The second installment of Ryan Murphy’s crime saga focuses on the murder of Gianni Versace and a complex and controlled performance from Darren Criss.
Do not go into The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story and expect another incarnation like The People v. O.J. Simpson. While both seasons of the limited series focus on crimes from the 1990’s, the incidents are approached so differently that it almost feels like they come from entirely separate shows. What is clear, however, is that Murphy wanted to tackle the epidemic of homophobia, and Versace features a performance from Darren Criss that we will be talking about this entire awards season.
I remember when Italian designer Gianni Versace was gunned down on the steps of his Miami Beach villa in 1997. It was the summer before I started middle school, and I became embroiled in the manhunt for killer Andrew Cunanan because he was known to be gay. As a closeted seventh grader, it was kind of unsettling to see a lot of media outlets continually mention that the authorities were looking for a gay man involved in the murder of this well-known, out gay figured.
Unlike the first season, this Crime Story starts with the violence and then works its way backwards, volleying back and forth between the lives of Gianni Versace (played by Edgar Ramirez) and killer Andrew Cunanan (a calculated Darren Criss). While Versace’s name is in the title, the namesake of this season is a bit misleading.
Versace is the victim and object of Cunanan’s obsession, but The Assassination of Gianni Versace truly characterizes how Cunanan was able to burrow into people’s lives. The opening sequence is stunning. Versace lazily eats breakfast and says goodbye to his morning staff as he casually leaves to stroll down Ocean Drive to buy some magazines. We see a clearly distraught Cunanan wade chest deep in the ocean and then feverishly fumble to accost his idol on the street.
As the police begin to look for Cunanan, the series flashes further and further back to revisit Cunanan’s lesser known murders. His spree ended with his most famous victim, but Versace gives respectful time to the more unknown people who came into Cunanan’s life. Full episodes are devoted to Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell), David Madson (Cody Fern), and Jeffrey Trail (Finn Wittrock). By the penultimate episode of the season, we are even seeing Versace and Cunanan as young boys.
When they announced that the new season of American Crime Story was going to focus on this particular story, I was vocally concerned on the Water Cooler Podcast about how this was going to be handled. I was mainly concerned that they were going to overly sexualize Andrew Cunanan and that was going to overshadow what he had done. I was wrong. Sure, Darren Criss is perpetually shirtless and we get glimpses of him naked from behind, but how Cunanan presents himself is so important to the character and how he was able to mentally seduce people. Versace doesn’t ask us to feel bad for Andrew Cunanan as much as it invites us to witness what he has done.
Darren Criss channels Tom Ripley as Andrew Cunanan. He is both the most confident person in the room and the most insecure baby you will ever meet. It was always reported that Cunanan was the life of the party, and he always made you feel good when you were around him. He spouts off lies faster than his audience can keep up. All he wants to do is impress you and even make him seem better than you.
Criss makes his voice higher and his smile is warm and comforting at times, but when that warmth disappears, there is a level of malevolence to Criss’ performance that is haunting and chilling. Criss’ Andrew Cunanan is charismatic but dangerously unpredictable. It’s the performance of his career.
As the series delves deeper into the life of Andrew Cunanan, the less it focuses on Gianni Versace. Embodied by Edgar Ramirez, Versace is a beacon of love and light. Whenever you see him with his staff or even walking down the street, he is gently touching people on the face or saying hello. He’s very loving and passionate. Penelope Cruz’s Donatella Versace is given the difficult task of trying to hold the Versace brand together after her brother’s death as she spars with Gianni’s lover, Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin). She gets to play a fashion icon, but she’s more of a grieving businesswoman. It’s a shame that the Television Academy doesn’t allow guest performers from limited series to compete, because the incomparable Judith Light (as Home Shopping Network icon Marilyn Miglin) would be a a brilliant choice. Cody Fern delivers a quiet and guarded performance as David Madson.
This season captures a particular moment in time with homophobia in America. President Bill Clinton put forth Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and a lot of straight people were still scared of gay people from the AIDS epidemic from the 1980’s. There are many moments when heterosexual characters look at gay characters and hint that the “gay lifestyle” is different or seems foreign. Looking through a modern lens, those moments will make you flinch.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace is different from The People v. O.J. Simpson in almost every way. While O.J. Simpson was a tightly wound courtroom drama, this season is a wild manhunt. It’s a tale of how a young boy was told he was the center of attention, but not told how to do the work to become a good man. It’s a tale of how wanting to take the easy path can make you desperate and isolated. Gianni Versace wanted to create beauty and Andrew Cunanan wanted that beauty to be his.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story premieres tonight at 10pm ET on FX.