American Crime Story Does The Hustle
The show goes back in time with two perspectives on sex and death -- and Sarah D. Bunting nerds out on the production design -- in our recap of 'Manhunt.'
March 1994, Miami. An unsteady Gianni, wearing sunglasses and with his hoodie up, is helped down a hospital hallway by Antonio. He pauses when he sees the room at the end of the hall, and its inhabitants: two frail-looking men, apparently receiving transfusions. The doctor from the previous episode approaches and murmurs, "There are no journalists here." Gianni removes his hood and shades as he's told in VO, "There are drugs; the therapies are complex, difficult. But there are options."
We cut then to Gianni and Antonio and the doctor in her office, but before Gianni talks about his other sister, let's…just get into it with The AIDS Rumor, which if I understand correctly is the Versace family's primary objection to American Crime Story. The show to this point has taken pains not to identify Gianni's malady, I imagine primarily to avoid a lawsuit, but also possibly in part to create a meta conversation about what viewers might presume is -- and what law enforcement did presume was -- afflicting a gay man. I think it's Richard Lawson in last week's episode of the Still Watching: Versace podcast who notes that the mid- to late nineties marked the end of the period in the culture in which every story about gay men centered around HIV/AIDS, or at least dwelt in the shadow of the disease. And if this is the diagnosis that Gianni received in 1994, we hadn't quite gotten to the point with the cocktail and various other advances in treatment where we thought of AIDS as a manageable chronic condition; we didn't quite think of it as an absolute death sentence the way we had even five years prior, but the odds still weren't great.
Those odds had improved somewhat by the time Gianni was killed -- but this was not widely understood, and if I'm not mistaken the family was determined to keep the diagnosis secret, if only for business reasons, so they went with a cover story about a "rare ear cancer" that had a cheerier prognosis and nothing to do with Gianni's sexuality (and with which the doctor's bromides above would dovetail), so as not to upset the investor herd before the IPO. The family also made sure to retrieve Gianni's body extremely quickly from the M.E.'s office, and had it cremated just as quickly, no doubt motivated by the same fear that his actual condition might become public. It can be a little hard to plug into this particular strain of paranoia here in 2018, but if you lived through the eighties…my God, the contortions public figures would go through, felt they had to go through (and were not wrong), to deny that they were ill or that it was AIDS. Freddie Mercury in particular, it just became the only thing anyone had to say about him despite his repeated denials. (I love that he wouldn't give the press the satisfaction until literally the day before he died. "Fine: it's AIDS. Happy now? Great. BYE BITCHES.") And what was his other choice? Admit it, and then on top of facing the end, he's got to do it in the corner, heaped up with judgment. What a grimy and unjust way for the world to do Freddie after everything he gave it.
This is, then, what the Versace family wanted to avoid, and I get it. I guess I get it still continuing 20 years later, their rigid refusal to engage with this reality, because who knows what clauses lurk in various partnership agreements about transparency or due diligence or whatever. Not that I wouldn't get behind a "yeah, he had AIDS, and it was ONE THING about the guy so fuck off" attitude, because duh, but: this is where it is right now. Where the show is, I think, is implying as strongly as it possibly can without opening the network to a full-court libel press that Gianni Versace had received an AIDS diagnosis, and because 1) I think this is likely and 2) it speaks to the larger story, to Andrew Cunanan's story, and to the time in which we find their stories, this is how I will also proceed. End sidebar. "Thank God." Yeah, wait 'til I start getting granular about mint marks. You'll long for the halcyon days of this paragraph.
Okay, so: back to the doctor's office. Gianni relates that, before Donatella was born, his older sister Tina became very ill with peritonitis. His parents sent him to live with an aunt and uncle, but he got homesick and ran all the way home -- to find his sister in an open casket, "surrounded by white flowers." Nobody told him she had died. "Until that moment I believed that if you get sick, you can also get better," he says grimly, and: see above. The line makes more sense if you don't think he's talking about ear cancer, no?
Back at the manse, Antonio tucks Gianni into a big sleigh bed. Donatella comes in to stroke Gianni's forehead, and tells Antonio she needs to talk to Gianni. She takes his hands in hers and they look at each other before she quavers, "What is Versace without you?" It will be you, he tells her. "What am I without you?" "You will find out," he smiles. She lies on his chest and he strokes her hair.
