged once again, as Detective Wieder (Dascha Polanko) insists on putting out more flyers amongst the South Beach streets, and talking to the bartenders and nightlife workers of the Miami gay club scene (where Andrew was likely to frequent) while the other cops blow her suggestions off.  At this point, Andrew was wanted for the killings of the first four men, and, according to my research, did indeed frequent the gay club scene there, which could have led to more eyes on the lookout for him, and the possible prevention of Versace’s slaying.  From what I’ve read, many cops on this case feared that, by entering these gay clubs, others would think that they were gay as well, even if all they were doing was talking to people who could have given eye-witness accounts on Andrew’s whereabouts.  Oh if only only the cops had been less prejudice and more proactive…

By episode four, “The House on the Lake”, we are introduced to Andrew’s second victim in his spree, who he would often refer to as the “love of (his) life” to close friends, David Madson (Cody Fern.)  As the episode starts off with Andrew’s first murder of Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock) in David’s apartment, we watch a fearful David witness the violent act right before his eyes, before Andrew takes him as his hostage, and the two flee.  The question that many had- after David’s body was later found about an hour away near a lake- was: if David had not been an accomplice in Jeff Trail’s murder, why didn’t David try to escape when Andrew took him as a hostage?  Why didn’t he attempt to get help?  Assassination imagines that Andrew convinces David that, because they’re both “hated fags,” the police won’t buy David’s story that he had nothing to do with Jeff’s murder, therefore prosecuting him too, while shaming/outing him as a gay man to the public.  Later in the episode, we see the cops enter David’s apartment, after his friends suspect that something bad had happened to him.  The ignorant cops discover the body (later identified as Jeff’s) and assume that this murder was caused by a “gay thing,” which they describe as two men who “maybe know each other, maybe they don’t” that engage in extreme forms of S&M sex, that can go horribly wrong, and result into a murder scene.  As we have seen thus far, the cisgender cops involved had a very narrow-minded, limited, careless views on gay relationships at this time…

Episode five, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had me at my most effectively angry mood yet.  As we continued to move backward in time, we learn more about Andrew’s “best friend” Jeff Trail and his time as a closeted Naval Officer within the Clinton-era “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  With hindsight comes clarity, and twenty years later, we now realize how flawed this policy was- but back then, this was considered a progressive policy for gay individuals serving in the military, without anyone being the wiser, therefore preventing malicious bullying against them.  This painful-to-watch episode paints Trail as a hero, as we watch him rescue a fellow gay military man from being beaten to death; struggle with his own homosexual identity to the point of (a fabricated) suicide attempt; and mask his face for a seedy hotel room interview, where CBS News asks him about his experience as a closeted gay man in the military– while the episode juxtaposes Gianni and Antonio sitting down for a coming-out interview with The Advocate.  This episode impacted me the most, as we are shown just how shameful gay men (and women) were made to feel a mere 20 years ago, right around the time that Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet admist heavy backlash; straight military members were broadcasted on TV saying, “No fags in the military”; and Matthew Shepard was killed solely for his sexual orientation.  The vibrant, neon colors and sugary pop soundtrack of the Spice Girls were no match for just how cruel this decade really was.

Skipping ahead to the highly effective episode eight, “Creator/Destroyer”, we compare Gianni’s and Andrew’s experiences with homophobia within their youth.  Young Gianni, who is ridiculed by his school teacher for sketching women’s dresses in his classroom, is laughed at and called a “sissy” by his other classmates.  Regardless, he perseveres, and continues his dream of dressmaking, with the support of his mother.  Meanwhile, young Andrew– the apple of his parents’ eyes– is spoiled and entitled by his problematic parents, especially his old man, who later calls him a “sissy” as well, when he visits him in the Philippines.  Andrew is also called a “fag” by a classmate in a different scene within the episode– a word that is painfully used several times throughout the season.  Both men were exposed to degrees of homophobia from early on in their young lives, but they each dealt with it in ways that were used for either creative purposes or destructive purposes.

