The Television Academy generally responds well to Ryan Murphy. That, I think, we can all agree on. Now, their response tends to vary for sure. They broadly embrace some of his properties, showering them with multiple trophies (see: The People v. O.J. Simpson, taking home 9 wins out of 22 nominations). Or they politely smile, recognize the material but don’t take their love all the way (see: Feud: Bette and Joan, taking home 2 wins out of 19 nominations). Ironically, Murphy himself has only a single Emmy win directly recognizing his contributions. He received a comedy series direction win for Glee. Naturally, anything bearing his name merits serious attention during awards season. Something akin to a TV-version of Steven Spielberg. That brings us to The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.
Versace comes to us with lofty intentions. The title alone tells us that. Yet, having seen 8 out of 9 episodes, it’s also slightly misleading. The series isn’t necessarily so much about Gianni Versace as it is Andrew Cunanan, the lost soul whose killing spree across America ended with the public slaying of the fashion icon. Go into the series not expecting great depth on Versace as a character. Rather, the assassination event becomes the catalyst for a study of not only the deeply troubled Cunanan but also 90s-era homosexuality.
Murphy likes to make grand statements with his material. O.J. Simpson rehabilitated Marcia Cross, offered up a celebration of working women, and studied race in America. Feud looked at Hollywood’s cruelty in dealing with aging actresses. Even American Horror Story looks at a wide array of social tragedies, perhaps never so blatantly so as with Cult‘s socio-political horror. Twenty years from now, our children will study Ryan Murphy’s vast playbook in college. Versace will, I suspect, become prime source material for a term paper or three.
But with the Television Academy and The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, I’m forecasting at least 12 Emmy nominations. It won’t top O.J. Simpson, but that’s partially because it doesn’t have that mind blowing, star-filled cast of world-class actors. Don’t cry for Versace, though. It’ll do just fine.
Honestly, I’ll be stunned if Versace isn’t nominated broadly. It’s a delicate, intense portrayal of a man without an identity. I’m stealing from my friend Joey Moser when I say it’s Murphy’s exploration of the Tom Ripley character through the real-life persona of Andrew Cunanan. Early reviews for the series have been mixed to good with few outwardly raving. I suspect that’s largely because the series doesn’t deliver what you’d expect. It’s not a lurid exploration of the fame and fortune of Gianni Versace. Rather, it’s a lurid exploration of the impact of Versace’s fame and fortune on highly impressionable minds. The series winds the two characters in and out of the narrative, Cunanan nearly constantly referring to his obsession with Versace and his place of influence.
Darren Criss emerges as the real revelation here. His performance as Cunanan is one of those performances frequently called “brave,” a term that makes me cringe every time I hear it. It means that an actor who is not openly gay plays a gay character in intense, frequently erotic, situations. Still, his performance is “brave” in that Cunanan opens himself to Murphy’s challenges. He’s exposed both physically and emotionally. He digs deeply into the material and emerges with a shocking portrayal of an exceedingly damaged individual. He’s never been this good. Ever. He immediately shoots to the top of the Best Actor in a Limited Series list. He may even win.
Versace is really all about Andrew Cunanan. As such, the supporting players don’t factor in quite as strongly as I thought they would. Penelope Cruz, for one, really doesn’t have that many scenes in the 8 episodes I’ve seen as Donatella. I think she’s great given the material, and I’m kind of obsessed with the accent she manages to deliver. Will she merit a nomination? It depends on how deeply the Academy embraces the material. Right now, I don’t see how she misses. She has a great episode toward the end where Gianni encourages Donatella to overcome her insecurities. Cruz manages to find a heart within the glamorous exterior. Given Cruz’s Oscar-winning status as an actress, I suspect she finds her way into the supporting races.
Unfortunately, attention on Cruz will likely push aside a very deserved nomination for Judith Light, playing Marilyn Miglin. Miglin’s husband was one of Cunanan’s victims, and Light’s composure and eerily stoic demeanor through much of the material are really a wonder.
The men, of course, will compete against each other for a handful of spots. I don’t know if this goes all the way to O.J. Simpson level with three actors receiving attention. Of the notable ensemble, my personal favorites are Finn Wittrock as Jeff Trail, another Cunanan victim and closeted Naval officer, and Jon Jon Briones (Broadway’s Miss Saigon) as Cunanan’s father. Murphy gifts both very talented actors a wealth of great material. Briones, in particular, gives a stunningly complicated performance of a man who is both monster and adoring father. His episode is the most difficult to watch (saying a lot given much of the subject matter), but it would be a shame to ignore his contributions to the legend of Andrew Cunanan.
That leaves the title figure himself: Gianni Versace as realized by Edgar Ramirez. For me, Ramirez looks a lot like the real deal and gives a very good performance. Yet, there’s something absent here when exploring Versace as a character. Ramirez gives it his all, but his is the least impressive aspect of the series. The significant focus on Cunanan and 90s-era homosexuality has to leave a victim in its wake.
Unfortunately, it’s kind of Gianni Versace all over again.
Darren Criss – Lead Actor
Penelope Cruz – Supporting Actress
Edgar Ramirez – Supporting Actor
Jon Jon Briones – Supporting Actor
Finn Wittrock – Supporting Actor
Judith Light – Supporting Actress