In the hallway outside, as Donatella is rummaging through her handbag for a Morley (hee), Antonio half-asks, half-states, "You blame me?" Next to a pointedly Callipygian statue on the same table as her handbag
Donatella asks if Gianni wasn't enough for Antonio -- he had to have more men, more fun, and Gianni went along with him. Antonio says Gianni "chose to," but Donatella corrects him: Gianni chose Antonio, and went along because of Antonio. "I am not a villain," Antonio sighs, adding that Gianni isn't a saint. "My brother has a weakness for beauty; he forgives it anything," Donatella says, putting on her jacket and turning to face Antonio. "But I am not my brother." No shit, Antonio says, but Donatella isn't done, asking why Antonio didn't give Gianni a family when he knew Gianni wanted one. "Because we're not allowed!" Antonio duhs. Donatella snarks that he could have found a way. She's heading out when Antonio explodes -- fairly quietly; they're still outside Gianni's sickroom -- that he's always been there for her; what has she ever done besides belittle him, and Gianni for choosing him? She whirls around: what has Antonio given Gianni -- safety? stability? kids? She'd respect him if he'd given Gianni anything, but he's given him nothing.
Gianni and Antonio walk on the beach. Gianni says that, before, he could channel negative emotions into creating; now, he's too sick. He starts to have an anxiety attack, saying he just wants to get "out of me."
At the villa, Donatella, her arm party of huge gold bracelets, and her pork-roast-sized flip phone are smoking on the steps when the men return. She takes Gianni's hand; he turns to face them both and announces that he won't get through this if they can't be a family. He goes inside. Antonio glares flatly at Donatella from behind his shades. She is chastened enough to look away.
July 16, 1997. It's nighttime. Rain sprinkles the impromptu shrine that has sprung up outside the villa's front gates. Donatella watches from inside, weeping. She's heading further back into the house, past where Antonio is half-lounging in that same anteroom, and Antonio tries to get her to talk to him, but she's like, Gianni's dead, we don't have to pretend anymore, and closes the bedroom door.
A mortician places a picture of Gianni next to him on the slab, and begins filling in the wound in his face and a scrape on his shoulder. As he's being made up, Donatella comes into the courtyard, sunglasses on, and turns to look at the house, and specifically the balcony of Gianni's room. Then, shielded by umbrellas, she runs the gantlet of flashbulbs and gets into a car.
At a funeral parlor, Donatella approaches Gianni's open casket. A crucifix is pointedly affixed to the inside of the lid. She slowly draws her sunglasses off and stares, fear flickering across her face. Penelope Cruz looks very young in this shot. An attendant behind her unzips a suit bag; cut to Donatella carefully zhuzhing the lapels and the necktie on Gianni in the casket. Once he's ready, Donatella's face crumples as she looks down at him. She bends down to kiss him and continues to cry, murmuring in Italian.
The casket is pushed into the crematory oven.
Gianni's ashes are carefully transferred to a baggie, which is affixed with a golden tag reading "GMV." The baggie is put in a box and sealed with diplomatic-pouch tape.
The box is put into a gold ornamental urn, topped with flowers, and carried onto the family's private jet by Santo, where Donatella sits next to it and says through tears, "After everything he survived -- to be killed like this."
After the title card, we're in May of 1997. Cunanan is driving the red pickup through Florence, SC. He pulls into a mall to find some South Carolina plates to steal, and as he's affixing them to the truck, he notices a girl watching him. He arranges his face into what he thinks is a cheery smile. The girl isn't having it.
