Like its smash hit predecessor, “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is based upon a heavily reported book by a respected journalist. Veteran Vanity Fair correspondent Maureen Orth spent two years interviewing more than 400 people before writing “Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History.”
But, as Orth admitted in a podcast last week, “there are a few places [in the TV show] where things didn’t happen at all.”
“I understand that my book is ‘the basis for’ [the show]. My book is not a reenactment,” she told Vanity Fair’s “Still Watching: Versace.”
“So I understand it is their choice. Once they decide to base something on my book, they have artistic license to do certain things.”
That artistic license is exercised early and often in the show’s premiere, “The Man Who Would Be Vogue.” Near the beginning of the episode, a flashback shows the moment when Versace first met the man who would, seven years later, kill him. The show depicts Andrew Cunanan brashly introducing himself to the fashion mogul in the VIP area of a San Francisco nightclub.
“Have we met before?” Versace replies, annoyed. Cunanan then invents a story about them meeting at Versace’s house in Lago di Como, Italy.
“Yes, Lago di Como, that must be it,” says Versace, before Cunanan successfully draws him into conversation.
The scene is central to the season’s overall plot, establishing Cunanan as a con man who stalked Versace from the moment they met.
According to Orth’s book, however, the scene played out in reverse. Though Cunanan did lie to friends about his relationship with Versace, it was the designer who noticed Cunanan dancing inside the club and approached the younger man, before using one of his favorite pickup lines.
“I know you,” Versace said. “Lago di Como, no?”
If that scene is a stretch of the source material, then the next one threatens to tear Orth’s book to pieces.
Director Ryan Murphy shows Cunanan — chillingly played by “Glee” star Darren Criss — nervously preparing for a date with Versace. Cunanan attends a production of “Capriccio,” for which Versace created the costumes. After the opera ends, Cunanan meets Versace on stage and they share a glass of champagne, a revealing conversation, a caress and — the show implies — something more off-screen.
But the date didn’t happen, according to Orth.
“There is no doubt in my mind that those two met,” she said in the podcast. “Now, the first episode shows them having a date. I don’t know anything about that.”
Without the date, however, the TV show falls apart. Episodes two through eight follow Cunanan back in time in an attempt to explain how he ends up at Versace’s gate with a gun in his hand. “Along this same disordered timeline, the show wanly offers a story about Gianni and Donatella’s struggle to keep the House of Versace in the black,” writes Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever.
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is, therefore, a bit of a bait-and-switch. Trailers are heavy on shots of Edgar Ramírez as Gianni Versace, Ricky Martin as his lover Antonio D’Amico, and Penélope Cruz as Versace’s sister, Donatella. But the show — like the book it’s based on — is primarily concerned with Cunanan.
Take away the date — which serves to hold the two story lines together — and what readers are left with is a well-done but hard-to-watch psychological profile of a pathological liar turned serial killer.
Later episodes also rely on largely invented scenes.
Episode three, which Stuever calls “particularly good” and features brilliant acting by Judith Light, takes liberties with Cunanan’s murder of millionaire Lee Miglin.
“Whatever happened, there’s ample evidence that Lee Miglin’s killer never had to struggle with his victim or hurry through the crime,” Orth wrote in her book. “Could it be that Andrew was invited to spend the night there?”
That’s good enough for the show, which turns the question into a 12-minute scene suggesting Miglin frequently solicited Cunanan. (The Miglin family has always denied the two knew each other before the murder.)
Similarly, episode four, which follows Cunanan as he goes on the run with one of his victims, appears to be heavily fictionalized.
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace can’t rely on an exhaustively documented public record of legal maneuverings, as did American Crime Story’s premiere season, The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” Glen Weldon reports for NPR. “Instead, it blithely fabricates, spinning crucial passages of dialogue, climactic scenes, even entire episodes from whole cloth: Again and again, we watch two or more real-life figures who are now dead exchange information, share secrets, or confess their feelings for one another.”
These inventions are unfortunate, all the more so because the most shocking moments in the premiere really did happen.
One of the bullets that claimed Versace really did also kill a dove.
The dead bird was found lying next to the designer’s body, and detectives initially mistook it as a message left behind after a mafia hit, according to Orth and other reporters.
Authorities really did miss numerous chances to catch Cunanan — something alluded to in the first episode when an FBI agent opens his car trunk, revealing FBI Most Wanted posters of Cunanan that were never distributed.
And the scene outside the Versace mansion really did become a circus, as bystanders really did flaunt outrageous outfits for the cameras, collect Versace’s blood and hawk photos of his body to the tabloids for $30,000.
“Shortly after the shooting, which occurred about 9 a.m. on busy Ocean Drive, the beachside park across the street from Versace’s palatial residence was jammed with the panoply of beach denizens — artists, models, weightlifters and beach bums — who arrived on skates, bicycles and scooters,” reported The Post’s Donald P. Baker. “Some of them wore or carried a variety of animals, from reptiles to birds, including a monkey named Chipper on a lime-green chain and a bejeweled Chihuahua named Nina in a bike basket.”
“Within minutes of the shooting, the first media trucks rolled up to the Versace mansion,” Orth wrote. “The first profiteer had already raced home for his Polaroid camera upon seeing Versace’s body laid out on the Casa Casuarina steps, and was only able to make it back in time to get a shot of the designer’s bare feet sticking out of the ambulance.”
“Inevitably, there also was one ghoulish souvenir gatherer,” reported the Miami Herald, “A man used pictures of Versace fashions torn from a magazine to sop the blood left behind when firefighters washed off the steps with a hose.”
It’s these vivid, historically accurate scenes that will immediately transport viewers back to 1997. Sadly, there aren’t enough of them.