Review: Docudrama House of Versace by David Aria
I read a book review by David Aria on Goodreads.com a few weeks ago and really liked his style. So I contacted him and asked if he would be willing to write a guest post every now and then on pop culture or books…on any topic he wanted, with tie-ins to gay culture. This one talks about the docudrama, House of Versace. It’s interesting to read a gay man’s POV for a change, especially when it comes to gay culture. And I’m going to make a point of keeping this as an ongoing process.
“VO sace”…F …O….
By Aria David
It’s always difficult when commenting on a docudrama not to make cross commentary on the actual historical figure, and Lifetime’s latest cinematic atrocity House of Versace certainly doesn’t make things any easier. House of Versace premiered last week on the “for women” network, and I often wonder when looking at these films if the LMN (Lifetime Movie Network) puts out these films with the deliberate intention of being campy or if there is supposed to be a genuine presentation of pathos involved. I imagine one day there will be Internet followings of social shut-ins who exalt that sort of thing just as there are now for various other tropes.
This was also one of the few times that Lifetime has dipped its manicured toe into the gay pool but still manages to keep from getting wet by making the Versace story not about the great fashion icon himself but rather posing his sister Donatella as some sort of tragic heroine who lived in the oppressive shadow of a gay fashion legend. There are all sorts of contradictory points to this story that are really quite shockingly amazing… I write that with a sense sarcasm.
Our heroine does prevail over her own demons but she’s admonished in the process for essentially martyring herself for the good of her own family and saving her children from certain financial ruin with no help from her own husband who we never see do anything in the film other than complain like some nagging housewife of never spending enough time together. Interesting dichotomous role reversal but annoying nonetheless. Though like most things in the entertainment industry there’s a method to this madness: class warfare. The only real reason why a network as mainstream as Lifetime would ever dare reach beyond the common boundaries of middle class American and attempt portray anything to do with the European jet set elite boils down to a simply perception of pain.
Donatella Versace is about as far removed from the average American woman as anyone could be but in order for her to be seen as remotely sympathetic to LMN’s demographic audience she has to essentially suffer for her life of European decadence. It’s a tried and true formula the media has latched on to since late 90’s with the passing of Princess Diana (who is a subject we’ll get into later but for now); a beautiful wealthy woman lives a gilded life as wife and mother with maybe some part time occupation, is brought down tragically in or during her own “selfish” plight for independence. This is also evidenced in House’s predecessor Anna Nicole, which while the trailers seemed promising I couldn’t quite bring myself to watch as I’ve tactfully avoided Lifetime throughout much of my adult life.
What’s worse is that while most those stories tend to focus on the trappings of the heterosexual male dominated paradigm, Lifetime has the audacity to actually take on the gay male glitterati of the fashion world. While I’m sure that the story of the actual Donatella is far more compelling and interesting Lifetime’s Donatella is somewhat different. Left alone in in the wake of brother Gianni’s death to run an empire for the sake of her family’s survival she commits herself to managing a business that is half commercial economics and half artistic creativity she and is plunged into the lonely world of the working woman. Abandoned by the family that she fought to keep afloat, she’s eventually sabotaged by them and written off as a drug addict. It’s only after a brief stint in rehab that she’s able to miraculously overcome an entire life’s worth of drug usage and unbridled anger issues to calmly stand as head of a fashion house and produce a successful collection.
In reality while if any of this were remotely possibly in the time they give in the film Donatella’s resurrection of the Versace brand name wouldn’t have been due to any lacking in her creativity but rather subtle but specific process of a business model. It even stupidly states at the end of the film that the brand’s resurrection was facilitated by an endorsement of ready-to-wear and not an exclusive reliance on couture. All this aside its rather ironic that a network that’s supposedly devoted towards the plight of women actually glorifies their downfall for the cardinal sin of being ambitious and trying to have it all.
Which takes us to our next point of discussing some of the more idiotic anecdotes throughout the film. We’re presented with a Donatella who is haughtily confident which we could spend some time talking about LMN’s implied message that women shouldn’t have a sense of self worth? But, we can always write this down to maybe they were trying to depict her as what was known in 1970’s and 1980’s soap operas as the Bitch Goddess. Moving on though we notice that LMN’s Donatella is opportunistically homophobic (by that I mean slurs come out with the anger, you know the type) and she often lashes out at brother Gianni while they’re having one of their more passionate discussions with phrases and labels like “tired old queen” and denigrating him with the cliché pseudo-feminist argument of “you’ll never know what its like to be a REAL woman.” Because the people at Lifetime think that being gay and being a fashion designer of ladies’ apparel clearly translates to secretly wanting to be a woman?
Anyway, authentic Versace designs are not seen anywhere within the film with the exception to the occasional actual film footage of Princess Diana who the film likes to really drive the point home that the Versaces were basically BFFs with. Though the emphasis on Princess Di gives the accidental impression that the entire Versace line was reliant on her patronage. Which if it were anywhere near true it would’ve ensured the brand’s survival long after Gianni’s untimely passing; as everything the Princess touched in life turned to tear stained gold, especially regarding the sacred reliquary of her garments. Manolo and Jimmy certainly were able to capitalize on their associations with Di. The truth is that Diana while she might’ve had some social acquaintanceship with Versace and his milieu she wore only a select few of his gowns. She actually tended to favor British designer Catherine Walker, though some variety was introduced after her break from Prince Charles.