He lets the smile melt off, chucks the old plates in the truckbed, and pulls out, powering up with some Oreos and milk and dialing around on the radio. After sampling some country tunes and a bulletin about the murder of Lee Miglin -- in which he is named as a suspect -- he comes upon Laura Branigan's "Gloria," which is just the thing, especially the line "If everybody wants you / why isn't anybody callin'." He bellows that one out the window, and as my esteemed colleague Tara Ariano noted on The Blotter Presents last week, this is quite a performance of mediocre car-singing from an actor known for his, you know, singing. But he's really feeling himself as he bellows along, past a sign reading "Miami 650"…
…and Ms. Branigan carries us into a helicopter shot of the Miami beachfront, the Versace villa, and Cunanan speeding into town in the pickup. At the Normandy Plaza hotel, Cunanan walks past Ronnie -- the guy they found in his room at the end of the premiere -- smoking sketchily on the front lanai and into the lobby, where a tacko portrait of Marilyn over a fake mantel seems to tell him he's in the right place. When a desk clerk finally appears, Cunanan makes a big show of saying he doesn't have a reservation, but maybe they might have a room for him anyway? She's like, it's an SRO, Blanche; chill. Cunanan gives her a French passport as ID that says he's Kurt DuMarrs, and starts blathering on about how he was born in Nice and she should visit sometime, and he came all the way to Miami to talk to Gianni Versace because he's a poor fashion student, and blah blah some outfit of Carla Bruni's with a gold belt, I don't even know. But somewhere in there he charms the desk clerk.
Less charming: the room itself. The common areas of the motel don't look so bad, but the interior hallways and the rooms: Wayne Grotsky.
Literally nothing is going to show dirt and fingerprint grease like that institutional pink. But Cunanan seems unbothered, and starts unloading his backpack right onto the jizzfest that is the room's comforter, like, did we not all know not to do that yet by 1997? I feel like we did. Mostly this is so we see the gun again, which is pointless telegraphing of something that…already happened, but Cunanan heads over to the villa and marches up to the front gate and tries the front door. It's locked, doy, but Cunanan looks a little angry, and also a little confused, like he expected his imaginary future friend Gianni to have left it open for him.
The next morning, Cunanan buys a disposable camera (kids, ask your parents) and a ball cap and sunglasses at a kiosk, which is also displaying the "MADMAN!" cover of Sports Illustrated devoted to Mike Tyson chomping Evander Holyfield's ear. Cute -- and it places us around the Fourth of July, 1997, as the coverline on that issue is 7/7/97. Cunanan heads back to the front gates and snaps several pictures of them and the house, then stares creepily into the eyes of the Medusa on the front door. Later, he carefully lays the developed pictures out in front of him in a grid, the same way he did the magazines last time, but the spell is broken when he reaches for his wallet and finds only three dollars inside.
The FBI agents are briefing Dets. Luke and Bitchface on Cunanan's greatest hits (as it were). Bitchface isn't clear on why they assume he's in Miami, versus L.A. or San Diego; Agent Stan non-answers that they working under the assumption that he's headed to the 305. Bitchface justifies her moniker:
But I'm calling her Det. Lori from now on because WTF, FBI. Luke gives her a "fuckin' feds" brow pop, but they try to help, as Lori runs down the local gay hotspots on a city map and offers to give the Fibbies a tour. What she gets in return is some Agent Stansplaining, as he condescendingly tells her that she hasn't read the case file, but Cunanan isn't going to follow a pattern she can predict; he's a "predatory escort," so he'll be targeting older, closeted guys -- who tend to hang in Fort Lauderdale, not Miami. Lori's like, okaaaaay so but don't you want to even canvass South Beach, hand out some flyers? The agents shrug that they only have ten flyers printed right now, and anyway, they "aren't a priority for us." "That's certainly clear," Lori mutters, and starts making black-and-white photocopies her own self. She pins one to the middle of the bulletin board.
Cunanan returns to his room and, despairing of the crappy side-alley view from his window, rehearses his pitch to Desk Clerk to switch rooms to an ocean view. Naturally, it's obnoxiously glib and contains a reference to Cap Ferrat, but the mojo he worked on her earlier sustains itself, and soon he's sauntering out onto his balcony and surveying his domain, Gianni-style. He locks eyes with Ronnie, kibitzing down on the sidewalk…
…then too-casually cruises down to the front lanai and introduces himself as Andy.
