Justin Kelly’s cinematic retelling of the J.T. LeRoy scandal is the second film I’ve watched in a span of 24 hours about a true-life literary hoax. The day before I watched Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which was about biographer Lee Israel’s two-year project to defraud literary memorabilia collectors by forging letters by famous dead authors. The Heller film is superior to Kelly’s, but mainly for technical reasons. Heller understands how to shoot and edit for maximum emotional resonance and how cinematic time differs from real time. Kelly’s film, which depicts a longer time period, is often confusing in that incidents almost seem to happen on top of one another. And the use of title cards and voiceovers just add to the mess of developmental tricks that are obviously used to paper over lapses in imagination.
Nevertheless, both movies address their respective hoaxes with the same open-mindedness. Obviously, Israel’s was a bit more serious since it involved money-related fraud, but the skill behind her forgeries—that she could convincingly mimic the tone and style of some of the most famous writers of the 20th century—points up the essential silliness of the collector class. The J.T. LeRoy affair was much more complex since it involved more people and was played out in public in very conspicuous settings, such as the Cannes Film Festival and the pages of Vanity Fair. But the common sense idea at its core—that celebrity is a function of credulousness rather than intrinsic worth—is the same, and explored in more cutting detail.
J.T. LeRoy was the “avatar” of unpublished writer Laura Albert (Laura Dern), who created an androgynous teenage street kid to tell his sad story of being raised by a junkie truck stop prostitute in book form. Against all odds, LeRoy’s stories captured the zeitgeist of the late 90s/early 00s, and Albert was forced to ponder how far she would take the subterfuge, so she recruited her younger sister-in-law, Savannah (Kristen Stewart), to create LeRoy in the flesh, while Albert played the author’s comically accented British “handler,” Speedy, whenever they went out into public. Because of his damaged upbringing, LeRoy was preternaturally shy, hiding behind wigs, dark glasses, and feminine style so as to play up the notion that he could be a her, and since LeRoy always claimed his writing was “fiction,” the over-determined standoffishness came across as a mystique: was he or wasn’t he? Savannah’s lack of guile basically assured the success of the imposture.
Where the film succeeds is in its handling of the Savannah-Laura dynamic. Savannah is still a naif when she comes to San Francisco in 2001 to visit her newly wed brother (Jim Sturgess), and, like the viewer, is taken aback by Laura’s boldly solipsistic artistic persona. It’s clear from the beginning that Albert has emotional, perhaps even pscyhological, issues that prevent her from being not only honest with herself, but isolated from reality. Savannah goes along with her batty plan because she lacks self-possession, and the impersonation gives her a means of creating an identity. However, once she forms a crush on the moody, caustic French actress (Diane Kruger) who wants to buy the film rights to LeRoy’s first book, it’s clear that Savannah is not emotionally mature enough to maintain the proper veneer.
The movie’s main failings involve a simple lack of information. Though everyone involved in the scam is really into this for the money, it’s never explained how LeRoy as a construct benefits from the popularity of his books; nor how Albert conducts business without some kind of filtering agent. You know a movie is cutting way too many corners when you have to access not one, not two, but three Wikipedia pages to fill in the blanks.
Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).
Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2018 Mars Town Film Limited