The New Season of 'American Crime Story' Isn't Really About Gianni Versace

What's fact? What's fiction? What's in between?

by Judy Berman
Jan 18 2018, 5:13am

Jeff Daly/FX

The first thing you need to know about FX’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace is that it’s not really about Gianni Versace. While O.J. Simpson—and his fame, his race, and his abusive history—were central to Ryan Murphy’s true-crime anthology in its first season, this story focuses on the man who killed Versace and the society that aided in that murder.

The new season is based on Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in US History, a 450-page tome the journalist Maureen Orth published in 1999. Much of the book is devoted to the life story of Cunanan, the 27-year-old spree killer who shot Versace in 1997. Her reporting is thorough and revealing, but much of her analysis is dated. When Orth explores Cunanan’s demimonde of meth, escorts, sugar daddies, and BDSM, it feels as though she’s unaware that this milieu isn’t representative of gay male culture as a whole.

Especially considering that Murphy—who is gay and has created some groundbreaking queer characters—has also been known to perpetuate the occasional homophobic stereotypes, the interplay between the book and the series is bound to give us plenty to discuss. At the very least, Vulgar Favors is handy for determining which parts of the show are confirmed fact and which are purely conjecture. (I’ll also be using Deborah Ball’s House of Versace, a breezy history of Gianni, his family, and the brand from 2010, along with a few other sources.)

I don’t want to call these recaps “fact checks,” though, because fiction doesn’t have any responsibility to stick to the official record. Instead, I’ll look at how the discrepancies between what Orth dug up and what Murphy depicts reveal the show’s real agenda. These pieces may take a different form from week to week, but since the premiere was mostly a reenactment of the crime and its immediate aftermath, we’ll start with some pretty basic background stuff.

July 15, 1997

Orth’s book ends with the death of Versace and the intensified hunt for Cunanan, who had already killed four men by the time he came to Miami Beach. American Crime Story begins with the murder and goes backward from there. It’s a promising approach, because the real suspense here is in the question of how the smart, charismatic, cultured young man we meet in flashbacks ended up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

The show sticks fairly close to the facts in recounting what happened on the day Gianni Versace (Édgar Ramírez) died. He really was returning home from an early-morning excursion to buy magazines when Andrew, played by Darren Criss in a performance that’s already riveting, gunned him down on the steps of his palatial home (more on that later). One bullet also killed a turtle dove—a symbol that initially led authorities to suspect a Mafia hit. While Versace’s longtime partner, Antonio D’Amico (Ricky Martin), stayed at the designer’s side, the couple’s neighbor Lazaro Quintana chased Andrew until Andrew pulled a gun on him. Versace was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he was declared dead at 9:21 AM.

Cops really did spot someone who matched Andrew’s description on the roof of a parking garage around the same time, but he escaped. (Orth doesn’t mention them tackling the wrong man.) It’s not clear what he was doing later that day, when police found the stolen red truck Andrew had abandoned, and he became the suspect. The scenes that show him changing into fresh clothes and watching gleefully as the media descends on Versace’s house aren’t just plausible; they underscore how easily Andrew blended in among the town’s gay beachgoers.

One character to keep an eye on is FBI agent Keith Evans (Jay R. Ferguson). The bureau was searching for Cunanan long before he killed Versace, and Evans was its man in Miami. Sadly, he was also inexperienced and unfamiliar with the city’s gay community. Sergeant Lori Wieder, the lesbian cop played by Dascha Polanco, wasn’t on the scene that day, but the officers who were there did find boxes of undistributed Wanted flyers in Evans’s trunk. The scene where the pawnshop owner complains to police about the legally mandated transaction form she’d filed a week earlier, which included Cunanan’s full name, is another embarrassing real-life detail. But the emphasis Murphy, who directed the episode, places on Evans’ neglect of his assignment is crucial, because it’s the first suggestion that law enforcement’s homophobia—its literal fear of engaging with gay men—contributed to its failure.

October 1990

Did Versace really know his killer? Well, sort of.