Max Greenfield's whatever face here is everything, hee. Ronnie overheard the clerk call "Andy" "Kurt." Cunanan snappishly asks what she calls Ronnie, then. But despite this bitchy beginning, when Cunanan asks if Ronnie knows where to score, Ronnie seems to oblige. They walk down the street, Ronnie sighing that he doesn't "do this kind of work" anymore: "Look at me." Greenfield looks fairly fit here, but thin, and is styled scruffily and moving somewhat listlessly, so the inference we're supposed to draw is apparently the same one Cunanan does, as he launches into a monologue about how he used to work at an AIDS outreach center in San Diego. He denies being sick himself, but he might admit it to Ronnie if he were; Ronnie doesn't tell most people, because they freak out. He came close to dying a few years back, he goes on, but then they "handed [him] these magic pills," and he had his life back…but he didn't know what to do with it, so he came to Miami, to be by the ocean. Cunanan's witty-repartee face has fallen by the time Ronnie asks if he has lost anyone. "Lost my best friend. And the love of my life," Cunanan says, failing to clarify that he killed them, but we'll get to it. "Recently?" Ronnie asks. "This year." "Both of them?" Ronnie presses, likely thinking that in eighty-seven, to lose two of your closest people to the virus would track, but in ninety-seven it's a little more unusual, particularly given that Cunanan says he's not HIV+.
Ronnie doesn't push it, but as Cunanan takes a whore bath at a beachside shower station and brags about knowing Versace -- with a name-droppy reference to an It restaurant in San Fran clearly memorized from a Vanity Fair or similar -- Ronnie makes a series of "…k" faces. There's been some discussion on the forums about Criss's choices here -- that you don't really see the charm the real Cunanan was evidently famous for. But you also don't see the somewhat squashy physical presentation of the real Cunanan, for which the charm was supposed to make up in a world that prized a hyper-toned physique; what you do see is the way the social contract tends to paper over outré or awkwardly meretricious behavior like Cunanan's, which in the larger context of "how was this 'allowed' to happen" is effective.
Anyway, Ronnie does manage not to burst out laughing at the idea that a guy who's one step up from homeless was proposed to by Gianni Versace at any point, as Cunanan claims. Ronnie says Gianni's very popular "out here," very friendly, though Ronnie's not into his clothes. "That's because you don't know him," Cunanan snips. Ronnie's like, well, I can look at the shop windows and form an opinion, but Cunanan isn't having it and takes Ronnie to school on Gianni's invention of Oroton. That is pretty cool, but Cunanan is way too intense about it for get-to-know-you small talk with a guy he just met: "I see the man behind it. A great creator. The man I coulda been." Ronnie cocks a brow: "Been with." That seems to snap Cunanan out of it somewhat, but then he lifts his face to the spray while the piano does a V.C. Andrews kind of a thing, like, we get it.
On the beach, Cunanan locks eyes with an older gent, then gets up, telling Ronnie that he shouldn't worry about money, he'll split "this" with Ronnie fifty-fifty. He emphasizes that he takes care of his friends: "That's always been important to me." Ronnie doesn't know what to say, and I have a couple of suggestions, but Ronnie's Spidey sense probably kiboshed "we just met, Galahad, settle down" as possibly triggering Braggy Carmichael. Cunanan heads over to the gent and completes the pick-up. Ronnie watches speculatively.
Back at the gent's room, Cunanan gets kind of weird about how many times the guy's "done this before -- two, three?" and then asks how many people work for him, "in business." Five thousand worldwide, he's told, and makes this face
but apparently that's the gent's kink, as he breathes that he can be submissive. "You have no idea," Cunanan informs him, and then we're hearing "Easy Lover" as Cunanan straddles the guy and carefully swathes his entire head in duct tape. Once the last airway is covered, he leans in with that Starman look of scientifically curious remove: "You're helpless. Accept it." He dismounts, cranks the music, and fondles various items on the dresser as the gent struggles. "Accept it," he says. "Accept it!" He fan-dances around the room as the taped-up gent gets more and more agitated, and the music seems to get steadily louder; this is shot very effectively, as I also began to get agitated on the guy's behalf.
Cunanan approaches the bed, holding a pair of surgical scissors and regarding the guy with a mixture of curiosity and lust, then hops onto him, whispers, "Last chance," and finally plunges the scissors through the tape over the gent's mouth when the gent follows his direction and submits.
Later, Cunanan tucks into some expensive room-service filet and lobster. At the door, the gent whispers to the waiter to come back in half an hour, "for the trays," then backs away from the door and the end of the bed where Cunanan is perched, stuffing his piehole and making up some story about his mom packing lobster in his school lunches. All the other kids had PB&J, and "there I was with my little sachet of cracked pepper, all wrapped up like a gram of cocaine." Cool story, bro. He polishes off a glass of champagne, locks eyes with the gent, drops the flute on the floor with a clunk, and departs without another word. The gent can't wait to throw the bolt, fish his ring out of the ashtray, and call 9-1-1, but when he's asked what his emergency is, the gent is too weighed down by his wedding band to go through with it and hangs up.
