RYAN MURPHY: AN APPRECIATION
Recently, there was a supremely silly mini-controversy that could occur only within our social media outrage-fueled era of supremely silly mini-controversies. Apparently, certain hyper-sensitive, LGBTQ+ Netflix subscribers noticed that super-producer Ryan Murphy’s latest limited series offering, DAHMER – MONSTER: THE JEFFREY DAHMER STORY (I’d love to know how the creative team arrived at that ornery title), was tagged with “LGBTQ+” as one of its genre identifiers. In case you don’t know -- and given the series’ gargantuan audience, I’m guessing you do -- DAHMER is the true story of LGBTQ+-identifying serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Netflix quickly removed the tag to the offended viewers’ satisfaction, at least until they find something else with which to be offended. For those in the cheap seats: NOT ALL LGBTQ+ PEOPLE ARE SERIAL KILLERS. Which doesn’t erase the fact that Dahmer was, and adding that tag to a show that purports to tell his life story could be considered, you know, accurate. I imagined Murphy rolling his eyes behind his Twitter feed as he continued to count his show’s ever-climbing number of hours streamed. Because, as Ryan Murphy has demonstrated over and over again, his intentions are much more lofty than worrying about whether or not his depictions of LGBTQ+ characters get anyone’s panties – rainbow-print or otherwise -- in a bunch.
For the last 20+ years, Ryan Murphy has been putting people that have never been seen on television before – particularly queer people -- squarely in audience’s faces. “In your face” is, in fact, the only way to describe Murphy’s signature style, as if scoffing at the idea of subtlety as a virtue. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying Murphy has changed the physical and thematic landscape of entertainment. You can keep your WIRE or BREAKING BAD (neither of which I was able to finish). I’ll take Murphy’s brand of baroque, forward-thinking melodrama over either of those much-lauded series’ desaturated nihilism any day of the week.
Let’s get the tiresome, oft-repeated critique that Murphy doesn’t know how to sustain a narrative out of the way right up front. In two words: Who cares? This is like complaining about the hackneyed dialogue in Titanic: And your point is? Murphy is such a prolific and imaginative storyteller that if you don’t like whatever show he’s got on now, don’t worry, because another is coming along within about 5 minutes. I will agree with anyone who sniffs at the rambling detours and dead ends of AMERICAN HORROR STORY (which frequently exerts more energy on its marketing campaigns than its plotting) or maddeningly inconsistent characterization in GLEE (which seemed more an issue of writers-room quality control rather than a lack of creative vision). There are even some Murphy shows I find downright unbearable, no matter their eye-popping production design or campy tone (I gave up on RATCHED and SCREAM QUEENS after a few episodes, and while I made it all the way through HALSTON, save Krysta Rodriguez’s Liza Minnelli, I wasn’t happy about it). That said, what you can never accuse Murphy of is coasting. Or repeating himself. Or giving you something you’ve seen a hundred times before. Even within different seasons of the same series, he’s always asking new questions, showing you new perspectives, or giving voice to the previously voiceless, regardless of whether the program in question is a commercial and/or critical success or not. From the actresses of a certain age in FEUD, to the first-time-ever transgender leads of POSE, to the wish-fulfilling revisionism in HOLLYWOOD, Murphy is restless AF; he’s on a quest, and aren’t we lucky that he takes us with him, swinging for dazzlingly decorated fences every blessed time? Murphy shows us parts of ourselves we didn’t want to look at, denied existed, or didn’t even realize were there, with big, bold colors and exclamatory declarations in all caps. We’ve got no time for subtlety.
My love of all things Ryan Murphy began back with his very first series, POPULAR. This two-season wonder about high school cliques exhibited an energy I’d never experienced before, the now-familiar schizo ping-pong between sincerity and satire, a vibe that Murphy has honed with various shadings ever since. I remember watching POPULAR and feeling that if this series wasn’t the photo-negative of 90210, then it was shooting the same picture with a completely different lens. I got hooked with the episode where plus-size would-be cheerleader Sarah Rue was clearly the best of the tryout hopefuls, yet wasn’t chosen because she didn’t “look the part,” an injustice that didn’t sit well with the conscience of ambivalent queen bee Leslie Bibb. From the jump, Murphy’s social anthropology extended well beyond easy labels of hero and villain.