The film is also unintentionally comedic in several ways for example the dialogue in this film is hilarious to hear. The actors all speak in these weak muddled Italian accents and speak and argue with each other in broken English. As if they all have an unspoken code of agreement for using the lingua franca as opposed to the ease of the mother tongue with occasional terms of affection or curse words in actual Italian. While it probably would’ve looked equally ridiculous if the actors had used plain American English accents or possibly received English it still could’ve been written and executed better than how it was portrayed. Though it does contribute greatly to the camp factor.
The LMN’s proclivity for melodramatic kitsch never ceases to amaze/amuse me and this film is chalk filled with it. Just an example the utilizing of Italian opera is particularly hilarious as it tends to play during the most blatantly pathetic attempts at pathos scenes in the film. And whats even more hilarious is that they use the same operatic piece throughout the film and only a certain stanza of the aria which while I don’t personally understand Italian I can hear that the lyrics are singing something about a “donna tella”.
So who knows what the song is actually about or what opera it’s from but the fact that it’s Italian and that the one or two lyrics are about a “donna tella” obviously for contextual artistry it has to be thrown in there and played whenever a tear jerking scene comes up. While I must admit it is slightly beautiful when rendered in maybe one scene where Donatella walks off the runway and realizes her grief and solitude it is sort of a cheap trick on the director’s part. Opera really should only be used sparingly in films just enough so that the audience can establish a nexus between a story from old Europe with whatever modern plot they are witnessing. It helps them feel more cultured than they really are. More successful examples of this are Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Cher in Moonstruck, and (okay, fine, just this once I’ll admit it) Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.
More melodrama can be seen in a key point in the film where actress Gina Gershon (Donatella) really should be awarded for the most sashay shantay worthy fainting spell to ever be captured on a film reel. I honestly don’t think that Vivienne Leigh could’ve done it better herself.
Casting Gina Gershon as the fashion icon may or may not have been the best move on the film’s part. Specifically for the reason that previous to the film Gershon had done a satirical impersonation of Versace on the show Ugly Betty a show which is a light dramedy but a comedy more so. So I’m once again brought back full circle to my question of whether or not these films that LMN releases are really supposed to be taken in seriousness or if they’re made purely for nostalgic superfluous purposes. Gershon to her credit despite the fact that the plot and the premise of the film are just awful she gives an amazing performance. With regard to accepting the script as pure kitsch conjures images of all sorts of equally campy kitschy films of the 60’s and 70’s. Watching Gershon go through the whole film with all that pill popping and ass kicking in a blonde wig it’s almost like instead of channeling the fashion icon she’s channeled Pam Grier as Foxy Brown playing Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) in Valley of the Dolls. While Gershon’s performance is utterly amazing unto itself the decision to cast her without the comedic implication is still puzzling. Its almost would be like if they made a biopic of Bjork and cast Wynona Ryder as the lead. (brownie points to those who know what I’m talking about)
Iconic actress Raquel Welch unfortunately while she looks amazing for her age doesn’t really deliver anything noteworthy, however child actress Madison McAleer who plays Donatella’s young daughter Allegra probably give the best authentically dramatic performance of the whole cast. Which I’m not entirely sure if that’s sad or impressive. Nonetheless the girl gets my vote for best actress in drama this year.
To tie things off it seems that we’re entering a new era of Lifetime movies. It appears that the writers over there are finally moving on from those cheap and cheesy stories about the average American woman marrying the wrong guy and escaping with her life and children, or those awful stories about the women of real life court room drama to depicting the forlorn lives of women apart of what Christopher Hitchens once described as “the jet set trailer trash elite.”
While these films are so far appear to be benign and at times entertaining in the ironic sense the only thing that we as the viewer should be outraged about is their seeming justification of homophobia.The writer’s of House of Versace clearly think that homophobia is acceptable so long as it’s orchestrated by women towards gay men. The film’s Donatella is never apologetic for the string of homophobic slurs she hurls at Gianni and his boyfriend. Regardless of whether they were said in anger or not. She is never remorseful of the fact that the last thing she said to her brother was a condescending tone of “goplay with your boyfriend.” She never reconciles with her late brother’s boyfriend who she and her family ostracize after Gianni’s passing because they don’t consider him family. Tensions between the surviving Versaces and Antonio (Gianni’s boyfriend) are only aggravated further when its learned that like any two persons who are for all intents and purposes married Gianni remembered Atonio in his will.
The real life Donatella Versace has made public clarifications that while she respected her brother’s relationship she never cared for or got on with Antonio as a person. This distinction is never really made in the LMN film and it comes off that the Donatella didn’t respect the relationship for what it was. This is chiefly the stupidest part of the film as its kind of difficult to be homophobic and work in the fashion industry. The writer’s at Lifetime should realize the feminist movement and the gay rights movement has not come as far as it has only to subvert one another.
In closing the cheap tawdry nature of House of Versace really reminds of a scene in the filmNext Friday where an exchange between two characters asks the spelling the brand’s name in order to establish a sense of authenticity. And this cheap knock off made for TV movie is really just a commercial way of comforting the insecurities of suburban American housewives so that they don’t feel bad about living in the drug rattled world of the Euro-trash fashion elite.