“I’m glad you know how to put an outfit together, but all you do is show up.”
It’s got its heart in the right place, however Justin Kelly‘s take on the JT LeRoy (2018) story, penned by Savannah Knoop, one of the participants in the infamous literary hoax, is too mild for its material.
So much pain, hubris, ambition and damage to draw upon, the entire publicity farce a perfect profile of the times – the avatar being more important than the author, yet we get a breezy, well-lit tale scratching the surface for more surface. No matter that Laura Dern is fiercely up for it, and Kristen Stewart seems perfectly cast.
Many an author in the history of art had done work under a pseudonym, mostly so they could make it, and sometimes so they would not brake it – like when a quick injection of cash in dire times comes via something not so artistic.
In that sense, Laura Albert is not an anomaly. Nor is she unusual in her emotional turbulence, fantasist attitudes, obnoxious fame-seeking, and deeply wounded dignity – art rarely comes from a place of serenity. Usually, that’s its destination.
Also, to be taken in as par for the course, is that a streetwise middle-aged woman, ex phone sex operator, would figure that the world would better handle her stories if she were a sweet young man, in this case a shy destitute gender-fluid waif, who would be carrying all her troubles, but not her years, or perhaps even more significantly – be just the right kind of cool.
What is unusual in this story, why it’s so remarkable, is that a choice to be someone else or rather not to be who one is, becomes a life decision, it pervades all aspects of Laura’s being, becoming so much more than a nom de plume. It becomes a raison d’etre, to stay on the French train – the absolute hustle.
One could say that this has something to do with our communication age, the way people cannot hide anymore, so pseudonyms do not allow for a good disguise, but not in Laura Albert’s case. She wanted to disappear into a different body, another persona, an alternate biography, and that is partly what her art is about. Thereafter, all the relationships she formed as a disembodied voice on the phone, as Jeremiah Terminator, were entirely crooked at the seams, despite the emotional truth that might have been underlying their garments.
There are so many layers to that story left to be examined, spanning back to her days of suicidal depression, when Laura would call helplines and pretend that she was someone else – a boy rather than a girl who has gone through sexual abuse. She found people to be more sympathetic that way. Somewhere at the core of her fragile self, she reckoned she must have deserved the abuse – as a woman, looking the way she looked (at the time, overweight), being the way she was – alone, abandoned and ashamed. A tragic and common thread in stories of childhood abuse and neglect – that heartbreaking belief that one is essentially unlovable.
This truly potent, bare-boned history, wrapped in tall tales and bottom line sensationalism, gives us a glimpse of where Laura’s hunger to succeed at all costs stems from – to the point of disowning her own identity, selling her actual authorship for fame, playing a loud-mouth second fiddle (a made-up Brit called Speedie) to her own creation JT LeRoy – now embodied by someone else (of Laura’s own choosing). Yet it does not seem to be explored dramatically at all, except as a narrative device, in a bit of clunky dialogue.
Savannah’s motivations for taking part in the hoax come off as too naive, and even glib. Giving JT a bewigged existence, making the public, and a hot list of celebrities (Courtney Love in Hollywood producer cameo) seeking cred by association think that she was the author, a teenage prostitute turned writer, instead of her sister-in-law Laura – Stewart stumbles around, half-present, not quite sure which narrative she belongs to.
Savannah falls in love with one of their targets, super fan of JT’s books, actress turned director of a JT LeRoy story, called Emma (Diane Kruger), a real-life Asia Argento character – and that would be the only bit of script that Stewart plays with conviction. Being the fantastic actress she is, this is the only narrative thread where she was actually given something to pull on.
When they are busted, as they inevitably will be, the entire aftermath plays out in three minutes, as if an afterthought, not the surefire downfall it must have been for all that were affected by the con – Laura’s partner, Savannah’s brother Geoff (Jim Sturgess), the clueless aspiring musician – included.
Eventually, lives are restored, not surprisingly, in more truth and dignity then they ever had. Laura now established as a writer, under her own name, but still feeling like at least a tiny bit of an impostor, a punk rock attitude that will probably never leave her. And good on her for that.
There is a doc you can watch, if you want to give this more thought, Author: The JT LeRoy Story offering much more substance to this tale. Even Argento’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is better in flavour & backstory, evoking Albert’s idiosyncratic inner minx & drawl. As for this film, it’s all persona, glossy surfaces, and tiara tears – which, perhaps inadvertently, makes the whole celebrity angle the point, rather than, merely, the plot.
Author: ©Milana Vujkov