Murphy has said that his next show – and one of cable network FX’s first hits – NIP/TUCK jumped the shark in the very first episode, so he never worried about whether or not he was going too far over the top afterwards. NIP/TUCK was nothing if not over the top, and set the pace for every Murphy series to follow: wild, whiplash-inducing plotlines; outrageous guest-star performances; at least one truly terrible season (the less said about The Carver, the better); and meaty roles for its principal cast that find them exploring everything from group sex to meth addiction to semen-infused moisturizer to hot-tub incontinence. I admit with no shame: I loved NIP/TUCK -- loved, loved, loved this show. Julian McMahon’s Dr. Christian Troy is one of the all-time great anti-heroes, and the actor made this unrepentant womanizer, sexual abuse survivor, and accidental rooftop-sex-murderer oddly sympathetic and believable, even when briefly questioning his sexuality (although I grant Murphy that encountering prime Mario Lopez in a community shower might make even the most toxically heterosexual man think twice). Every episode began with one of its plastic surgeons requesting of the person sitting opposite them – i.e., the audience – “Tell me what you don’t like about yourself.” It’s an inquiry that way too many of us ponder every time we look into a mirror and could have front-loaded every Murphy show from then on out.
But back to the LGBTQ+ character thing. Detractors may grouse, but one of the reasons I cut Murphy so much slack is that he is the only gay producer (or writer, or director, for that matter) who consistently uses his position to showcase LGBTQ+ characters with relatable human emotions, wounds, fallibilities and blind spots. In other words, the same kind of layers that straight characters have gotten since the introduction of the moving image. And in the process, he has shocked me into thinking differently about characters I thought I knew inside and out.
The two plays that Murphy adapted into telefilms – Mart Crowley’s THE BOYS IN THE BAND and Larry Kramer’s THE NORMAL HEART – are personal touchstones of mine. I am fiercely protective of these pieces in ways that would put the most ardent superhero fanboy to shame; they are both in my top 5 most favorite works about the gay male experience (for any interested parties, Kramer’s novel FAGGOTS and Russell T. Davies’ original QUEER AS FOLK are 2 others; keep reading for number 5), and I will go from zero to fightin’ bitch with anyone who utters an ill word against them. These are the works that dared to show gay men as – oh, the horror! – unlikable pains in the ass. Or self-defeating, passive-aggressive doormats. Or let’s-cut-the-bullshit-and-say-what-we-really-think truth-tellers. For anyone who calls BOYS’ depiction of unhappy gay men “outdated,” I ask: have you spent an hour in the company of the unsmiling, unfriendly, vaguely hostile members of a predominately gay-populated gym anytime recently? For those who would question THE NORMAL HEART’s exploration of ego-driven infighting, I invite you to perform the barest of Google searches regarding the West Hollywood City Council (or just visit the homepage and any comments section on WehoVille.com).
If I slightly prefer William Friedkin’s original cinematic adaptation of THE BOYS IN THE BAND, it’s only because he directs with the same hard, muscular edge he brought to intense ‘70s classics THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST (not to mention his notorious CRUISING, which the current AHS: NYC seems to be remaking for a 2022 audience in all its sweaty, sleazy glory). Murphy’s version is slightly more sentimental and, to its credit, a bit less stagy in its performances. What really makes Murphy’s adaptation stand out is his finale. Friedkin ends his film the same way the play ends: with lead character and chief instigator Michael closing the door of his apartment as he exits alone out into the New York night. Murphy takes his ending further, underlining the differences in Crowley’s characters by showing where they end up after leaving Michael’s birthday party from hell. The rest of the characters get some sort of catharsis, maybe even a bit of peace after their group emotional purge. Michael, however, stares down an empty street. He starts walking, then moves faster, breaking into a run. Murphy’s camera holds its position as Michael disappears into the darkness. Is he running towards a new future, or away from a painful past? We get to decide, based on whatever we brought into this party ourselves. Before I saw Murphy’s interpretation, I never envisioned a happy end for Michael. Now, I have no idea. His future is as wide open as any of ours.