Back from commercial, it's "back to life, back to reality" with the opening strains of the Soul II Soul hit, and wow, I actually missed this song. Like, it was ehhhhhh-verywhere for a while and I never thought I would feel "oh yeah, you!" about it, but I do. Pity about the context, which is July 6, 1997, and we're backstage at a fashion show, where Gianni is complaining that the models Antonio hired "look ill." This seems like an anachronism to me, so if Gianni actually was at the forefront of pulling back from anorexic waifs, hit me in the comments. Certainly Donatella has taken some shelling in the not-at-all-distant past for using runway talent who looked dangerously underweight. And here she is now, cutting past the models standing around outside smoking and into the dressing room, where she asks them to give her the room: "I need to talk to my brother." Maybe take him aside, then? It's…the dressing room and they're working?
Donatella tries to head him off all "you agreed to try them," but Gianni's like, my models should look like they eat, have cocktails, fuck, enjoy life -- "What do these girls enjoy?" "Front covers?" Donatella says pointedly, going on that "everyone" is talking about Galliano and McQueen and what they're doing next. Gianni, standing next to a carefully hung card with Shalom Harlow's name on it,
doesn't want to guess trends. His designs have to come from his heart first. The debate continues, Donatella saying he's gotten too predictable, too "known," blah blah blah. Like they'd really get into this 1) minutes before the walking starts, 2) in English instead of Italian. Point is, Gianni's celebrating the miracle of his return to health, and doesn't want to do the "stark and morbid" runway Donatella prefers. Donatella freshens her contouring and rolls her eyes as Gianni describes the "Versace bride" who is not dainty and pure, but proud to have loved many before choosing the one man for her. She's kind of won over by his enthusiasm by the end, though, only correcting him that it's their show, not his.
Backstage, Donatella peeks out and looks worried as the runway looks -- proceeding down what looks like a ramp placed over Gianni's own pool -- are greeted with polite applause. The applause gathers in strength, and when the bride comes out, the response is what Gianni predicted. Donatella shakes her head and throws him a "yeah, okay" thumbs-up.
Cut to Ronnie procuring drugs for himself and Cunanan. They smoke crack together as a breeze stirs the vertical blinds, and Ronnie gets the high giggles, but Cunanan is broody, and goes into the bathroom to start wrapping his own head in duct tape. Outside the door, Ronnie says he used to be a florist, and he was thinking of starting a little flower pop-up, a two-man operation: "You and me." They get along well enough, no? And anything's better than working that beach, right? "…Andy?"
"I'm gonna take a shower," Cunanan says affectlessly. "Me too, with lye, in a different time zone," Ronnie does not say, going with "Yeah, a-a shower, why not?" He perches worriedly on the end of the bed, smoking and staring at the bathroom door. I would say it's a good thing he can't see the other side,
but if nothing else about Cunanan has moved the needle to Hell No for Ronnie, I doubt a crazy wall would do it either. Cunanan unwraps his head, somehow pulling out zero hair in the process, and stares at himself in the mirror.
When he emerges, apparently not having showered after all, he starts dressing silently. After a moment, Ronnie asks as gently as possible, "Andrew? What'd you do?" "Nothing," he says, still staring at himself, but in the mirror over the chest of drawers this time. "I've done nothing my whole life. And that's the truth." Ronnie looks sad for him and holds up the pipe: "We're out." "I'll get more," Cunanan says, going for "soothing half-smile" and landing on "nauseated volcano."
Gianni is lost in sketching thought in his bedroom as, on the bed, Antonio canoodles with a third guy. He hops out to tell Gianni to join them. Distractedly Gianni says he'll be right there. Antonio strips off his undies and hops back into bed with the guy. Gianni looks at them making out with an expression of contentment, then returns to sketching.
