Arts and Culture Editor
Carly O’ Neill
Associate News Editor
Ryan Murphy’s new installment of American Crime Story. The Assassination of Gianni Versace while in episode one boasts vibrant colors and lavish costumes, quickly turns into a bleak but important and surprisingly timely tale of repression and status. The show stars Edgar Ramirez as the late, great fashion icon, Gianni Versace. Now although, the series begins with the Versace murder, the show’s ultimate focus is on the tragic backstory of Versace’s killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss). As the show flashes back and forth between the stories of Versace and Cunanan, we see two stories of fame, Versace who got it with poise and respect, and Cunanan who gained his fame and notoriety from murder and inflicting horror. This contrast is ultimately at the heart of this story and the one that Murphy and his team are out to tell.
Edgar Ramirez’s performance as Gianni Versace was both sassy and exhilarating. Versace was known for breaking the laws of Italian fashion by focusing on a theme of glamorized, sexy, and vibrant clothing. Not only did Ramirez focus on capturing the fabulous side of Versace, but he also opened a door for the homosexual community. Versace announced he was openly gay in Episode 5 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” alongside his partner Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin), in an interview in the gay magazine, The Advocate. Versace was not ashamed of his sexuality and he represented that through his fashion, introducing black leather and bondage references to one of his iconic dresses revealed in episode 7, “Ascent”.
Darren Criss gives an absolutely chilling performance as Gianni Versace’s killer, Andrew Cunanan. For his portrayal of Andrew, Criss sheds his squeaky clean reputation that was on display in his role on Ryan Murphy’s, Glee. The character of Andrew is a compulsive liar, who tells others what they want to hear just to get ahead in his world. He even lies to others about his parents’ careers just to make himself look better. Criss captures this fame obsessed side of Andrew perfectly, and constantly keeps the audience guessing what the character will do next. He is especially chilling in his murder scenes, whenever the character pulls out his favorite weapon of torture, duct tape, the audience knows something horrible is about to happen. With an expression of maniacal pleasure, Criss is a psychopath audiences cannot take their eyes off of.
This is in large part to the depth the actor brings to this complex role. In Criss’s portrayal, Andrew is a three dimensional character, he is someone who has been driven into insanity and greed with a father who lied and spoiled him rotten. We also see at times a more emotional side of Andrew with David Madson’s love interest character. This more vulnerable side of Andrew gives depth to Criss’s performance and ultimately elevates the character greatly from being just a villain or caricature.
Penelope Cruz is a tour de force as Gianni’s sister, Donatella Versace. With golden blonde hair and a wonderfully bizarre accent, Cruz simply transforms into Versace’s bold and brave sister. Cruz’s portrayal has all the stylized touches and campy flair audiences expect from a Ryan Murphy series. Cruz brings moments of surprising warmth and tenderness in moments alone with Ramirez’s Versace or even just in the characters’ moments of grieving. Cruz also brings a fierce swagger to the role that is simply intoxicating. Just the way the character walks into a fashion show commands attention as it should. This is especially clear in a scene where Donatella is modeling a new dress she made with her brother. The confidence Cruz as the character exudes in this moment is just stunning. Although she doesn’t have as much screen time as the show’s leads, she makes every moment count and is one of the highlights of the series.
Known for their roles in American Horror Story, Finn Wittock (Jeff Trail) and Cody Fern (David Madson), play two friends who shortly become Cunanan’s first victims in this American Crime Story. Wittock and Fern are no strangers to their homosexual portrayal as American Horror Story is known to push boundaries with sexuality, sexism, abuse, basically name a theme and they’ve covered it.
Jeff Trail is a former naval officer who was one of the first people to speak up about being a closeted gay man in the military. He represents a respectable American who loved to serve his country, but his insecurities overpower him as he struggles with his sexuality. Andrew or “Andy” Cunanan helps him explore this side of himself as their relationship unfolds later in the season. Trail and Cunanan develop a friendship from this, since trail feels as if he owes Andrew for helping him come to terms with who he really is. Conanan out of no surprise, takes advantage of their relationship. He repeatedly uses Jeff and his military past to make him look like he’s a token friend who buys Andrew the highest quality gifts for birthdays, etc. Conanan pushes Jeff to his breaking points, constantly bringing up all the guys he’s set him up with to blackmail Jeff into going along with his delusional reality. Just another great example of Andrew Cunanan’s underlying malicious intents throughout the American Crime Story.
David Madson plays Andrew Cunanan’s love interest on the show. Their story, not as apparent at first unravels itself later in the season. Cunanan was infatuated by Madson and describes him consistently as “the love of his life”. David was an aspiring architect loyal to his friends and loved ones. His relationship with Andrew touches on a theme introduced earlier in the show, relationship abuse. After Conanan murders Jeff, Madson consistently makes little effort to escape from Andrew due to this control he exerted over him, playing on his emotion of fear. Andrew makes it seem like he is protecting David stating that he was an accessory to murder. With David left feeling hopeless and crippled to Andrew as his new partner in crime, he is left with no other choice then to abide by his command in order to stay alive. Madson is also a great example of what the LGBTQ+ community faces everyday with struggling to come out to their loved ones. David in particular has a hard time coming out to his dad, scared of how his father might see him afterwards. His father struggles to accept his son in this new light, but never expresses anything less than his love for him.
Along with the excellent performances, the show also serves as a poent time capsule of LGBTQ+ life in the 1990s. Besides the club and nightlife scene of Miami, the show also explores homophobia as seen through the cops’ discomfort in encountering and interviewing Gianni Versace’s lover, Antonio (played by Ricky Martin). Particularly in episode one, the cop played very convincingly by Will Chase even has trouble understanding the idea that Antonio is Versace’s partner and lover. Just the awkwardness felt between the cop and Antonio in this small exchange show how far our society has gotten in even openly discussing or even understanding LGBTQ+ topics. Homophobia specifically is given a devastating spotlight in Episode Five, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” that revolves around one of Andrew’s past lovers, Jeff Trail and his time as a closeted gay man in the army. The episode is eye opening as the Jeff character constantly has to hold his sexuality and feelings inside. Wittrock handles this character with devastating realism that is just heartbreaking.
Although this show takes place in the 90s, the series in a way serves as a reminder of how far we have come as a society in terms of LGBTQ+ rights and representation. The show also though sadly serves as a sad reminder that our world is still closed minded and has ways to go in making LGBTQ+ relationships and culture normalized. “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” serves as a cautionary tale of what a destructive family life and greed can do through Cunanan. Also, the series illustrates through the Versace character the value of hard work and a passion for life. The contrast between the two men is at the heart of this series and is a startling contrast.