A finale of a different sort is found in Murphy’s film version of THE NORMAL HEART, yet one that similarly reframed my understanding of Kramer’s fictional stand-in for himself, Ned Weeks. Ned’s personal and professional odyssey as an activist during the early years of the AIDS crisis in New York City, as powerful an influence as it is on my own work, always felt more like a galvanizing piece of political theatre than a character study. Murphy, while sticking close to Kramer’s script, makes HEART a profound emotional experience, creating distinct individuals out of its ensemble rather than stand-ins for particular points of view. One of the most rattling scenes in the play – where Ned’s friend Mickey excoriates Ned for urging gay men to stop having sex, given all the liberation they fought for – is made devastating by Murphy’s close-ups and Joe Mantello’s performance as Mickey. Even more devastating – and to me, what elevates Murphy’s film above the stage version – is how Murphy bookends Ned’s journey, something only hindsight on the time period in question can provide. In the opening Fire Island-set prologue, Mark Ruffalo’s Ned is seen sitting on the sidelines while his friends and all the other gay men on the island engage in joyous disco dancing, the message clear: even among his own people, Ned is on the outside looking in. For the final scene, after AIDS has ravaged his community and triggered many a personal loss, Ned returns to his university for a talk, after which he attends an LGBTQ school dance. Once again, Ned stands on the sidelines, watching all the young queer people participating in a cultural socialization of which he never felt a part. I can’t speak for anyone else in the audience, but the isolation of this closing shot and the ambivalent expression on Ruffalo’s face made me wonder: was the fight worth it? Ned was, after all (like Kramer), thrown out of the activist organization he helped found, his efforts largely forgotten, or demonized due to his combative modus operandi. I’ve read and seen this play many times since I was in high school, and this was the first time I had such a reaction. I was reminded of something writer Jonathan Franzen noted in an essay of his: as artists, we can diagnose the ills of the world around us, but we can’t expect anyone to thank us for doing so. The end of Kramer’s play is a mournful call to arms. The end of Murphy’s movie is something much more troubling and sad.
Speaking of troubling and sad, majority opinion suggests that Murphy’s greatest achievement as a producer is AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON, the sensationally written, acted, and directed ratings and Emmy powerhouse that started the whole true-crime-as-narrative-series bonanza currently at an oversaturation point. I would argue, however, that the jewel of the Murphy-verse crown is his O.J. SIMPSON follow-up, THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE. Here is where all of Murphy’s obsessions converge for a penetrating examination of American ambition and entitlement gone murderously haywire, aided by a hellzapoppin’ cast of actors and an ingenious structure that brought every theme – and there were many covered – into sober, clear-eyed view. Which was completely unexpected, at least by me.
Back in 2014, I read the book on which ASSASSINATION is based, Maureen Orth’s VULGAR FAVORS, a non-fiction study of what drove Andrew Cunanan to murder fashion designer Gianni Versace and several other gay men, most of whom he knew personally, as well as the institutional homophobia that allowed Cunanan to evade capture. I thought the story would make a hell of a screenplay, and would also give me an opportunity to explore the genre and themes I kept returning to in my own work. I sent the book’s publisher inquiries regarding the film rights multiple times to no avail; at the same time, I outlined my own version of a feature script, taking Bob Fosse’s STAR 80 as a template, using both a time-jumping narrative and verité-style interviews with survivors. And then I read that Murphy had optioned Orth’s book for a new limited series, which told me why I’d received no response from the publisher, but also gave me pause. Based on his prior work, I was concerned about how deeply Murphy would explore an element of the story that Orth leaned into hard: namely that the rich, white gays in whose orbit Cunanan traveled treated Cunanan as little more than a plaything, intoxicated him with their opulent lifestyle, then discarded him when he was no longer attractive, which is what ultimately caused Cunanan to snap. While I don’t believe Orth blames the victims, she doesn’t absolve them of their behavior, either, and this is what made her approach so intriguing.
I needn’t have worried. THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE takes all the ideas in Orth’s book and expands on them, while also proving the definitive portrayal of American marginalization in the entire Murphy canon, a collection of works where marginalization is the core common thread.
