WRI/DIR: Jeff Feuerzeig • PRO: Jeff Feuerzeig, Jim Czarnecki, Danny Gabai • DOP: Richard Henkels • ED: Michelle M. Witten • MUS: Walter Werzowa
Federico Fellni said “a created thing is never invented and it is never true: it is always and ever itself.” This observation is used as the epigraph for Author: The JT Leroy Story, Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary about how Laura Albert, a San Francisco writer in her late twenties, created a pseudonym, JT Leroy, a fifteen year-old boy from the Bible Belt who had been abused as a child and was a drug abuser and a prostitute, and who was living with AIDS.
While everything about JT Leroy’s life story was a fake (well, almost everything; Albert herself had been abused and spent most of her adolescence in a group home), one thing about LeRoy was undeniable: he had literary talent. His fiction was filled with authentically seedy details about turning tricks at truck stops, shooting up heroin, and vagrancy, told in a style that had critics comparing him to the giants of Southern Gothic.
It isn’t long after Albert conjures JT that the author becomes a literary and pop culture sensation: publishers and agents come calling, and soon after, celebrities grab on to the rising star. The documentary is very good at examining the way in which the worlds of publishing, media, Hollywood, and rock n’ roll intersect and conspire in a media-feeding frenzy.
To keep up the fiction, Albert ropes in her sister-in-law, Savannah, to be LeRoy in public. Hiding behind dark glasses and a blonde wig that makes her look eerily like Andy Warhol (an interesting comparison: Warhol would probably have loved the idea of a fake artist lauded for his brilliance), Savannah initially adopts the persona for a one-off television interview, but soon has to be LeRoy all the time at readings, literary events, and parties with the likes of Debbie Harry, Courtney Love, Lou Reed, Billy Corgan, Michael Stipe, Eddie Vedder, Gus Van Sant, Winona Ryder, and U2. One hilarious anecdote recounts Bono huddling with LeRoy at a party offering the young author career advice.
Leroy has an assistant, Speedie (Albert with a dodgy English accent), and where Speedie goes, so does her musician boyfriend Astor (Albert’s husband and Savannah’s brother, Geoff). Soon the trio are in Italy with Asia Argento (who would go on to star in and direct a film of LeRoy’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things) and hanging out with Gus Van Sant (Albert wrote much of the original screenplay for Elephant).
Author: The JT LeRoy Story is a Frankenstein tale, or more properly a Pygmalion tale, as Albert finds herself on the sidelines, watching as someone else is praised for her work, and the subject of intense scrutiny from LeRoy’s new friends, who think that Speedie and Astor are holding the young author back and are just riding his coattails and using him.
Eventually the fraud is exposed, and although ‘hoax’ is not the word that Albert would prefer to use (she regards JT LeRoy and the other personae she created as avatars who could express things that she couldn’t), lawyers tend to see things differently from artists. The same people who adored JT LeRoy now want nothing to do with him, but more than one person advises Albert to capitalize on the scandal and write a tell-all. This is not a film which portrays celebrities well; you might walk away from it with an even lower opinion of Courtney Love.
As fascinating as the stories of trips to Cannes and partying with Hollywood celebrities are, an equally interesting aspect of the film explores Albert’s reason for creating JT LeRoy in the first place: her own childhood and adolescence. Abused, bullied, and neglected, she retreated into a fantasy world, and would create disturbing tableaux with her Barbie dolls: bloodied, beaten, and raped. Albert struggled with her weight for many years, and reluctant to go out, the teenager would dress up her sister as a punk and send her out pretending to be her. She would phone crisis hotlines and put on accents and assume identities to tell her story (these were not prank calls – she was unable to speak as Laura and felt the only way she could confide in people was from behind a mask).
Author: The JT LeRoy Story couldn’t arrive at a better time. While examinations of identity and authenticity have generally been the reserve of academics, recent events in the Zeitgeist have put the issue of what is real squarely in the public eye. As I write this, the media is engrossed by a plagiarism scandal involving Melania Trump and her speechwriter (a woman who may not even exist), by a Kanye West music video that uses lifelike wax models of famous people (without their permission), and by the possibility that West’s chief celebrity rival, Taylor Swift is involved in a fake romance with the Internet’s boyfriend, Tom Hiddleston for the purposes of publicity .
Author: The JT Leroy Story is released 29th July 2016