“Being told no is like being told I don’t exist.”

That all-consuming need to be seen, to be relevant, to matter, but falling devastatingly short, defines Andrew Cunanan’s character, portrayed by Darren Criss in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story on FX. The Ryan Murphy anthology is based on Maureen Orth’s book, “Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History.”

Cunanan’s murder of Gianni Versace in 1997, shooting the celebrated fashion designer at point blank range in front of his leafy South Beach mansion, sets things in motion. Edgar Ramirez steps into the shoes of Versace, bearing a striking resemblance to the Italian fashion mogul. Ramirez’s presence is felt, almost regal, breezing through ornate hallways in silk robing. And Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace is uncanny, not only a dead-ringer, but capturing the spirit of the flashy fashion designer from her peroxide-blonde mane and high fashion threads to a gravelly voice that gives her a distance, at times feeling cold.

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But Darren Criss’s Cunanan is the star of the show, which could have easily been titled, “The descent of Andrew Cunanan: The Gianni Versace Murder.”

The Filipino-American, who struggled with his identity, cultivated a fast lifestyle, charming and lying his way into the beds of wealthy older men, after picking them up at local gay bars and on the social scene, spending their money along the way.

In the summer of 1997, Cunanan committed a string of murders – acquaintance Jeffrey Trail, former lover David Madson, millionaire real estate developer Lee Miglin, caretaker William Reese and Versace. The sadistic nature of the killings was shocking, played out on screen in grizzly detail.

The FBI and law enforcement were heavily criticized for not taking the slayings of gay men more seriously as they continued over those sweltering months. One costly misstep, was not having the Miami Police put up Ten Most Wanted posters with Cunanan’s image at gay bars. Homophobia was certainly pointed to as a possible contributing factor in the botched manhunt.

In the ninth and final episode, we return to the scene of the crime – the Versace murder and the end of the line for Cunanan. It all comes to a head in a colossal standoff outside the houseboat where Cunanan was holed up. In The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Cunanan sees the boat’s caretaker, Fernando Carreira, from the upper deck and fires a warning shot. Not true. It is public record that the single gunshot was in fact the self-inflicted one that ended Cunanan’s life. There wasn’t really a showdown, because Cunanan was dead.

Then there is the matter of Donatella and Gianni’s partner, Antonio D’Amico, played by Ricky Martin. On the show, Donatella cuts Antonio off financially, casting him out with no pot of gold from the Versace fortune. Plummeting into depression, Antonio is left suicidal, downing a bottle of pills. Again, not true. Antonio was in reality, left with a $30,000 monthly allowance for the rest of his life, given access to the Versace homes, and later launching a design business in Italy.

Why these plot points were turned on their heads in the final act is puzzling. Yes, one can take creative license to be sure, but why with events that are in the public record and easily knowable? It made little sense, especially because most other aspects of the story were closely adhered to. These deviations took away from a series that was relatively successful.

Darren Criss in particular, can look forward to awards season recognition for his haunting and engrossing portrayal of a sociopath. For a character so easy to despise and discard, Criss strove to make us understand. His empathetic, yet deranged take on this pathetic figure was simply unforgettable and worthy of high praise.

Overall, The Assassination of Gianni Versace felt uneven and almost too dark to digest. Yes, there was a glossy sheen to
the production, but Cunanan’s descent into unspeakable violence was the focus, so relentless and disturbing, it left the viewer with little relief in sight. A fuller look at Versace’s glory years as one of the top designers in the world and a deeper dive into the mentorship he gave and the bond he shared with his sister would have gone a long way to bring a bit more light to a show that was so dark.


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