This marvel of construction created by Murphy and head writer Tom Rob Smith – light years better than the one I came up with; hats off -- tells the story backwards, beginning and ending (or ending and beginning?) with Cunanan, using each episode to focus on various players who proved collateral damage as Cunanan cut his raging swath across the country, giving a number of Murphy troupe players (most notably Cody Fern and Judith Light) a chance to shine individually, but also contribute to the overall vision of what it felt like to be a gay man in the mid-1990’s. You can practically smell the layer of paranoia-encrusted grime across every frame; the various forms fear and revulsion take from one character to another; and the profound sense of dislocation and disconnection that I remember all too well. ASSASSINATION feels like the visual equivalent of Madonna’s 1992 EROTICA album, in which sex by turns feels naughty, dirty, fraught, dangerous, unsatisfying, and ultimately not a whole lot of fun. I lived through that decade to report that the mood Murphy & Co. create in detailing this period of LGBTQ history is as authentic as it gets, making ASSASSINATION the aforementioned number 5 on my list of favorite works about the lives of gay men. It’s that good.
And then there’s Darren Criss, who may be the only example we need invoke to silence any arguments about whether straight actors have a right to play gay roles. Sometimes, yes, the ideal actor for the part is straight, and heterosexual Criss’ physical resemblance to Cunanan is just the jumping-off point. Criss had never impressed me before; I saw him gamely wrestle with HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH on Broadway, a role for which he was way too young, but even when he wasn’t wildly miscast, there was always something a little too cute, a little too eager-to-please. This image was completely undone by his performance as Andrew Cunanan, for which he deservedly won every television acting award you can name. There are many ideas getting communicated by Criss dancing in his underwear as a victim suffocates under a face-full of duct tape; or his slamming bags of concrete on top of a closeted former benefactor; or the way his eyes simultaneously light up and glaze over while fabulist Cunanan invents ever more elaborate stories about himself; but eager-to-please is not one of them. (After this unqualified triumph, Criss said he no longer wished to take gay roles away from gay actors, and would no longer play them. Our loss.) Would Darren Criss even have his award-winning, television-and-Broadway-hopping career without Ryan Murphy’s ability to spot young talent in need of nurturing? We could ask the same thing about fellow Emmy winners Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters, or the resurgance of Jessica Lange, who won two Emmys for her work in Murphy projects.
Emmys aside – and the show itself also won for Best Limited Series – I still feel ASSASSINATION is not only the best of Murphy’s work, but also the most underrated, and his most challenging. The experience of being a gay man is not an enjoyable one here, given that all of its characters are running from some demon that’s hot on their heels, whether Cunanan himself or something even scarier. ASSASSINATION takes a hard, lived-in look at the weight of feeling constantly under attack, by a gun-wielding psychopath, a deadly virus, a bigoted system in complete denial of or contempt for your very existence, your own family, or your own head. Everyone in this show walks around like there are loose boards in the floor. Trust is a fatal weakness. Other people are fundamentally unknowable. This is what it felt like living as a gay man in the mid 1990s, and what more and more of us, straight and gay, are feeling right now. (Welcome to the party, heteros!) The next AMERICAN CRIME STORY is purported to center on Studio 54, and I, for one, can’t wait. If Murphy ever decides to turn this series on the Matthew Shepard murder, I’ve no doubt we’ll be getting a much more complex picture of the events before and after October 6th, 1998 than we’ve ever seen before. (Just throwing that idea out there free of charge, Ry.)
For now, we’ll have to settle for DAHMER: THE DAHMER STORY ABOUT JEFFREY DAHMER -- AMERICAN MONSTER DAHMER or whatever. I confess I haven’t yet gotten past the exceedingly grim pilot, which, based on the first five minutes, I knew was not directed by Murphy himself: no cameras zooming down dramatically lit corridors, no hyperactive editing, no dropping us right in the middle of an action sequence. To my pleasant surprise, I found that Murphy hired Carl Franklin, director of the excellent neo-noir DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, to do the honors. Franklin may be more patient with his storytelling, but I admit I miss the signature Murphy visual style. I’ll get through this series eventually, even though I already know the ending. What I’ve no doubt I’ll see at some point, if only for a moment, is a new perspective, or Dahmer’s story through the eyes of someone I’d never thought of before, or a new way of experiencing the world in which they lived. While it may be in questionable taste to consider empathy with regards to Dahmer (I’ll let social media trolls debate that one), isn’t that what Murphy’s career has always been about? America itself is chock-full of dead-end roads, and Murphy doesn’t seem to find those any less valuable to travel than the ones that actually lead somewhere. Good on him, and lucky for us.