JT LeRoy

2020-05-07 10:44
 
Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart in 'JT LeRoy.'

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

A true story of fiction gone too far. Author Laura Albert creates a literary persona by the name of Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, a young transgender teen whose sordid tales of truck stop prostitution capture the imagination of readers.

As a New York Times best-selling author, JT remains notoriously but unsurprisingly reclusive, declining numerous interviews and photoshoots. That is until Laura Albert meets her boyfriend's sister, Savannah Knoop, who bears a striking resemblance to the teenage boy whose photograph Laura selected for her book's back cover. A partnership is born.

The pair attend press conferences and LA parties and Knoop, embodying the fictional JT, becomes a darling of the Hollywood elite. Soon, a filmmaker declares her interest in an adaptation of one of LeRoy's books, resulting in greater scrutiny being placed on the mysterious young novelist.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

"The truth is rarely pure and never simple." Oscar Wilde's quote appears on a title card at the beginning of the film. It couldn't be more apt for this singularly bizarre story of literary fame, fraud, and manipulation.

Laura Dern is, as usual, excellent in the role of Laura Albert, who is by turns sympathetic, loathsome, and downright deceitful. Bear in mind; this movie was co-written by Savannah Knoop.

After documentaries and numerous exposés have been produced detailing the extent of the ruse, Knoop is understandably eager to present her side of the story. Albert's defence of the "hoax" has mainly consisted of claims that her invention of JT was necessary for her to tap into the stories she wanted to tell.

At one of the JT's press conferences, Knoop, disguised as JT, replies to a reporter asking if his writing was based on his lived experience, Knoop (as JT) responds evasively, "Fiction's sort of a lie but can be more true than the truth."

At some of their public appearances, the interactions between Albert and Knoop (both in disguise) are bordering on farcical. You'll ask yourself how the fawning journalists and celebs could be so gullible when Albert – embodying one of her other alter egos "Speedie"–  was truly as obnoxious and transparent as she's portrayed onscreen.

Reportedly, Albert would accompany JT around the world as Cockney manager Speedie everywhere except the UK, where she feared her accent wouldn't cut the mustard. So, there she adopted yet another persona, Emily Frasier: a childhood friend of JT. Oh, what a tangled web we weave!

Savannah and her brother Geoff seem to wrangle with the ethics of the operation, despite the lure of exotic trips to Paris and opportunities for Geoff to plug his band's music. Savannah reveals her secret part-time acting gig to her lover, Sean (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who immediately likens her repeat performances as JT to the habits of an addict.

Speaking of addicts, another so-called literary forgery, A Million Little Pieces, was sold as a memoir and became a bestseller after it was featured on Oprah's book club in 2005. It was later discovered that large portions of the book were fabricated by author James Frey (a movie adaptation has recently come out and the book is now marketed as fiction).

Unlike A Million Little Pieces, the novels of JT LeRoy were not marketed as non-fiction. In this case, it is the fabrication of an entire writer that has vexed the literary establishment. Is this less or more nefarious? What does it matter if a writer writes under a fictitious name, and has a third party assume the role of the alter ego?

Enter Eva, an actor-director quite obviously based on Asia Argento, the Italian filmmaker who was, in reality, enamoured with JT and directed a film adaptation based on his second novel The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.

In JT LeRoy, Eva and JT have an affair, seemingly a ploy by Eva to secure film rights. Knoop develops feelings for the beautiful movie star, but as Laura Albert bluntly points out, Eva is not interested in Savannah; she wants JT, whose personality and stories are crafted by Laura Albert, not to mention the flirtatious emails she exchanges with Eva.

To Laura, Savannah becomes an undeserving recipient of the praise and attention meant for the true artist, herself. Ironically, her own invented persona is now the obstacle between her and her recognition.

Predictably, the sham can only sham on so long (intentional Michael Jackson reference that will make sense when you see JT). As film adaptations materialise and film festivals start sending their invitations, cracks in the façade start to appear. Albert, despite her obvious greed, is sincere and naïve, and her justification for creating JT in the very beginning is, on the surface, legitimate.

But at some point, a line was crossed. It's all rather grey, morally speaking. The only legal consequence for Albert was a lawsuit filed by Antidote Films, which Albert lost. As it turns out, you should avoid signing contracts as your alter ego. Other writers have praised Albert for what could be considered performance art. Filmmakers like Argento, on the other hand, felt humiliated and hoodwinked.

The questions posed by the film and the broader story are undeniably provocative. Some will defend Albert and the means through which a piece of significant writing was shared with the world.

If the art resonates, does it matter if the author needed a persona to produce it? Would her deception be more forgivable if it were her dressing as a young man for press conferences? Is she being condemned because society no longer wants to see writers write from an imagined perspective? James Frey might agree.

Do we overvalue authenticity in art? Did she really need to take a photograph of a nameless teenager for the book jacket? Could Albert be both a talented writer and a compulsive liar? She wouldn't be the first.

Filming a screenplay so closely tied to Knoop's perspective prevents JT LeRoy from digging as deeply and broadly as it ought to, and you will likely be left with more questions than answers. Nevertheless, it's certainly a story worth telling, and with strong performances from both leads, it's sure to rattle around your head well after the credits have rolled.

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