“A created thing is never invented and it is never true; it is always and ever itself.” This quote by Federico Fellini kicks off Jeff Feuerzeig’s stranger-than-fiction yarn Author: The JT LeRoy Story – and it’s the perfect way to do so. Not only does it address the elusive nature of a creation, but it equally prepares the audience for a work steeped in the ambiguity, opacity and unreliable narration of the masterful Italian auteur. However, it distinctly lacks the same kind of transcendent clarity of vision, proving to be as fractured and nebulous as its subject matter – hardly surprising given that this the story is told by its protagonist.
JT LeRoy burst onto the literary scene in the late 1990s with a brace of compulsive novels that suggested the dark recesses of the author’s own past. A reclusive personality, LeRoy identified as gender-fluid and came to writing as a form of therapy and the stories were hinted to be extensively autobiographical in nature. However, after enormous success, those stories were exposed as fiction and the edgy young LeRoy to himself be the creation of a forty-year-old mother, Laura Albert. Just as she crafted the framework of LeRoy two decades ago, it’s Albert who composes the shifting, unreliable narrative of Feuerzeig’s film, with little-to-no attempt to provide alternative perspectives on this. As Bart Layton allowed Frédéric Bourdin the opportunity to seduce the audience in The Imposter, so Feuerzeig gives Albert the chance to spin her own gripping yarn.
Albert has a way with words and audiences will be continually agog as details are revealed about how Albert got her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to portray the androgynous LeRoy in public whilst she herself posed as JT’s British best friend (unconvincing accent and all), Speedie. There’s a vicarious thrill as celebrities fawn over this non-existent person – Winona Ryder, in a gushing archival speech at the film’s opening and Asia Argento probably suffering the brunt of this – but Albert’s testimony raises more questions than it answers and, unlike Layton’s foray into similar territory, it lacks the opposing voices that fill in some of the contours. There are a few moments in which various people chime in, but they are few and marginal.
Most alternative voices are heard on the other end of phone calls with the likes of Courtney Love, Gus Van Sant and LeRoy’s psychiatrists which Albert seems to have fastidiously recorded for reasons that remain frustrating unquestioned. This perhaps gets the crux of the problem with The JT LeRoy Story – that it neither lionises nor deconstructs the myth as much as allows Albert to offer up a new one. She speaks of LeRoy communicating through her in a way that may well suggest some form of schizophrenia. She also talks about the lasting effects of a difficult childhood but these end up as more noise to add to the cacophony – it’s riveting to watch, but ultimately fails to satisfy your curiosity.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson