AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig
MPAA Rating: (for language throughout, sexual content, some drug material and violent images)
Running Time: 1:50
Release Date: 9/9/16 (limited); 9/16/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 15, 2016
"This isn't therapy," says David Milch to the writer he just hired to work on his show "Deadwood." The writer in question is trying to decide upon the name she will use while working for the show. She decides upon the name "Emily Frasier," which she also has used when singing for a band. "Emily Frasier" additionally has been known as "Speedie." "Speedie" is the personal assistant of "JT LeRoy," a celebrated, counter-culture author who burst on to the scene with his debut novel Sarah in 2000. In case the quotation marks aren't enough, none of these people, by the way, actually exists.
Just a bit of Milch's philosophy—that, first and foremost, writing is a job—might have gone a long way to lessening the backlash that ensued when it was discovered that LeRoy wasn't real in any legal or tangible sense. Instead of focusing on the drama surrounding who is and isn't real, the press could have looked at this tangled web as an interesting footnote to the work itself. Milch's notion that writing isn't a primarily therapeutic practice might have helped a bit for the person who created the "avatar" of LeRoy, as well as "Emily Frasier" and "Speedie" and LeRoy's precursor "Terminator," too.
The problem is that Laura Albert, the woman behind LeRoy and company, was never too interested in writing, until she discovered a doctor through a search for a support hotline via the yellow pages. Albert told the doctor she was a teenage boy who had suffered severe abuse, became a prostitute, and contracted AIDS. The doctor suggested that the "boy" put his experiences and feelings into writing. That's how it all began.
It all ended in something of a literary scandal that made a good number of people, including a few celebrities who adored and hyped LeRoy's work, feel, at best, foolish and, at worst, betrayed. That's because, while people may not have fully identified with the characters of LeRoy's writing, they certainly believed that what they had heard about this poor kid's life was genuine.
Near the end of Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Albert makes sure to point out that the back cover of LeRoy's novel is clearly labeled as fiction. It comes across as more of a legal disclaimer than anything else. She's also not a fan of the word "hoax," which, to her, implies premeditation and malfeasance. Pressing herself to describe what happened, she arrives at "accident."
Albert is at the center of Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary, as she sits in front of a screen to document the whirlwind events that turned her from an anonymous person into an anonymous person who created a famous one. The rest of the story is told by way of the bevy of taped phone conversations that she recorded throughout her experience. The names on their own don't mean too much—Gus, Asia, Billy, Tom, Courtney, Michael, Matthew—until we add the last names—Van Sant, Argento, Corgan, Waits, Love, Pitt, Modine.
Albert, donning the voice and personality of LeRoy, had lengthy conversations with a good number of famous folks. They were enamored with the author's work. Some of them wanted to make movies out of the writer's books, and others just wanted to make sure that public readings of that work went well. They wanted to ensure that they stayed true to the author's vision—completely unaware that neither the author nor that vision was "true" in any literal sense of the word.
Feuerzeig also is clearly captivated by LeRoy, although his fascination at least has the benefit of knowing the full story. That advantage does a lot to shape and color his approach. The filmmaker's interest is not about the work, the real person behind the avatars, or the legal and ethical concerns that this whole scenario might raise. No, Feuerzeig is entranced by the whirlwind of fame itself, especially how, in this case, the whole storm really did seem to be an accident as far as he can tell, based solely on the word of someone who has a history of—let's call it—distorting the truth.
There's a rush to the way that Feuerzeig assembles Albert's narrative. He combines photos, home movies of Albert's childhood (juxtaposing her descriptions of misery with outward signs of happiness), audio recordings, headlines and news reports, and animated depictions of LeRoy's writings. The momentum is infectious. There's no denying that one kind of grows to admire the way Albert and her confidants, who had to play multiple roles depending on the requirements of becoming a public and popular entity, juggled the pieces of the unintentional ruse.
At a certain point, though, there's no denying that it becomes intentional, whether or not Feuerzeig or Albert are willing to admit it. When it comes to matters that go beyond Albert's basic narrative, Feuerzeig seems hesitant to probe any further, as if the filmmaker is as overwhelmed by the presence his subject as she was with the variety of famous people whom she came to know as LeRoy. The result is that Author: The JT LeRoy Story excels when it presents the facts (again, as far as we can tell) of the case, but it fails to find or even look for any answers that would explain or contextualize that story.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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