It captures the degradation that a generation of gay men had to endure during the intensely homophobic 1990s.
Edgar Ramirez plays fashion mogul Gianni Versace. Image from “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.”
Halfway through its run, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” — the second installment of the “American Crime Story” series on FX — is arguably the most important show on television right now. The title suggests that the series will focus on Versace’s murder. Instead, esteemed producer/creator Ryan Murphy uses the assassination as a starting point and framework to showcase the other men that Cunanan killed before Versace and, by doing so, manages to capture the degradation that a generation of gay men had to endure during the intensely homophobic 1990s.
Murphy has already proved his mastery at using a particular episode in recent U.S. history to dissect a culture with “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the first installment in the “American Crime” series. The show, which garnered a staggering 22 Emmy nominations (and nine wins), searingly contextualized the issues of racism, class, and sexism, which surrounded the Simpson case, all while offering us fresh perspectives on the trial that an entire country tuned into and obsessed over.
With his latest effort, Murphy continues to hold up a mirror to society.
Toward the end of the most recent episode of the series — and warning, there are some spoilers ahead — a lovelorn Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) is arguing with former Navy officer Jeffrey Trail (Finn Wittrock), a man he befriended at a gay bar and who will soon become one of his victims. Trail is despondent and lost. He was forced to give up his career in the armed forces after saving a fellow officer from being beaten to death for being gay. This show of compassion is enough for his fellow officers to label him gay as well and to prevent him from ever being promoted even if, under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” he can no longer be summarily dismissed. He decides to give an interview with CBS News, his outline against a backdrop and his voice altered, and tell his story. The military, he says, is “all he’s ever done, all he’s ever dreamed of doing,” so much so that he dreams “he can take the moment back, and let that man die.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Murphy seems to suggest that the brutality of the late ‘90s was bound to create a monster such as Cunanan.[/quote]
At Trail’s apartment, Cunanan is perplexed that Trail cannot accept how much the military has wronged him. Trail tells Cunanan he wishes he never walked into the bar and met him. “You’re confused,” Cunanan says, “And you don't even see it.”
“I see it,” Trail responds. “I feel it. And I hate it.”
Cunanan reaches for Trail's face: “I've always loved you.”
“No one wants your love,” Trail screams, breaking free. We watch as Cunanan takes this in, his eyes filling with the realization that no matter how hard he tries, the world will never grant him the love he’s seeking.
So many traumas are highlighted in this series, first and foremost the suffocating fear that kept so many in the closet, including successful real estate tycoon Lee Miglin, whose wife managed to convince the police to label his murder a “random killing,” to Versace (Edgar Ramirez) himself, who kept his decade-plus relationship with Antonio D’amico (Ricky Martin) a secret. But the indecencies hardly end there. We witness an FBI that seems indifferent to the murder of gay men. Words like “fag” and “queer” are used casually in everyday conversation. Men are gay-bashed, refusing to report their abuse for fear of being fired. The nonexistence of civil rights whatsoever, much less marriage equality. Together these elements contribute to a culture of hostility and fear that makes gay people feel not just like second-class citizens, but less than human.
Palpable in almost every scene is the rage Murphy and writer Tom Rob Smith feel about this history. That the events we’re witnessing happened only some 20-odd years ago seems almost surreal.
I empathize with this rage.
Watching the show has triggered me, as I’m once again confronted with just how much shame and discomfort I was suppressing in my mid-20s. Now, looking back from the relative comfort of 2018, I can see just how much was stolen from us. Popular culture has predominantly chosen to frame the LGBT rights movement as a cheery march of progress toward acceptance. Here, Murphy chooses to remind us, much as he did with his adaptation of “The Normal Heart” for HBO — Larry Kramer’s harrowing play about our government’s silence (and our nation’s indifference) to the AIDS crisis — of just how awful things once were.
What makes the show so brilliant, and subversive, is how Murphy conveys his moral outrage through the sadistic exploits of Cunanan. Here is where Criss is shockingly effective: simultaneously disturbing and charming, arrogant and desperate for love, his Cunanan is a pathological liar, a status seeker, a sad and dangerous human being. But he’s also the one who seems least troubled by his sexuality, someone willing to be open about being gay and to want, even demand, to be loved. By having Cunanan consistently shunned by men who are less comfortable with their sexuality than he is, Murphy seems to suggest that the brutality of the late ‘90s was bound to create a monster like Cunanan — evil, no doubt, but also a byproduct of a society that deliberately refused to allow gay men to self-actualize and live normal lives.
With “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” Murphy has taken on something more personal, and the effect is both chilling and prescient: He dares us to look and then not look away.