The next day, Gianni finishes a lap and fetches up on Antonio's legs at the end of the pool. Antonio muses that he doesn't "want this" anymore; he wants Gianni, to marry Gianni. Gianni smiles that Antonio says it in the morning: "Can you say it in the evening?" He swims away. Antonio bites his lip and wisely doesn't argue the point.
Cunanan heads into the pawn shop to hock the gold coin. Pawn Star Cathy asks where he got it. He says it's a remarkable story. Good save. I'll spare you the coin-nerd background, but I wonder if a pawnbroker with any experience shouldn't have known based on the coin in question that said story involved a felony; it's a Saint-Gaudens double eagle -- one of those coins that will look familiar even to people who don't know anything about coins, which is basically everyone. The prop here has a "mint mark" that says "COPY," which I also find amusing. …Right, nobody cares, sorry! Anyway, as she's weighing the coin, she checks her most-wanted posters; Cunanan, who's filling out the forms with his real name and address, isn't among them.
He's out walking later when he sees a queen serving Donatella realness rattling the front gates of the estate and begging "Johnny" to let her in. A security guard notes that the real Donatella has a key, and Gianni comes out on the balcony all "enough already, kid" -- "big kiss for you, but I cannot let you in, one is enough." Hee. Cunanan watches the drama unfold, then jogs back to his room; fishes the gun out from under the mattress (ew) and loads it; rips down his crazy wall; and bids Ronnie adieu. "Will I see you again?" Ronnie asks. "I'm sure of it," Cunanan double-meanings, and is peaceing out when Ronnie snarls down the hall after him, "You don't have that money, do you." Cunanan stops, comes back, and counts out the money, holding it up to Ronnie, at which time Scrip Dork McGee over here notes that, at least as far as the fifty is concerned, Props found an old one from before the 1997 printi-- "Buntsy. We agreed that nobody cares." Right, you are so right, sorry again. Ronnie is also chastened, but takes the money, then asks gravely if they were friends. "That was real, right?" But Cunanan is in full infamy-groundwork-laying mode and responds, "When someone asks you if we were friends? You'll say no." He hurries away; Ronnie ruefully watches him go.
Lori's leaving the cop shop and sees that the Cunanan Most Wanted poster is mostly covered over with other flyers already.
The man himself is reading his Condé Nast book in a park across the street from the estate when Gianni and Antonio emerge. When we cut back across the street, Cunanan is gone…
…to get some stakeout grub. The guy at the sandwich shop immediately spots him and skives off into the back to call 9-1-1; the "white guy who killed four white guys" whom he saw on America's Most Wanted is in the shop, ordering a tuna combo. The cops show up shortly thereafter, but Cunanan's gone again.
At Twist, Gianni and Antonio cut the line and head into the club, greeting various friends and other regulars. They settle in at a table to watch a go-go boy with angel wings working it for tips.
Cunanan fetches up back at the estate. He doesn't seem like he's in a hurry or fleeing. He finds the bedroom windows dark, and his eyes darken in turn. He heads into Twist -- with his backpack, which made me want to smack the bouncer upside the head. I forget we didn't always live in this after-the-events-of world. Somewhere, Det. Lori gets a stabbing pain in her ass because Cunanan is right where Agent Stan told her not to bother looking, searching the dance-floor crowd for Gianni while La Bouche's "Be My Lover" blares down. Cunanan checks the bathroom…
…but Gianni and Antonio are already outside, heading home. Gianni hangs back, seemingly to let Antonio pick up, but Antonio frowns and repeats that he doesn't want that anymore; he wants Gianni. They nuzzle. It's a bittersweet moment, knowing what happens, and also knowing that the actors know each other well IRL and wondering what it's like for them in the scene, when of course they also know what happens. Gianni gives him a vaguely sad "if you're sure" look, and off they go.
Inside, Andrew roams the dance floor, deflating, as Lisa Stansfield tells the assembled that "this is the right time / to believe in love." A cutie named Brad locks onto Cunanan and close-dances up to him and asks what he does. "I'm a serial killer," Cunanan chirps. Brad: "Whuh-it?" Cunanan, giggling: "I'm a banker!" He's a stockbroker. He's a cop! He builds movie sets and skyscrapers! Imports pineapples! Brad begins to draw away, concerned, as Cunanan tells Brad, but mostly himself, "I'm the person least likely to be forgotten. …I'm Andrew Cunanan."