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'Assassination Of Gianni Versace' Offers A Juicy Take On Serious Issues


This is FRESH AIR. The latest installment of the FX limited series "American Crime Story" begins tomorrow. It's called "The Assassination of Gianni Versace," and it tells the story of the 1997 murder of the famous fashion designer. The series is created by Ryan Murphy and is based on the book "Vulgar Favors" by Maureen Orth. Our critic-at-large John Powers has a review.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It's easy to make a TV show about murder, which is why they do so many of them. What's hard is making a murder story about something bigger than killing. Ryan Murphy pulled off that feat in the first installment of the FX anthology series "American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson." Of course, once that show nabbed big ratings and Emmys the question became what could Murphy possibly do for an encore.

We get the answer in "American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace," which tackles another splashy murder - the 1997 shooting of the Italian designer known for his flamboyant warmth. Working from a book by reporter Maureen Orth, Murphy examines a crime that initially grabbed headlines but whose details most of us never knew or quickly forgot.

The series begins off sporadically. It's a sunny Miami Beach morning, and two men are heading toward a fatal collision. One of them is Versace, played by the wonderful Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez, who swans like a king through his Mediterranean-style villa. The other is Andrew Cunanan. That's Darren Criss of "Glee" fame, a gay Gigolo and wannabe celebrity who prowls the beaches and streets waiting for his moment. And it comes. He spots the fashion icon outside his villa gates, guns him down, then slips away into the Florida sunshine.

Over the next nine episodes, screenwriter Tom Rob Smith teases out the murders implications. He shows us the guerrilla war between Versace's sister Donatella, played by a slightly de-beautified Penelope Cruz, and his longtime companion Antonio D'Amico, a big hunk vulnerably played by singer Ricky Martin.

More important, he tells the killer's story but in reverse chronology. Each new episode takes us earlier in time depicting and helping explain the California-born Cunanan's murderous journey across America on the way to Miami Beach. Cunanan had once briefly met Versace a few years before the murder. And here we see him trying to impress the designer by claiming to have grown up as the son of a pineapple baron from the Philippines.


DARREN CRISS: (As Andrew Cunanan) For my first job, I worked for my father on his pineapple plantations in the Philippines - can you imagine that? - picking them in the midday sun. You should've seen me. My father was a military man. He was a pilot for Imelda Marcos, the first lady of the Philippines.

EDGAR RAMIREZ: (As Gianni Versace) Really?

CRISS: (As Andrew Cunanan) Yes. He flew one of those old planes, the type that Buddy Holly died in. Beechcraft Bonanza, they're called, if you know them. He would fly them low to the ground because Imelda was terrified of crashing. And that is a true story. My father would tell her, Imelda, when you're flying a plane at 400 miles per hour in a rickety tin can, it doesn't matter how high you are.

RAMIREZ: (As Gianni Versace) And then you moved to America.

CRISS: (As Andrew Cunanan) My father wanted me to have the very best education, which of course I had. He's retired from the military now. He runs all of his businesses from abroad 'cause he can. Who knew that there was so much money to be made in pineapples? He was here the other day. He was just in town. And he was driving around in his Rolls-Royce with his boyfriend as a chauffeur.

RAMIREZ: (As Gianni Versace) Boyfriend.

CRISS: (As Andrew Cunanan) Please don't ask.

RAMIREZ: (As Gianni Versace) Your father has a boyfriend?

CRISS: (As Andrew Cunanan) He left my mom and ran off with one of the young men who worked on the plantations.

POWERS: It should come as little surprise that "The Assassination Of Gianni Versace" is not as rich or as thrilling as "The People V. O.J. Simpson." After all, that was about the most enthralling murder of any of our lifetimes. Yet this new series is still well worth watching. Murphy's at his best when he takes tabloid material and, without draining away its juiciness, reframes it to grapple with serious issues. The "O.J." series was steeped in questions of race, class, sex and celebrity. The first season of another Murphy series, "Feud," wasn't merely a catfight between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis but a resonant story about how Hollywood uses and abuses women.

And so it is with "Versace," which expands from its namesake's murder to become a moving portrait of gayness and homophobia in '90s America. In his killing spree across America, Cunanan encounters closeted businessmen in straight marriages, wives trapped in such circumstances, devoted gay naval officers chased out of the military by don't ask, don't tell. Even as Cunanan leaves a clear trail, the cops and FBI keep botching the investigation because they find gay life so alien and perverse that they wallow in anti-gay stereotypes rather than looking at the evidence.

Now, the Versace family is already complaining that the series is riddled with errors, and no doubt things have been fictionalized. Yet the show is far from unsympathetic to Versace or his circle. Marten's Antonio emerges as warm and decent while Cruz's Donatella is tough but loving, a far cry from Maya Rudolph's amusing "Saturday Night Live" parody. As for Gianni himself, in Ramirez's radiant performance he emerges as, if anything, too saintly.

Indeed, as the episodes unfold, it becomes clear - maybe even a bit too clear - that Versace and Cunanan are alter egos. They embody almost opposite ways of living gayness, one creative and life-affirming, the other tormented and steeped in death. Criss is terrific as the creepy Cunanan, a highly intelligent fantasist with tense good looks who's also a psychopathic narcissist who's terrified of being ordinary. Seeing no difference between fame and infamy, the villain of this "American Crime Story" is a textbook product of our celebrity culture. He's a hollow man who'll do anything to be in the spotlight.

DAVIES: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and On tomorrow's show, millions of Americans are walking around with implanted medical devices - artificial hips and knees, cardiac stents, pacemakers and many others. We'll talk with medical journalist Jeanne Lenzer, who says medical devices are approved with far less scrutiny than pharmaceuticals and some may be causing harm, even deaths. Her new book is "The Danger Within Us." Hope you can join us.


DAVIES: Fresh AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.