By Melissa Viger
The second season of American Crime Story focuses on serial killer Andrew Cunanan’s life and the victims of his 1997 killing spree. The Assassination of Gianni Versace is partially about the iconic fashion designer’s murder (which is probably why most viewers, including myself, tuned in in the first place). What makes the show really stand out, though, is the creators’ dedication to giving us a full picture of the victims outside of just their connection to their murderer, as well as the emphasis on the negative effects of homophobia (Cunanan and 4/5 of his victims were gay).
In the seventh episode of the season, a couple of years before his killing spree, Cunanan witnesses his ex-lover getting murdered. The murderer confesses that he snapped after the man tried to kiss him (spoiler: he didn’t try to kiss him), and the police let him go. Cunanan discusses this with a lover who tells him, “I’ve been living through this my whole life. We fall sick [in reference to the AIDS epidemic], it’s our fault. We’re murdered, it’s our fault.” Cunanan responds, “You can rob us, you can beat us, you can kill us, you’ll get away with it.”
This back in forth between the characters addresses the police and criminal justice system’s prejudice against the gay community as well as America’s as a whole. This same lack of regard for the lives of gay people led to the police taking longer to find Cunanan after his murders. Reaching out to the gay community was simply not a “priority” for them. In the final episode, the police question Cunanan’s friend, Ronnie, and he asks them why they took so long. “Because he killed a bunch of nobody gays?,” he asks. This question shines a light on society’s dehumanization of gay people and their attempt to ignore their existence.
For a long time, gay characters in television and film were portrayed as stereotypes, or even worse, as predators or villains, with no character development. Fortunately, that isn’t the case with Versace. You get a pretty full picture of the victims, with the exception of William Reese, who was killed so Cunanan could steal his car. You see gay men from various walks of life who are intelligent, kind, and often successful, dealing with homophobia in different ways. You see David Madson’s loving relationship with his father and his distaste for violence of any kind. You see Jeffrey Trail’s respect for the Navy, his excitement about becoming an uncle, and his struggles to accept who he is in the time of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. You see Lee Miglin struggle with betraying his wife, his shame, and his desire to make people happy through architecture. You see Gianni Versace’s loving relationships with his sister and boyfriend, and his love for life and fashion. You feel for these characters when they die because you’ve gotten to know them on a personal level.
Versace also shows how sexual orientation, class, and, on occasion (and probably not as much as it should, considering the main character is half-Filipino), race intersect to impact the life experiences of gay men. As writer Tom Rob Smith said in an interview with Vulture, “this is a story about gay men dying and it not really making the news until a celebrity is killed.”
Unlike the non-celebrity characters, Versace’s fame and wealth allow him to come out with little fear of the consequences. When he publicly comes out, he does so with a photoshoot and an interview in a magazine. It has little effect on his career or success. When Jeff Trail talks about his sexuality publicly for the first time, however, his face gets blurred out on a news segment about homophobia. Despite promises of anonymity, he knows that participating in this interview will be the end of his Naval career. In Versace, class and fame impact how you can come out and what consequences you face. Versace was envied by working class gay men who feared that if they were outed they would lose everything. As Ronnie says in the finale, “we all imagined what it would be like to be so rich and so powerful that it doesn’t matter that you’re gay.”
Andrew Cunanan also has a unique life experience due to being half-Filipino. Years before his murders, desperate to make money, he tries to get hired at an escort service. Partly due to his identity as Asian American, he is turned away. He insists that he can work harder than any other man, to which the woman in charge tells him that it’s not about hard work, “it’s about being what people want.” Even within his community, he is told he is not what most men want (and this form of racism still runs rampant, by the way). Cunanan cares alot about what other people think of him and this rejection only adds to him feeling unwanted and like an outsider, feelings that would contribute to his killings later on.
We might like to think that prejudice on the scale portrayed in Versace is a product of a bygone era and that we are past this as a society, but the truth is much sadder. Truthfully, 1997 was not that long ago, and hate crimes driven by race and homophobia have been on the rise in recent years. In an interview with TV Guide, creator Ryan Murphy said that the point of Versace is to ask the question, ”Have we really come far enough?” To which he goes on to say, “I think the answer is no.” Versace points out the dangers and ugliness of homophobia that existed then and still exist today. It’s true that the LGBTQ community have made leaps and bounds (both onscreen and off), but remnants of the widespread homophobia that existed when Cunanan went on his murder spree in 1997 are still very much around today.