For the first 10 minutes of the pilot episode, it feels like The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story is going to be a different show. Based on the series’ first installment, it’s likely that after opening with a murder, the season would then continue on to the ongoing FBI investigation, the issues with the press, and the ensuing manhunt—one that was, as dubbed in the subtitle of the Maureen Orth book, “the largest failed manhunt in U.S. history.” Instead, it appears that this season is going to work backwards: Here’s the murder, and here’s what got us to that point.
What’s also clear, within those first 10 minutes, is that this season is going to be gorgeous to look at. The set of Versace’s mansion—which critics toured a bit of at last summer’s TCA press tour, and which left me breathless—is immediately memorable, painstakingly recreated to the last detail. The direction by Ryan Murphy (who should perhaps continue to focus on throwing around big ideas and directing episodes while leaving the actual screenwriting to others) is fluid and impressive, gliding as it follows Versace through his mansion, and featuring languid tilts above marble staircases.
Through both the direction and the writing, Assassination aims to set up parallels between famed designer Gianni Versace and his murderer Andrew Cunanan—reflecting what Andrew hoped were similarities, but actually depicting the reality of their differences—and for the most part, it’s successful. Versace gets his morning orange juice delivered on a platter while Andrew drinks from a cheap soda can; Versace is cool and casual as he buys magazines and exchanges pleasantries while Andrew is panicked and sweaty after vomiting in a bathroom with homophobic graffiti. Even their walks are contrasted: Versace strides on the sidewalk, looking straight ahead; Andrew trudges through the leaves, his head down.
The titular assassination comes quickly. Versace’s dead before the title card.
So, where does the episode go from here? Way back to 1990, Andrew jumping on the bed between his coupled friends, waking them up to reveal that he met Versace at a fancy gay nightclub—in the private members only section, of course. As Erik Adams put it in his pre-air review, writer Tom Rob Smith has to “fill in a lot of the blanks involving the relationships between predator and prey,” blanks that not even Maureen Orth could fill in Vulgar Favors. Did Andrew and Versace ever meet? (Versace’s family categorically denies this; Orth’s book asserts they did meet at a club before the opera’s premiere.) But the scene is mesmerizing despite the truth because it’s the first time we see Andrew’s brain at work: the persistence, the narcissism, the neverending lying, the slimy—but almost impressive—way he can sense an opening and jump in, confidently faking his way through any conversation. And Andrew is already telling his friends it happened differently.
“The Man Who Would Be Vogue” isn’t terribly subtle in setting up Andrew’s character when it comes to dialogue. The non-verbal cues, the props (the episode’s title paraphrases the title of Caroline Seebohm’s book about Condé Nast, which Andrew keeps in his backpack along with his gun), and the lingering moments (such as the camera’s slow zoom during the opera) all work better. Sometimes the dialogue is too expository (yes, sure, it’s a pilot): “You tell gay people you’re gay, and straight people you’re straight,” Andrew’s friend says to him. “Every time I feel like I’m getting close to you, you say you’re someone else.” No one really knows who Andrew is—least of all Andrew—and that’s part of what made his murders so bizarre and confusing. What we do know is what Andrew wants to be: He wants to be one of the elite, he wants to be someone everyone loves. He wants to be, in his own words, “impressive.” Through his “date” with Versace—which was surely a fantasy, no?—we gather more of what Andrew wants to hear. “You’re a creative, right?” Versace asks Andrew while pouring them champagne on the abandoned stage. “You’re handsome, clever. I’m sure you’re going to be someone really special one day.”
There’s not much time to linger on that past because the episode jumps back to 1997’s murder: Antonio hearing the shot, Andrew examining his work that includes a dead bird. While Andrew takes off running, Antonio tends to Versace’s rapidly dying body. A crowd starts to form as the police arrive; a man grabs his Polaroid to snap a photo of Versace being loaded into the ambulance. That one flash is a harbinger of what’s to come from money-hungry friends and strangers trying, often successfully, to profit off tragedy to the ways in which the media will interfere, undermine, and screw with the police’s investigation. Another forewarning is about the FBI’s ineptitude: piles of “Wanted By FBI” flyers featuring Andrew’s photos are untouched and undistributed, sitting in the trunk of Agent Evans’s car. Later, a pawn shop employee recognizes Andrew; she turned over his transaction forms (a requirement) to the police a week ago but nothing came from it. Would he have been caught earlier if people saw the flyers around and called the cops? Or if the police had read the pawn shop form—complete with a current address—a week prior and recognized his name? What Assassination might focus on, it seems, is if Versace’s murder could have been prevented.
It’s strange that in the first episode of a show titled The Assassination Of Gianni Versace, there isn’t too much to say about Versace himself, or his world. Donatella’s entrance is thrilling, and each move she makes is so deliberate, from putting on her sunglasses to fixing the marblehead that the detective turned askew. Antonio is similarly transfixing, and Ricky Martin displays impressive acting in this episode. It’s heartbreaking to watch him questioned by police who conflates “partner” with “pimp,” and who basically discounts Versace and Antonio’s relationship—partly, I assume, because it’s a homosexual relationship and partly because Antonio admits they brought other men into it. When he asks “the difference” between Antonio and the other men, Antonio replies—tearfully, exasperated, almost helplessly—“15 years!” It’s thankfully broken up by Donatella, who dismisses the detective and instructs Antonio to never speak to anyone about Versace without consulting her first. Donatella’s grieving but still knows the score: the police and the press will go through Versace’s life, “every discretion,” with a fine-tooth comb. She also knows that she has to keep Versace, the company, alive. “I will not allow that man, that nobody, to kill my brother twice.”
- Welcome to weekly coverage of The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, a title only a long-winded recapper could love! The O.J. installment was not only among my top shows of that year but probably the most fun I’ve had covering a show, so I jumped at the chance to dive into this one.
- Did anyone else read the Maureen Orth book? Though it was certainly extensive and detailed, I was… lukewarm on it, to be honest, though mostly for spoilery (?) reasons relating to Andrew’s sexuality and sexual interests that I shouldn’t touch upon here but I’d love to know your thoughts!
- It was nice to know a bit more about Versace through that “date” scene: his emphasis on family, how “maybe every dress” he makes is actually for Donatella, what he wants people to understand just by wearing his clothes.
- Gianni Versace is a great follow-up to O.J. Simpson—and especially over a Hurricane Katrina season—for a number of reasons, but a big one is that the Simpson case (including the involvement of the press, how closely it was followed by normal people who were just watching television, and the failure to prosecute) were all still lingering in the minds of the FBI and local police departments when investigating these murders.
- Two things I keep going back to: How long it took Antonio to wash Versace’s bloods off his hands, and Andrew explaining that his lies only matter if other people “know it isn’t true.”