What an incredible surprise it was to discover Penelope Cruz’ smashing performance as Donatella Versace in FX’ red-hot TV series “The Assassination of Gianna Versace.” She’s almost too big for the small screen as she melts hearts and TV sets across America,as she comes wholly into her own in Episode 7, which is focused finally, mainly on her, and her complex relationship with her brother, the murdered Out Gay fashion designer Gianni Versace.
I can’t remember Penelope ever being given such a complex role IN ENGLISH. Sure, she’s been burning up the screen for a decade or two in the great parts Pedro Almodovar has written for her, but they’ve all been in Spanish. The brilliant series creater Ryan Murphy tops himself yet again in this ground-breaking American Crime Story series by giving full-rein and focus to the brother/sister relationship, which is arguably one of the most fascinating and creative of our times.
You see, Versace knows he is dying, of AIDS, and his devoted, feisty, but caring sister knows it, too. The Versace family has denied any of this, and even denied that Versace knew his killer, Andrew Cunanan. But Murphy begs to differ, and I think he’s right. In any case, his scenes in Episode 7, show the magnificent Edgar Ramirez at his absolute best as he tries to make the shy, yes, shy, well, diffident Donatella begin to take over the reins of his company.
His dark eyes are filled with the knowledge (was it premonition?) on his part that he is not going to be around much longer, and that in the limited time that is left to him, he has to make his beautiful, flighty sister come to grips with not only his upcoming demise (AIDS could kill you in those days, 20 years ago) but face the responsibility of her own talent, as an entrepreneur, and a fashion designer in her own right.
He senses her talent, but she doesn’t. But she cares about him and doesn’t want him to part from her in any manner, business, fashion or otherwise. But he knows how sick he is and it is inevitable. He knows she is his legacy, and it trying to make her see it, but she doesn’t want to.
Cruz hits all the right notes of definance, denial, insecurity and greatness. We’ve been waiting for this episode all season, and Ramirez matches her beat for beat, heartbeat for heartbeat, in this poignant pas de deux.
Still going backwards in time, we know what’s coming but the characters don’t. The tragic, brief life and early death of Gianni Versace is not to be avoided and Murphy and his incredibly versatile writer Tom Bob Smith have done a brilliant job making sure all these points are made and every tone is touched on.
And Andrew Cunanan? We see our future assassin here at his youngest and seemingly most normal working as the cashier in a drug store. We also see him making his first tentative steps into being a call boy. Rich, older men are the ones who like him the most, and we see how dangerous THAT life can be when one of his sugar daddes is murdered with a hammer by a trick (Andrew is shown to have witnessed this bloody scene, which in real life, he probably didn’t) but he certainly KNEW of it. He also saw how easy it was to get away with a gay murder, even one this bloodily brutal. The police just didn’t care. It was a gay person, no matter how rich he was.
And it totally prefigures the way Cunanan brutally murders his Navy friend Jeff Trial, a few episodes back. Which is to say forward. That’s the other great innovation Murphy and Bob Smith have made, the reverse time story line.
We also get to see Andrew continue to torture his simple-minded Mother, who this time he slams into a wall and breaks her shoulder, because she bought him the wrong kind of ice cream.
With only two more episodes to go, we will finally see Andrew’s abusive Filipino father, and final suicide on a house boat as the police finally close in. I can’t wait.