January 14, 2018 at 2:39 pm PST | by John Paul King
“Assassination of Gianni Versace” investigates murder and homophobia

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan in “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace” (Courtesy FX)

With its first season, “American Crime Story” – Ryan Murphy’s anthology series dramatizing infamous true-life criminal investigations – took the audacious risk of addressing the O.J. Simpson case, a still-polarizing public spectacle which continues to cast a long shadow over our cultural identity.

The gambit paid off.  “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” became must-watch T.V., garnering widespread critical acclaim and earning multiple awards.  Though many of Murphy’s other shows (“Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “The New Normal”) have had their share of both admirers and detractors, “Crime Story” met with almost unanimous approval, ensuring its return for a second season.

Though it’s taken a couple of years, that season has finally arrived.

“The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” makes its much-anticipated premiere on January 17 (on FX), and promises to deliver the same kind of savvy and cinematic style which elevated “O.J.” above the level of a lurid potboiler and prevented it from being an exploitative rehash of a story most of us already knew all too well.

The murder of fashion giant Versace on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion in 1997 came as a shocking twist at the end of a news story that had already been unfolding for weeks.  In April, Andrew Cunanan, a 27-year old San Diego resident, had begun a cross-country killing spree which started with the beating death of an acquaintance and claimed the lives of at least three more people before climaxing in the shooting of Versace on July 15.  The fact that Cunanan was already a known fugitive (he had been placed on the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted” list), and that he had been “hiding in plain sight” in Miami for two weeks before the designer’s killing, opened law enforcement officials to criticism for their failure to apprehend him before his final act of violence; that he continued to elude capture until his suicide by gunshot eight days later only fueled further controversy.

Complicating the entire investigation, of course, was the matter of sexuality.  Cunanan was gay.  He was familiar to many in the gay club scene of which he was a part, and known to be a charmer.  He had a history of becoming involved with older men from whom he would receive money and gifts.  As these facts were revealed during the manhunt which followed his first murder, it was impossible not to speculate that they may – in the homophobic atmosphere of the mid-nineties – have had some bearing on the seriousness with which law enforcement took the case, begging the question of whether Versace’s eventual killing could have been prevented.

With the first installment of “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” Murphy and writer Tom Rob Smith waste no time in addressing that question.  After an elegantly orchestrated opening sequence depicting the events of that July morning – in which the activities of both Versace and Cunanan are intercut until they come together for their fatal meeting – the show immediately begins to explore a subtle but pervasive homophobic slant.

The obvious discomfort of detectives at Versace’s mansion over the presence of the victim’s boyfriend (Antonio D’Amico, portrayed with surprising authenticity and tenderness by Ricky Martin); their questioning of him about the designer’s sexual habits and perceived promiscuity; the revelation that stacks of “wanted” posters showing Cunanan’s face are sitting, still undistributed, in the trunk of an FBI agent’s car – all these details and more reveal a certain prejudicial thinking within the law enforcement community.

It’s not just an issue within official circles, either.  The first episode culminates with the arrival of Donatella Versace (played with regal, imperious splendor by a spectacularly blond-wigged Penelope Cruz), who swoops in to protect the family business by clamping down on the way her dearly departed brother’s image is depicted in the media.  Though it’s never explicitly stated, it’s clear that public perception of his sexuality – which was an “open secret” during his life – is central to her concerns.

Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” (Courtesy FX)

There is also the matter of Cunanan’s relationship with his own sexuality.  As the show begins to explore his history (beginning what will presumably be a continuing pattern moving between flashbacks to the events leading up to Versace’s murder and the saga of the manhunt which followed it), we see his deliberate obfuscation about being gay with his friends.  Likewise, Versace, though seemingly open about his nature within his exclusive circle, is nevertheless depicted as being carefully guarded about it; though the subject of his sexuality is – glaringly – never mentioned in his scenes, this self-protective attitude comes less from the script than it does from the exquisitely modulated performance of Edgar Ramirez, whose layered portrayal gives us a generous and sympathetic impression of the late designer.

Joining Ramirez, Cruz, and Martin to round out the principal cast is Darren Criss as Cunanan.  It’s a challenging role, for many reasons – not the least of which is the fact that much of what we see of him is necessarily based on speculation.  In the first episode, what comes through is a portrait of a deeply, almost painfully insecure young man, hiding behind blatantly fabricated fantasies to create an image of himself to sell to those around him.  What does not come through – at least not yet – is his attractiveness and appeal.  Criss is a handsome actor, but as Cunanan he seems decidedly ordinary; this is not a bad thing, by any means, but to convince us of this killer’s ability to charm his way into the lives of so many men he must also show us some of Cunanan’s charisma.  Hopefully, as the series progresses, more of this will be revealed.

The series’ cast is also peppered with other recognizable faces – Max Greenfield, Dascha Polanco, Jay R. Ferguson, Jose Zuniga, Annaleigh Ashford, and Oscar nominee Cathy Moriarty (in a welcome cameo as a pawnshop owner) all appear in the first episode, with names such as Judith Light and Mike Farrell scheduled to come.

Apart from the usual celebrity appeal of Murphy’s shows, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is also steeped in the same attention to detail and period authenticity we have come to expect – the opulence and glamor of the high-end fashion world in which Versace was immersed has been recreated with obvious delight, of course, but equal attention has been given to the more squalid environments which are every bit as much a part of the story.

Welcome as these “A-List” attractions may be, though, they are not what make the upcoming season of “American Crime Story” worth watching.

With the previous season’s examination of the O.J. case, Murphy and his creative team were shrewd enough to realize that what made the story important was not the sensational details of the murder and trial, but rather the underlying current of racism which informed every aspect of the way events unfolded.  With their handling of the Cunanan story, it is obvious that they have brought that same understanding to the proceedings – and as before, the way their observations about the social biases within their story’s setting provides a pointed reflection of those that linger in our own time.

“The Assassination of Gianni Versace” may be a tale of American crime, but it’s also a tale of American homophobia.

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