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‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace’ Went Out with a Bang

The 'American Crime Story' season ended with a warning.

by Judy Berman
Mar 22 2018, 6:02pm

What’s more embarrassing for the FBI—that they couldn’t find Andrew Cunanan in the three months between his first killing and the murder of Gianni Versace, or that they still couldn’t catch him after he shot a celebrity in broad daylight?

Either way, the second season of American Crime Story would’ve been very different if Cunanan had lived to tell his story. Maureen Orth’s Vulgar Favors offers as complete an account of his life and death as seems possible, but she—and we—can never know exactly why Versace was his ultimate target, or what was going through his mind as he picked off each of his five victims. As writer Tom Rob Smith has observed, Cunanan is “this kind of vortex, a dark abyss. Once he starts killing people, he crosses a line, and he isn’t really human in a way that we understand.”

As a result, while The People v. O.J. Simpson could stick close to the facts, The Assassination of Gianni Versace was, like Orth’s book, necessarily fleshed out with conjectures. Its finale, “Alone,” gets the gist of Andrew’s last gasp right: On July 23, 1997, eight days after killing Versace, Cunanan put a gun in his mouth and fired. His presence on a two-story houseboat in Miami Beach was first noticed by its caretaker, Fernando Carreira. (The vessel’s owner and his possible connection to Cunanan is a different story.) When he saw that the curtains were drawn, Carreira grabbed his gun and started searching, but left when he heard a gunshot. Police and news teams soon swarmed the area. By the time the cops ended the standoff, entered the boat and found the place littered with copies of magazines like Vogue, Cunanan was dead.

What we don’t know is how Cunanan spent the final week of his life. Did he try to escape from Miami? Did he follow the news about him and Versace on multiple televisions at once? Did he resort to eating dog food? We have no idea. Did he really speak to his father? Apparently not, although Pete did hope to make a movie about his son—and accept thousands of dollars to appear on TV, where his primary concern seemed to be denying Andrew’s homosexuality.

Police fielded various tips as to his whereabouts, almost all of them unhelpful. On July 16, the owner of a sailboat anchored not far from the houseboat reported a break-in. Orth reports, “He found old pita bread and newspapers open to stories of the Versace killing, including Versace’s hometown paper, Milan’s Corriere Della Sera. He also saw a man resembling Cunanan sitting on a bench nearby reading a navigational guide book that he later realized had been taken from his boat.” But no forensic evidence was ever recovered. The FBI’s manhunt was a failure on every count.

Despite some moments of doubt, the last two episodes of Versace have, as far as I’m concerned, cemented the season as a worthy successor to O.J. First of all, the acting was superb, from Darren Criss’s lead performance to the many great recurring roles. And it was nice to see Judith Light, Ricky Martin, Dascha Polanco, Annaleigh Ashford, and Joanna P. Adler (who plays Andrew’s mom) one last time, in an episode that elegantly checked in with all of the people affected by Andrew’s rampage. But the best scene in “Alone” was Max Greenfield’s return as Ronnie, Cunanan's friend in Miami. “You were disgusted by [Andrew] long before he became disgusting,” he tells police interrogators, in a sharp indictment of societal homophobia. “Andrew’s not hiding—he’s trying to be seen.”

This seems to sum up Smith’s ultimate argument: In a world that Cunanan's high school classmates were so sure he’d make an indelible impact on, some combination of selfishness, laziness, lying, egomania, self-delusion, a chaotic family, homophobia, classism, and racism rendered him invisible. That invisibility both catalyzed his murder spree—a last, desperate attempt to matter—and ensured that it was able to continue for so long. Smith resists the temptation to “humanize” Cunanan or justify his behavior, but he doesn’t excuse society as a whole from the role it played in making him the monster that he finally became, either. The season’s final shot, which fixes on Cunanan's plaque at the mausoleum before pulling back to show that his is just one among hundreds of identical vaults, is a perfect rejoinder to his longing to be special.

What we're left with is the uncomfortable certainty that American Crime Story rescued Cunanan from the dustbin of history—and that he would’ve been thrilled to know that there would be a whole season of TV devoted to him more than 20 years after his death. On the other hand, the ongoing American Dream narrative, which used everyone from David Madson to Lee Miglin to Gianni Versace to imply that we live in a meritocracy and the only thing standing between Andrew and success was his allergy towards work, was the season's weakest note. If you understand race and class in America, you know that the reality is a bit more complicated than that.

Anyway! Let’s not make this all about Cunanan. Before we close the curtain on this fascinating story, let’s do a final check-in with the major characters who resurfaced in the finale.

Elizabeth Coté

Cunanan’s longtime friend and former benefactor did, in fact, go on TV to implore him to turn himself in. Her plea, which was more or less identical to the one that appears in the episode, was released the same day Cunanan died. The line where she says, “I know that the most important thing to you in the world is what others think of you,” comes straight out of the real statement. Coté later consulted on a TV movie about Cunanan that never came to be.

Marilyn Miglin

I covered most of Marilyn Miglin’s life, post-Lee, in an earlier recap, but suffice it to say that she put herself back together pretty quickly. She brought her son, Duke, in on the real-estate and cosmetics businesses, before forcing the sale of Lee’s company and remarrying in the fall of 1998. To this day, the family denies that Lee and Duke had any connection to Andrew.

Ronnie

Even though Andrew had written down Ronnie’s room number on his pawnshop form, subjecting his friend to a terrifying encounter with a SWAT team, Ronnie covered for Andrew, claiming not to recognize him in a photo.

MaryAnn Cunanan

When Orth spoke to MaryAnn for Vulgar Favors, she was living in a one-bedroom bungalow in National City, with a memorial garden for Andrew outside. She still didn’t believe he killed Versace (although she did acknowledge that he probably killed the other four victims). A few months after Andrew’s death, between making multiple paid appearances on newsmagazine shows, she attempted suicide.

Modesto "Pete" Cunanan

Pete remained in the Philippines throughout his son’s ordeal—Orth reports that he hadn’t visited the States since his departure in 1988—making an unsuccessful case that Andrew’s cremated remains should be shipped to him and that he should have control of Andrew’s estate, such as it was. He also remarried, hunted for gold bullion that he believed Japan had left in the Philippines at the end of World War II, and joined a New Age cult called Church Universal and Triumphant.

Antonio D’Amico

As the Versace portion of the finale suggests, Antonio got a rough deal after Gianni died. He spent August of 1997 with Elton John and his partner, David Furnish, in France. Back at work in the fall, Donatella ignored him. And though Gianni had stipulated in his will that Antonio should have a monthly allowance and access to his homes, it turned out that those residences were owned by the company. So, Antonio settled with the Versaces for a lump sum and an apartment. He left the company’s atelier, in January 1998, in the company of a security guard. The scene where Antonio tries to kill himself is, unfortunately, true. But, as of 2017, he was living in the Italian countryside with a new partner and his own line of golf clothing.

Donatella Versace

There’s no mystery surrounding Donatella’s life after Gianni’s murder—she’s been a celebrity, the subject of ridicule and a designer in her own right ever since. Although she struggled at first, with grief, with cocaine addiction, with her daughter Allegra’s anorexia, and with finding her voice, Donatella got clean and started making smart hires in 2005. By now, she’s kept the brand afloat for over two decades. “Now,” she said in a fascinating Guardian interview from 2017, “I feel like the death of my brother made me strong. But for a long time it was a trauma.”

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