It’s true that Versace designed the costumes for a production of Capriccio at the San Francisco Opera, and stayed in the city during its run in 1990. At the time, Cunanan was living rent-free in Berkeley with his friend Liz Coté (Annaleigh Ashford), who Orth describes as a “rich and spacey debutante,” and her husband, Phil Merrill (Nico Evers-Swindell)—the couple we see in the flashback. A fixture in SF’s gay scene, Andrew met Versace at a club called Colossus. But, Orth reports, it was the designer who approached him: “I know you,” said Versace. “Lago di Como, no?” he asked, referring to his Italian lake house. It was, most likely, a flimsy pickup line. Andrew, who’d never been to Italy but had also never heard a flattering lie he couldn’t get behind, went along with it. On another night, Versace, Andrew, and a local playboy named Harry de Wildt were spotted together in a limo.

That dreamy encounter after the opera, though? It’s pure fantasy, although Andrew was known to lie about his Filipino father knowing Imelda Marcos, owning pineapple plantations and having a boyfriend. What’s important here is the conversation about Andrew’s future. “You are creative?” Versace asks, and his date answers in the affirmative. In fact, the only things Andrew ever created were fictions about himself, passed off as fact. (I won’t get too deep into that, because his lying is sure to come up later in the show.) “I’m sure you’re going to be someone really special one day,” says Versace. The distance between Andrew’s ambitions and the life he ended up with—as well as the reasons why he was such a failure—is going to be important.

The Family Business

The episode’s strangest divergence from the facts comes during the same scene. Versace explains the history of his company’s Medusa logo, recounting that he first spotted the image while playing in ruins as a child in Calabria. In fact, as Ball notes in House of Versace, he borrowed his logo from a door knocker at the Milan palazzo he bought in 1981. Perhaps we’re supposed to suspect Versace is a liar, too, but I’m inclined to believe the line is pure exposition, a hint of the designer’s humble beginnings that will soon become relevant to Andrew’s story.

Meanwhile, Versace’s mourning siblings/business partners, Donatella (Penélope Cruz) and Santo (Giovanni Cirfiera), provide some insight into the company’s status in 1997. Poor Cruz, normally a fantastic actress, has a thankless role (and a distracting accent) in this episode. All she does is sob, scream and provide dry background info that writer Tom Rob Smith doesn’t bother surrounding with believable human dialogue. For the record, it’s true that Santo, the oldest Versace sibling and the company’s most pragmatic voice, wanted to take the business public. And Gianni, after accepting a large dividend to subsidize his lavish lifestyle, agreed to do so. The plan was to make an initial public offering in the summer of 1998. It never happened. Two decades later, Gianni Versace S.p.A. remains a billion-dollar private company. None of this is particularly interesting, so here’s hoping it becomes relevant to the Cunanan story eventually!

Gianni Versace’s Fucking Insane House

There isn’t much art in this workmanlike premiere, but it does begin with a shot of the clouds painted over Versace’s bed that leads to a lovely, nearly wordless sequence contrasting Gianni’s civilized morning with Andrew’s primal scream. If you paid attention to the Renaissance-style art and the stained-glass windows and the gold accents and the massive tiled courtyard, it probably occurred to you that Versace’s home was totally off the wall. (“If Donald Trump had taste,” I said to myself, “this is what Mar-a-Lago would look like.”) Surely it was exaggerated for TV?

Actually, it was not. Built in 1930, Casa Casuarina, as the home was known, was inspired by Christopher Columbus’s son Diego’s residence in the Dominican Republic. In the courtyard of the 20,000-square-foot villa were busts of Columbus, Pocahontas, Mussolini, and Confucius (all of which Versace kept). After Versace bought the property in 1992, he spent a million dollars restoring it. An army of artists and artisans filled the place with murals, mosaics, and baroque furniture. Versace published a typically bizarre coffee-table book about his many bonkers properties in 1996, and in it you can find photos of the family frolicking poolside at Casa Casuarina alongside busy interiors and shots of naked men ironing. My favorite page shows a close-up of a burger, fries, and a milkshake served on gilded Versace china, atop an ornate gold table. America! If you can’t track down a copy, this Google Image search should give you an idea. Look, here’s a bare-assed dude with a lampshade over his head! See you next week!