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The second season of true-crime anthology series American Crime Story, subtitled The Assassination of Gianni Versace, "follows the real manhunt of serial killer Andrew Cunanan after he murdered five people, including the titular Italian fashion designer. While the season is not a documentary, and is formatted and dramatized in regular biographical television fashion, the real Versace family spoke out against the series.
In early January of 2018, less than two weeks before premiering on television, the family broke their silence by stating, "The Versace family has neither authorized nor had any involvement whatsoever in the forthcoming TV series about the death of Mr. Gianni Versace." In the same statement, they concluded, "Since Versace did not authorize the book on which it is partly based nor has it taken part in the writing of the screenplay, [The Assassination of Gianni Versace] should only be considered a work of fiction."
A few days after releasing their first statement, they proceeded to release a follow-up, in which they seemed to fixate particularly on the season's source material, Maureen Orth's Vulgar Favors. "Of all the possible portrayals of [Gianni Versace]'s life and legacy, it is sad and reprehensible that the producers have chosen to present the distorted and bogus version created by Maureen Orth."
Executive producer Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) responded to the family's statements in defense of the series's sophomore entry, saying that Orth's biographical novel is "not a work of fiction" because it has been "discussed and dissected and vetted for close to 20 years." The FX network also sided with Orth, calling her work a "carefully reported and extensively-sourced work of investigative journalism by an award-winning journalist with impeccable credentials."
Regarding the inaccuracies that the Versace family avouched to be present in the depiction, Murphy responded, "It's a work of non-fiction obviously with docudrama elements. We're not making a documentary."
Before the windup of the tension between American Crime Story and the Versace family, Antonio D'Amico, Gianni Versace's longtime partner before his death, expressed his objections toward the season as well. "The picture of Ricky Martin holding the body [of Gianni] in his arms is ridiculous," D'Amico said in an interview with The Observer. "Maybe it's the director's poetic license, but that is not how I reacted."
Depicting events, especially those which involve the deaths of people, is a slippery slope all on its own. Finding the most reliable sources to give an explicit depiction of true events can be hazardous, and can easily take a wrong turn if not executed properly.
The familiar Versace surname in The Assassination of Gianni Versace's title was bound to draw the attention of the real-life Versace family members. Quite frankly, I am not opposed to their initial wariness about the season, especially if they allegedly did not have any authorization whatsoever in its production; relying solely on the information provided by a nonfictional report. But is Orth's Vulgar Favors as unreliable as the family made it out to be?
Let us consider the writer first: Maureen Orth is an author, journalist, and a special correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine. She began writing for the magazine in 1988, and has been a Special Correspondent since 1993. Orth's most famous works in her journalism career include reports on Woody Allen and Michael Jackson's child molestation cases, and interviews with political figures such as Russian president Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Orth received a National Magazine Award for her group coverage of the arts in 1973, and then her article on Michael and Arianna Huffington in 1994. It was not until 1990, however, that she would go on to write her bestselling true-crime novel, Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U. S. History.
From this information, one can draw that Orth has indeed established herself as a renowned journalist and reporter. Some of her pieces have garnered negative attention and controversy, such as the ones revolving around Michael Jackson in which she insults his appearance repeatedly. In spite of this, Orth has nearly spotless credentials––but the reception of her novel on the manhunt for Cunanan back in 1997 is what truly determines whether or not she was a valid source for the series to use in its second season.
Orth's 1999 novel has encompassed an overwhelming amount of praise. In a review for New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote, "[Orth] seems to recognize this intrinsic drawback, and she uses the book's prologue to invest her narrative with a significance beyond the outrageous and occasionally poignant details she has assembled." Furthermore, as Murphy claims, her writings about the manhunt have been appraised for almost twenty years, and the rest of the crew chose her reports with precision.
A person outside of the Versace or Cunanan family is not going to seize every last detail in the case, but with Orth's background and career thus far, we can presume that she only reported the details that she perceived as facts––and it is the closest we may ever get to a scrupulous telling.
The Versace family's statements are valid, and I agree that they should have been consulted before production began. It is important to be sensitive to those who have relations to the victims, particularly familial, and not conjure unwanted memories without their accord. In the season's defense, on the contrary, it never claimed to precisely align with the true events, nor did it claim to have documentary-style reality in it; simply, it is an illustration of a real serial killer who took the lives of five innocent people and, no matter how embellished the inside details are, it is the outline that the public is familiar with. They branched out from the framework and created a story that stems from both evaluated information and their imaginations, portraying it in a sympathetic and respectful manner toward the victims.