One issue I have had with Assassination was its choices in editing, as well as the show’s (sometimes) way of merely telling us its theme of the huge role that homophobia played in these crimes and their investigations, instead of laying their cards on the table and really showing us.  In episode seven called “Ascent”, we see Andrew meet the older men who would become his first two sugar daddies, Lincoln Aston and Norman Blachford.  Lincoln Aston would later be brutally bludgeoned to death by a man who confessed to the killing later, named Kevin Bond.  Bond only received a mere 15-year-sentence for the murder.  The only mentioning of Aston’s death and Bond’s sentencing was a quick exchange between Andrew and Norman in one scene, in which one of them says, “You can beat us, kill us, and get away with it.”  I felt that this scene could have been way more effective in showing us just how much it meant that a (possible) gay man who killed another gay man only went to prison for 15 years for it and that was that.  Additionally, after reading what Darren Criss had to say in a recent Vanity Fair article– about some of the scenes that were left on the cutting room floor throughout the series– I feel that some of the show’s narrative of the impact that homophobia had on this case got put to the wayside for a few of the episodes.  Apparently, there was an entire subplot dedicated to Detective Wieder, who we were to find out was the only lesbian cop on the case, and who was making attempts to go to the gay bars and clubs and attempt to do her part in understanding Cunanan’s motive.  The overall thread of this theme would have made so much more sense if we had witnessed a gay cop trying to make up for the lack of work that the straight, cisgender, ill-informed cops failed to do within the investigation against Cunanan.

With that being said, Assassination somewhat made up for it, with the standout moment of Wednesday night’s finale episode.  In a scene that wraps this entire theme of homophobia together into a perfectly neat bow, is the dialogue exchanged between Max Greenfield’s Ronnie and the cops who are questioning him about Andrew, after he is suspected of killing Versace.  As the detectives ask about Andrew’s possible whereabouts and his obsession with Versace, Ronnie firmly explains: “But the other cops here, they weren’t searching so hard, were they? Why is that? Because he killed a bunch of nobody gays?…You know what the truth is? You were disgusted by him long before he became disgusting.  That impeccable piece of monologue, delivered so confidently by Max Greenfield, gives the cops the last kick in the nads that we needed all season long.  Just like that, I forgave the show for straying a bit away from its overall thematic analysis.

Even though homophobia played such a crucial role not only in Andrew’s own insecurities and possible motives, Assassination taught us the other factors at play here that may have contributed to the reasons why he fell into such a downward spiral.    After witnessing each of Andrew’s brutal kills week-to-week in the first five episodes; to eventually seeing the breakdown of his psyche as he was continuously being rejected and feeling less lovable; to viewing the building blocks of the abuse and toxicity that Andrew’s father bestowed onto him, I slowly empathized with him more and more, which is truly a testament to show writer Tom Rob Smith.  It’s no easy feat for a show to tell its story in reverse chronological order– by beginning with Andrew’s most despicable and infamous acts– and manage to transform my hatred for Andrew Cunanan into pure heartbreak.  I initially felt my first empathetic pangs towards him within “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” where we see Andrew propose to David with the gold Cartier watch, and David rejects him.  Darren Criss’s expression as he portrays Andrew’s heartbreak killed me.  As obnoxious as Andrew was in this series, was it always just his fault?  With a father (played outstandingly by Jon Jon Briones) who abused the family for their whole lives and ultimately abandoned them, leaving them with nothing, and with a mother (Joanna Adler) who enabled Andrew so much that she never taught him how to deal with failure, rejection and dreaming for himself– Andrew Cunanan was doomed from the start.  He may not have necessarily been born a killer– he was molded into one.

Andrew Cunanan may have been the one (inexcusably) pulling the trigger on these crimes, but Assassination has shown us that homophobia is a crime that America is guilty of.

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