One of the films from this year's Sundance Film Festival that I'm still chewing on is Author: The JT LeRoy Story. The documentary by Jeff Feuerzeig is well-made and obviously was produced with an enormous amount of access to Laura Albert, the writer at the heart of the very, very strange saga. That's part of the problem, though. I'm not sure why anyone would ever trust a single word out of Albert's mouth, especially not on the subject of JT LeRoy, and in the end, her involvement makes me believe the movie less, not more.
For those unfamiliar with the story, JT LeRoy was a literary phenomenon in the late '90s, a young author who became a celebrity as much for his backstory as for his prose. People like Bono and Courtney Love and Gus Van Sant and Billy Corgan all believed fervently in LeRoy, and while secrecy was part of his persona in the early days, eventually LeRoy started making more personal appearances and doing more readings of his work and traveling around the world. It was almost eight years before the New York Times broke the story that LeRoy didn't actually exist and the entire backstory that had made him so irresistible to the celebrities who embraced him was fabricated.
In Feuerzeig's documentary, Albert tries to make the case that none of it matters, that only the writing is important. I would argue that the film almost completely negates that point, though. From the very beginning, Albert used the character she'd created to give her writing credibility, and much of the early reaction to her work was based at least in part on the understandable human empathy that comes when you hear a teenager has been abused sexually for most of their young lives. The book that established LeRoy was Sarah, which is an incredibly ugly story elevated by a lyrical sense of language. The main character's mother is a prostitute who specializes in truck drivers, a “lot lizard,” and part of what reviewers flipped out about was the “authenticity” of the writing. That made it especially funny in the documentary when they show a sequence from the making of Asia Argento's film adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things where Laura Albert visited the location, admitting on-camera that it was her first time to ever visit a truck stop.
The magnitude of the fraud is what I find fascinating about the JT LeRoy story. Albert was married to Geoff Knoop, a musician, and as the career for LeRoy took off, Knoop got his half-sister Savannah to agree to play LeRoy in public. Since much of LeRoy's work referenced his struggles with identity and gender, there was something sort of brilliant about having a woman play the part in public. Knoop would wear sunglasses and hats and wigs, and the obvious nature of her disguise was written off as part of LeRoy's own personal issues. Albert would travel with Knoop and stay right by her side, playing the role of “Speedie,” who was first established as a friend and then later as a manager of sorts. It was once celebrities really started to rally around LeRoy that Albert started to want more as Speedie. She and her husband started a band with “lyrics by JT LeRoy,” and little by little, the Savannah version of JT began to have experiences that excluded Albert, including an alleged sexual affair with Argento, who was chasing the rights to Heart at the time, determined to direct the film. I think Albert's partially right that it doesn't matter ultimately who the person is writing a piece of fiction if the work moves the reader, but it seems to me that Albert's also intentionally glossing over the impact that her false biography had on things. Novelist Dennis Cooper was the first person to really support LeRoy as an artist, helping him find an agent and a publisher, putting him in touch with other writers, and Albert absolutely played a part with him, telling him horror stories about how JT had suffered. In those early days, JT was supposedly HIV positive, something that Albert quickly had to revise once Savannah started making personal appearances, clearly not sick or dying.
Today, the Hollywood Reporter ran a story about a new film from Justin Kelly in which Kristen Stewart will play Savannah, James Franco will play Geoff, and Helena Bonham Carter will play Laura. What I'm a little confused by is the description of it as “a Hollywood-set transgender story.” Laura Albert never lived as transgender or identified herself that way, and Savannah lived as a woman except in public appearances. Calling this a transgender story seems really clueless, but often when you see a story in the trades, details like the logline have come directly from the project they're writing about, and considering Kelly's last film, I Am Michael, was set within the LBGT community, it makes me wonder what his approach is going to be here. The article also says that the film is based on the book by “Savannah Kroop,” instead of Knoop, and that Savannah was the one behind the scheme, which I don't think is true at all. That's a lot of details that confuse me considering I just saw a documentary about this subject. I'm very curious to see how Kelly can bring something new to this story and what insight his film will offer considering how Albert still isn't entirely forthcoming about what she did and why.
Whatever the case, if they make JT LeRoy, it's a fascinating story, and there's room for something great if they can find the right way to tell the story.