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Jeff Simon: A few words about Versace, O.J. and Oprah

The second season of FX's "American Crime Story" is called "The Assassination of Gianni Versace." The first was the smash hit and award season bonanza "The People Vs. O.J. Simpson."

Versace begins at 10 p.m. Jan. 17.

It confronts a specific period's homophobia directly in a way that, despite the geometrically progressing acceleration of the subject everywhere, is still not all that common. Which is why, in its way, some will see it as brave, even now when gay subject matter has been routine for decades all over television.

But that is the whole point of Ryan Murphy's "American Crime Story" this time around.

The nine-part limited series is based on the 2008 book "Vulgar Favors: Gianni Versace and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History" by Maureen Orth, the brilliant Vanity Fair reporter who is the widow of Tim Russert and the mother of Luke Russert.

Versace was murdered in 1997 in front of his Miami Estate by the disturbed serial killer Andrew Cunanan who, said Orth recently at a New York screening, "wanted to be everything Versace was but he wasn't willing to do the work for it. The idea that he was willing to kill for fame -- there's a line from there to getting famous on a sex tape like the Kardashians down to becoming president of the United States because you're a reality TV star."

Cunanan's killing for fame seems more than a little related to the motivations of Mark David Chapman's murder of John Lennon.

If you read about that advance presentation in a New York theater, you come up with what sounds like a mission statement from Murphy that seems at odds with Orth's tough social and media criticism.

Says Murphy "We're trying to understand the psychology of someone who could be drawn to do those deeds."

The trouble, of course, is that there is an immense difference between the amount of fame possessed by Versace, even at his "designer to the stars" zenith, and Simpson, even during the lowest point of America's public obsession with his wife's savage murder.

That too, is related to the relative lack of passion in investigation of crimes in the LGBT community. At its base though, we're talking about the apogee of fame that can be achieved by a fashion designer, however ubiquitous his clients, compared to that achieved by a great football star, decent sportscaster, commercial spokesman and playful comic actor.

O.J. was in American living rooms and bedrooms running through airports while little old ladies shouted "Go, O.J. go." If Versace had been in nightly TV commercials, things would have been different. What we see in the opening minutes of the new Versace series is a picture opposite to that of a populist American hero. Murphy's "Versace," in that opening episode, is nothing so much as a late-20th century version of a Venetian prince up to his receded hairline in impossible luxury. The act of waking up in the morning and being served his morning orange juice seems to epitomize the luxury of a Medici.

Even so we're talking about about American fame on a vastly lower level than O.J., even before the obsession with the murder and trial began.

And that makes "Versace's" decision to tell its tale the way it does almost fatal. It eventually gets very interesting. But it takes a while. It isn't easy to stick with it. There's no question that the figure who should command attention is his killer, with all his crimes and his pathology.

But its very title and its opening episode concentrate on what it presumes to be its chief appeal: the celebrity fashion designer so tragically murdered and the subsequent complexity of the fight over his business.

Whatever it made as a Vanity Fair story or book, it seems a good deal less on television.

The first thing we see is Edgar Ramirez, as Versace, living in sensual Miami luxury contrasted with the murderous stalking and psychological instability of Cunanan.

You don't get to the juicy subjects the series concerns until you've gotten rid of the crime itself which didn't begin to obsess America the way Nicole Brown Simpson's and Ron Goldman's murders did.

Murphy is a fascinating figure in American television, an authentic gay grandee provocateur of the medium. He's reported himself gay since high school and much of what he does is saturated with gay themes and what some would decorously call "camp" concerns ("Feud"). His new series "9-1-1" began, on its opening night, with the husband of the character played by Angela Bassett telling his two sons at breakfast that he has, in middle age, figured out that he was gay.

What bowls almost everyone over about Murphy is his extraordinary success at casting his productions. Even his new "9-1-1" series stars Bassett, Peter Krause and Connie Britton which is a terrific cast for something that is little more than a 21st century version of the old TV series "Emergency" (which Michael Arlen once wittily called "training television" for children).

The casting of "The People Vs. O. J. Simpson" was little short of sensational even before anyone got a look at the thing. And then it became legendary no matter how debatable -- Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J., John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey, Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clarke and Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden. That cast received awards and acclaim all over the place. It remains one of the best casts ever assembled for a TV drama.

And yet another reason why the newest follow up in Murphy's "American Crime Story" series is nothing if not a disappointment.

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The sudden shock of worship of Oprah Winfrey's eloquence at the Golden Globes Audience had people almost instantly speculating in social media on the possibility of the former Zeitgeist Queen becoming a presidential candidate and, if so, predicting that she would leave almost all other candidates in the dust. To those who fatuously scoffed at such a possibility as unlikely in the extreme, something needs to be remembered: that Oprah Winfrey was the largest single enabler of Barack Obama acquiring the kind of fame that was necessary for him to become the 44th president of the United States. For her to have actually run for the job at the time would practically have seemed like a demotion. In her current life as ordinary media mogul, actress and benevolent inspiration to the world, her stature might be just perfect for it.

 

 

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