Contested Versace murder drama hits US television

Dismissed as "fiction" by the Versace family and met with mixed reviews, a controversial new drama depicting the 1997 murder of Gianni Versace makes its US television debut Wednesday.

"The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story" is the second edition of a crime story franchise whose first iteration won rave reviews and a bevy of awards for revisiting the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial.

The latest nine-episode series begins airing on television network FX late Wednesday, before being released on demand in Europe later this week. Like "The People vs. O.J. Simpson," which won two Golden Globes and nine Emmy Awards, "The Assassination of Gianni Versace" is a 1990s celebrity crime story, uniting fame and wealth with the darker underbelly of human nature.

Like "The People," which spun a larger narrative of racial tension between black and white Americans, "The Assassination" paints a wider portrait of gay life in America in the 1990s, prejudice, hostility and bigotry.

Versace is played by Venezuelan heartthrob Edgar Ramirez, Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz is Donatella -- the hard-headed sister who took over the label after her brother's death -- and singer Ricky Martin is Versace's long-term boyfriend, Antonio D'Amico.

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But publicity in the run-up to its release has been dominated by the Versace family, who released an angry statement from their global fashion emporium in Milan on January 10.

They slammed the series as a "work of fiction," saying they had "neither authorized nor had any involvement whatsoever in the forthcoming TV series" and reacted with particular fury to claims that Versace was HIV-positive. "After so many years we still lack respect for the dead, we want to create a scandal around someone who can no longer defend themselves," said Donatella.

D'Amico, who found Versace on the steps of his beachfront Miami mansion just moments after the July 15, 1997 killing, has complained that images he had seen online of his reaction in the series are incorrect.

"The picture of Ricky Martin holding the body in his arms is ridiculous," he told the Observer newspaper last July. "Maybe it's the director's poetic license, but that is not how I reacted."

'Love and respect'

"Its responsibility may be to just be true enough. But there's something tragic and unfair about becoming a spectacle in death, especially in a spectacle that's more about a murderer than any of his victims," griped a New York Times review.

The series is based on the book "Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace and the Largest Failed Manhunt in US History," by Maureen Orth, which was published two years after the killing and retraces Cunanan's three-month murder spree.

As such, the drama is centered less on the Italian fashion genius and more on spree killer, social climber and compulsive liar Andrew Cunanan, who murdered four other gay men before killing Versace. His motives remain shrouded in mystery.

Murdering men from San Diego to Miami, Cunanan was on America's list of top 10 most wanted criminals for more than a month before the Versace murder. Cunanan -- portrayed by actor Darren Criss -- comes across as an enigma, at times brilliant and charming but also narcissistic and violent. He committed suicide, aged 27, a few days after assassinating 50-year-old Versace.

The 1990s were a time when living openly as a gay man was still met with prejudice and bigotry in the United States, 18 years before the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a legal right.

Orth suggests in her book that the lackluster investigation into Cunanan's murders stemmed at least in part from the fact that the victims were gay. At least some filming took place in Versace's Miami home, which is today a boutique hotel where rooms can cost in excess of 1,000 dollars a night.

Cruz, whose performance has excited critics -- and who has worn Versace on the red carpet -- said she won Donatella's tacit blessing before accepting the role. "If somebody was going to do it, she was really happy that it was me, because I think she knows what I feel for her," she told US chat show host Ellen DeGeneres.

"They're the most generous, kind people. It's important for me that when she sees what I've done, she can feel the love and respect that I have put there," she said. (AFP)

Photo: FX Promotional poster The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story

 
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