'Assassination of Gianni Versace': Sex, Lies, Fashion and Homophobia

New 'American Crime Story' explores another Nineties tabloid tale involving celebrities and murder – and the oppressiveness of the closet

'The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story' tackles a new Nineties tabloid tale – and takes apart the decade's homophobia. Our review. Credit: Jeff Daly/FX

The summer of 1997: Fashion designer Gianni Versace wakes up in his Miami Beach mansion, wearing pajama bottoms decorated with his own logo. He slips into a hot-pink robe, then steps out onto the balcony to admire the morning sun over the ocean waves. He strolls through his gilded palace, greeting the servants who are already standing at attention in their places. Versace plucks a glass of orange juice from a silver tray as he lounges to have breakfast – alone – by his pool. Meanwhile, a psychopathic serial killer sits on the beach, with a handgun and a biography of Vogue founder Condé Nast. Within a few minutes, Versace will be dead.

The murder was a crime that shocked the world – a haute couture icon gunned down at the gates of his own mansion. In other words, a crime perfectly designed for Ryan Murphy's pulp imagination. He brings the case to life as the second installment of his American Crime Story anthology series, after making a huge splash with The People vs. O.J. Simpson. The Assassination of Gianni Versace has all his favorite obsessions – sex, money, celebrity, glitz, the elusive boundaries of gay identity. The designer was such a central figure in American culture in 1997, namechecked by Biggie in the summer's ubiquitous hit "Hypnotize." By the end of that summer, both the hip-hop legend and the fashion maven were handgun-murder victims, and Puff Daddy was onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards with Sting, urging the crowd to raise their hands for Biggie, Tupac ... and Gianni Versace.

The People vs. O.J. Simpson was an L.A. story, and the Hollywood setting was part of why it worked so well, plugging veterans from John Travolta to David Schwimmer to Sterling K. Brown into the action – truly a story where Los Angeles plays itself. But Assassination begins with the crime, then moves backward through the career of his killer Andrew Cunanan, a con man and grifter who was already on the FBI's Most Wanted list after murdering four other men around the country that year. The story, scripted by Tom Rob Smith (London Spy), leaves the Versace-murder narrative on the backburner for much of the series, going into the backstory of how a closeted gay kid turned himself into a homicidal monster.

Darren Criss, leaving Glee far behind, is oily and terrifying as Cunanan, with desperate need in his eyes. It's there in the way he primps for his first date with Versace back in 1990, after the designer invites him to the opera; he tries on somebody else's expensive suits while the radio plays Lisa Stansfield's "Been Around The World." (By 1997, that was more famous as a Biggie/Puffy song.) He's a social climber who sees Versace as his big score, even as he scoffs at the duds: "They say Armani designs clothes for wives. I think Versace designs clothes for sluts."

Edgar Ramírez is charismatic yet warmly empathetic as Versace – as in his astounding performance as a Seventies terrorist in Carlos, the Venezuelan actor plays a man obsessed with his vision, determined to serve it at any cost. Ricky Martin, in a performance way beyond what most people would expect from him, is Versace's bereaved boyfriend Antonio D'Amico. Together they became a quintessential jet-set couple known around the globe, moving in rarefied circles. At Versace's funeral, Princess Diana sat next to Elton John; just a few weeks later, the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road hitmaker was singing "Candle in the Wind" at her funeral.

Penélope Cruz is simply fearsome as the designer's sister Donatella, who is no longer content to be a muse; she wants her own stake in running the business. She's icy and imperious in her contempt for his boyfriend. "My brother has a weakness for beauty," Donatella sniffs. "He forgives it anything. But I am not my brother." She is such a flamboyant character, it’s difficult to play her without parody – as in Maya Rudolph’s great Saturday Night Live caricature, a diva constantly shrieking, "Cue the rampage music!" But Cruz's Donatella is no caricature; she's ruthless in her resolve to keep the House of Versace alive as an aesthetic. As the lady says, "My brother is still alive as long as Versace is still alive. I will not allow that man, that nobody, to kill my brother twice."

A tragic theme that runs through the story is the way gay culture was changing at warp speed through the Nineties. It seemed like a much more liberated time than the Eighties, yet Assassination depicts how oppressive the closet still was in 1997. It was the year Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on her sitcom, after dropping hints she was "left-handed" or "Lebanese." Will & Grace was still a year away; the idea of gay marriage seemed like an impossible dream. The cops in charge of the Versace case are baffled at the unthinkable notion of a gay couple sharing a domestic partnership – the officer who interrogates the boyfriend asks, "What was your involvement with Mr. Versace?" The FBI agents are blinded by homophobia as they snicker over the pronunciation of Versace's name. ("The singer?" "That's Liberace – this is the jeans guy.") 

Although the Versace family has already denounced the series, this new American Crime Story presents the designer as a genuinely heroic figure: a visible gay man in the Nineties, living outside the closet in ways that would have been inconceivable a decade earlier. Part of the emotional power of Assassination is that the designer, in his own way, was helping the world make the transition into a different place – a transition he tragically didn't live long enough to see.