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American Crime Story Takes Donatella Versace From Caricature to Character

FX's series unearths a Donatella the public never knew

Malcolm Venable

The Versace brand, which represents the Versace family, has said it disapproves of FX's The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. "Lurid", the family called it in one of two statements, "distorted" and "bogus." This is not because they hated the silks, or because Donatella's Jack Russell terrier Audrey found the color palettes unsuitable for her Instagram. No one from the uber-private Versace family has said this explicitly, but accusations that Ryan Murphy's crime story is "reprehensible" are likely because the series reflects the reporting in Maureen Orth's book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U. S. History. The book, which is the basis for the series, asserts that Versace routinely had sex with escorts (with and without his partner Antonio (played by Ricky Martin) and that he was HIV positive when Andrew Cunanan murdered him in 1997. Although today, twenty years after the designer's death, stigmas and taboos around HIV and even sex work have loosened, the family's denials are understandable.

Gianni, Donatella and their brother Santo were a tight-knit unit that meticulously curated an image of luxurious, carefree glamour. They grew up in Southern Italy, with old-world Catholic values practically running through their veins. Although Orth's book, which FX's Versace uses as gospel, is exhaustively researched (and presumably lawsuit-proof), the Versaces contend that it's gossip and lies. And while Donatella has said she hasn't seen the series and has no plans to, she might be throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater because of all the ways Donatella has been portrayed in pop culture, FX's is the most flattering, and the most important.

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Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story


Penelope Cruz's real-life friendship with Donatella certainly informs the grace and seriousness she gives the woman she's portraying; Cruz has said she asked for Donatella's permission in an hour long call before accepting the role. She told Vogue, "I didn't want to do an imitation of Donatella, or a caricature. I wanted to try to capture the essence of who she is." Cruz grounds her with the most sensible, and perhaps even gracious accent ever afforded her. That accent is hard to get right as proven by Gina Gershon, who sounded like a giddy Zsa Zza Gabor in Lifetime's absurd House of Versace. (In fairness, she pushed for subtitles, she told Popsugar so maybe it would've been better?) Everyone who's heard Donatella's enchanting English knows it's a husky, at times congested and slushy soup of sounds harsh (strength becomes "strenf") and sweet; sometimes producers actually do provide subtitles so listeners can understand. Cruz told Vogue she worked with a dialogue coach to perfect Donatella's speech -- different now than it was in the 90s. The end result is an elegant purr that blends Cruz's native Spanish, Italian and English; most importantly, she nails Donatella's staccato speaking rhythm. But Cruz's careful consideration of Donatella isn't the only thing changing perceptions of the fashion mogul; FX's story reveals about Donatella challenges everything America thought they knew.

Most people know Donatella Versace as a caricature, a shorthand for the ludicrous, Zoolander-like excesses associated with the fashion industry. After her brother's death in 1997, Donatella became something of a pop star. In the 00s, as cable TV, Internet culture, red-carpet culture and celebrity culture congealed into the always-on loop that exists today, Donatella rose to the level of iconography. Her extreme Euro tan, platinum tresses, skin-tight dresses as well as paparazzi shots next to mega stars like J. Lo made it so that even people who don't follow fashion could recognize her. And then there were Maya Rudolph's SNL parodies -- which depicted Donatella perennially holding a champagne flute, smoking a cigarette and screaming "Get out!" at lesser-thans -- that made Donatella a household name.

It didn't matter that Donatella Versace was actually the brains and muscle behind a global empire that employed thousands of people: Donatella herself loved the attention. (Self-deprecating and astute to the currency conversation creates, she went on HLN, of all places, to express her admiration for the lampooning and did the bit with Maya on Vh1's Fashion Awards.) It's true that the exaggerations weren't entirely off base -- Donatella used to have her Marlboro Reds wrapped in packets bearing her initials, because she didn't like the warning label, and keep them in a bejeweled Versace case -- but as is the case with parody, complexities got lost.The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story presents her with real depth, the way people who really know her say she is is: a strong-willed woman who thrived after being thrust into steering a $800 million ship in the midst of impossible grief. The depiction may not be entirely flattering (she's never denied giving Gianni's partner the cold shoulder, as she does in the series) but in Versace, Donatella earns overdue public respect, not laughs.

Penelope Cruz, The Assassination of Gianna Versace: American Crime Story

Jeff Daly/FX

"We wanted to show Donatella I think in a serious light," Ryan Murphy told TV Guide at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January. "Like what Sarah [Paulson] did with Marcia [Clark in The People vs. O.J. Simpson] I think what we did with Penelope was show her with heart. In many ways it's a tribute to Donatella."

Of course, no Donatella works without glamour, and the first glimpses of her in the first episode practically drip with allure. Donatella descends from a private jet, jaw-droppingly chic in all black, before getting into a black limo and doing all the stereotypical things post-Maya Rudolph audiences expect: put on black sunglasses, make note of her hair, and scurry away from photographers blinding her with flash bulbs. (One critique of these first scenes from Cathy Horn, a legendary fashion critic who spent time with Gianni and Donatella, notes that Donatella would've been more likely to use a back door but, whatever.) Though Penelope's Donatella captures her exterior fabulousness, it eschews Donatella's famed trivial pursuits -- her love of celebrity, big jewelry and yes, cocaine -- in favor of showing someone grounded and tough. Nobody would know from her public perception that Donatella had been running the company for as much as a year and a half before Gianni's death, so Versace's scenes of her making executive decisions on behalf of the company swing a new set of empathies in her favor.

Donatella's achievements are astonishingly rare; despite being fashion's primary consumers, women made up only 14 percent of the leadership teams for 50 major fashion brands -- and that was in 2016, Business of Fashion says. Two decades before that, Donatella had the vision to shape the direction of her family's brand and the resolve to make men follow her lead. "I had to show strength. I had to show, 'We're going to do it,'" she told the New York Times in 2015. Seeing Donatella, calmly and strategically charting a steady course for their empire minutes after her brother had been murdered changes the narrative about her significantly. She wasn't just a muse, a glorified freeloader, a party girl with a budget and nothing to do -- nor was she too emotional to function at a time of unimaginable sadness. She rose to the moment, becoming chief designer and creative director right after Gianni died. While the brand later hit some turbulence (it was rescued from the brink of bankruptcy through investments and structural changes) she remains its head -- and was responsible for guiding it through some of its best years. As it turned out, the image of the Versace woman she'd been selling -- bold, confident and assured -- was a reflection, not fanciful fashion fantasy.

"What she went through was insane," Murphy said. He said he loved the scene in which she tells her brother Santo she won't take the company public, surrounded by male bankers. "She did not give in to patriarchal pressure. That's rough now. In 1997 -- can you imagine? She had no time to grieve. She had no experience running something that big and she still kept it together."

"Tell Morgan Stanley we will not list on the exchange. We will remain a private family company," Cruz's Donatella says in the first episode. The savvy she displays under pressure cuts closer to the keen and sometimes combustible real life Donatella than any other pop culture reimagining, and leaves a lasting impression as the series progresses. The real Donatella has no plans to see it, but if she ever does, she might be pleasantly surprised. "It's important to me when she sees what I've done," Cruz told Ellen Degeneres, "she can feel the love and respect that I have put there [and] how I feel for her." It's an image makeover sure to last all seasons.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on FX.