The Fourth Episode of 'The Assassination of Gianni Versace' Isn't as Legit as It Seems
What's real and what's fake in the latest installment of the 'American Crime Story' series?
Here’s what we know about David Madson’s life in the days leading up to his murder: On Friday, April 25, 1997, Andrew Cunanan took a one-way flight from his home in San Diego to Minneapolis to visit his old friend Jeff Trail and former boyfriend Madson. Although Madson wasn’t thrilled to see Cunanan, the young architect did reluctantly host his ex at his loft.
They were spotted at restaurants, bars, and clubs, but after dinner on Saturday, they parted ways. Trail, who had no desire to spend time with Cunanan, had left town with his boyfriend and invited Cunanan to stay in his empty room Saturday night. While it’s not clear whether Cunanan slept at Trail’s place, he was there Sunday morning and back at Madson’s the same evening. At nine that night, Trail got in his car to meet Cunanan at a coffee shop. By 10 PM, Trail was dead.
The coffee shop meetup hadn’t happened, so Trail had come to Madson’s building. Evidence suggests Cunanan killed his friend almost immediately after his arrival, landing his first blow with the door open. It’s possible Madson was home at the time, but in Vulgar Favors, the book this season of American Crime Story is based on, author Maureen Orth judges it “unlikely.” He didn’t show up for work Monday; a neighbor saw two men, one of whom appeared to be Madson, walking a dog that could have been Madson’s on Tuesday morning. The same day, concerned that he’d neither come in to the office nor called in sick, two women Madson knew through work knocked on his door. One thought she heard whispers.
An hour after another neighbor spotted Cunanan and a distraught-looking Madson approaching the building, the women returned with the lofts’ caretaker, opened the door, found the body, saw that the apartment was empty, and called the police. Because his acquaintances knew Madson was gay—and because Cunanan had left a bag containing gay porn videos, steroids, and bullets—Sergeant Bob Tichich’s first guess was that Madson was the victim, and the crime was “a gay thing.”
As Trail’s parents learned of his death (and, then, his homosexuality), Cunanan and Madson were on the run. On May 3, two fisherman in rural Chisago County, Minnesota, found Madson’s body near East Rush Lake. He’d been shot three times with a gun Cunanan had stolen from Trail, and sustained defensive wounds. It’s unclear how long Madson lived; Orth pokes holes in a coroner’s report that puts his date of death at May 2 and debunks a bar owner’s claim to have served Madson and Cunanan that afternoon. The sighting turned out to have happened on April 27, and the two men who visited the bar were, in all likelihood, an entirely different gay couple.
All of which is to say that most of last night’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace episode, “House by the Lake,” was invented by writer Tom Rob Smith. Which is fine! There’s nothing wrong with a docudrama using some artistic license. And in the case of this episode, many of the choices must have been made out of necessity—much of the hour finds Andrew and David alone, and two dead men can’t exactly go on record about their road trip.
So: Did Andrew purposely leave his porn stash at David’s loft? Were they on the road together for several days? Once they left Minneapolis, did Andrew intend for them to go to Chicago and then Mexico together? Did the plan unravel when David started poking holes in Andrew’s Natural Born Killers fantasy? The answer to all of these questions—not to mention the one about the scene where Aimee Mann covers The Cars’ “Drive” at a roadhouse—is “We don’t have the faintest clue.”
In keeping with the show’s running theme, Smith constructs a story about homophobia and the way Andrew uses it to manipulate another gay man. When David tries to call the police, Andrew convinces him that they’d see him as a perpetrator, too. “They hate us, David,” he says. “You’re a fag.” He’s not entirely wrong: the cops really do assume David’s queerness has something to do with the murder, and that Jeff’s body is initially presumed to be David’s and that David, not Andrew, becomes a suspect when police see he’s not the corpse—both of which really happened—imply that the straight world saw these gay men as virtually interchangeable.
The line between the crime of murder and the crime of homosexuality (sodomy didn’t become legal across the United States until 2003) blurs. When the fugitives leave a rest stop, with Andrew’s arm slung over David’s shoulder, a woman gives them a dirty look. David is convinced that she recognizes them as wanted criminals, but the implication is that she was simply revolted to see two gay men. Before and after that encounter, David has plenty of opportunities to escape. He and Andrew walk the dog together before leaving Minneapolis. They stop at restaurants. But David only tries to bolt when he’s alone, by the side of the highway or in the bathroom of the roadhouse, even when Andrew’s behavior becomes more threatening. The big question surrounding Madson’s murder is: Why didn’t he run? As Smith imagines it, he was more afraid of putting himself at the mercy of a homophobic world than he was of a known killer.
David’s fear of his own difference is echoed in the moment when he comes out to his father. He can only summon the courage to do it after winning a prestigious academic award, and though his dad tells David, “I love you more than I love my own life,” he also reiterates that his son’s lifestyle doesn’t jibe with his own beliefs and that the revelation does, in fact, change something about their relationship. (The stuff about David’s close relationship with his family is true, by the way.) You can imagine a lifetime of interactions like this convincing someone that, if even his adoring family sees him as somehow “other,” he had no chance pleading his case to police.
It’s a well-constructed episode. The conversations between Andrew and David are rich with psychological subtext, and even if Smith sometimes states the obvious, he’s careful not to repeat it too often. Actor Cody Fern plays David, by all accounts a kind, talented, and hardworking guy, with heartbreaking sensitivity. Each episode of Versace has had a slightly different feel, and this one was a psychological thriller. From the claustrophobic shots of hallways to the bleak, low-lit, industrial interiors of David’s loft to multiple scenes where Andrew startles him—and us—by appearing as if out of nowhere, it’s eerie from beginning to end.
But I'm kind of frustrated by the liberties it takes with David Madson’s life. He’s painted as a sympathetic character, sure, but is placing him in the loft at the time of Jeff Trail’s murder, when he most likely was not there, absolutely necessary? How about framing him as stupid enough to get back in the car, after the ill-fated diner pit stop, with a killer he’d just read as hard as Jeff once had? What was the point of that moment, in the elevator, when David nervously tells Jeff (who, in real life, spent most of the weekend with his boyfriend), “He knows about us”?
Of course Smith has a right to fictionalize. Even so, Madson wasn’t a public figure like Gianni Versace or Lee Miglin, and I felt sick thinking of how those scenes would look to his family and friends. So I’ll leave you with a quote from Bridget Read’s review of Versace for Vogue, which perfectly sums up my conflicted feelings on “House by the Lake”: “We don’t have to hold all creative works about real-life suffering to the standards of what would hurt or offend surviving family members, but after watching a fictional Cunanan—whose real-life counterpart craved perhaps nothing so much as the type of fame bestowed by a prestige TV series—sadistically torture and humiliate his victims in fine detail, it’s hard not to feel like maybe we should.”
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