Versace: after the murder, the mystery

Hollywood vultures are sniffing around the corpses, writes Tim Cornwell. But foreign fashion designers and gay serial killers are not the easiest to sell
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The Independent Online
Andrew Cunanan's suicide - a gunshot to the mouth, when he was startled by a frightened caretaker - changed the character of his story overnight. For the man who had been hunted as an elusive monster, portrayed as a murderous Svengali who changed his appearance at will, it seemed a small, sad and messy death.

Cunanan was portrayed as the terror of the gay community and the world of fashion, rumoured to be roaming the streets in drag, armed with a hit list; in death he was rendered a pathetic figure. How much more fitting if he had died in a hail of bullets, snarling defiance with his last breath, brandishing the handgun with which he killed Gianni Versace.

That, at least, is how Hollywood seems to be thinking. Faced with the tale of the spree killer, the male prostitute cum socialite who fed on the fringes of gay high society, the film industry's response so far has been thanks, but no thanks. The hunt for Cunanan revived the FBI's moribund Ten Most Wanted list, and the shooting of Versace was an electrifying and extraordinary news story. But its finale has failed to turn Hollywood on.

Certainly, some vultures are descending, or at least sniffing around the corpse. The Washington Post reports that Sam Lupowitz, a Miami-based producer, is rushing a $2m feature film Fatal Encounter into production. "I don't care if everyone in this town thinks I'm an exploitative sleaze," Lupowitz said. "The curiosity factor has got to be immense."

True crime tales are one thing in print: their stock in trade is to be gory, tasteless, and voyeuristic. And so St Martin's Press is rushing Death at Every Stop on to bookshelves, edited by Charles Spicer, a veteran of instant books on cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer and Susan Smith, the mother who drowned her two young sons. There is talk of a television movie.

But producer Michael O'Hara, an expert at bringing tales of crime and passion, true and fictional, to the small screen, explains what Entertainment Weekly called the "Silence of the Screens". "It's a very interesting story from a journalism standpoint," said O'Hara. "But I find it a very narrow story from a dramatist's standpoint." In any case, he noted, "his death is kind of unpleasant."

On the face of it, Versace was the stuff of movies: he chatted with Diana, dressed Madonna, dined with Mike Tyson, and was even reportedly scheduled to appear as himself in a Woody Allen film to begin shooting this autumn. But he was not reckoned a household name in the heartland until his death; middle Americans don't celebrate designers the way some Europeans do.

A film, particularly from a major studio or a network, also threatens to be a political minefield. Sympathetic gay characters are said to be hot in Hollywood following Rupert Everett's winning performance with Julia Robert's in this summer's My Best Friend's Wedding.

But Cunanan conjures up images that are deeply politically incorrect, and already the community is turning vocal on the subject. "They didn't say he was a serial killer, they say a homosexual killed Versace," said Eric Shore, a Los Angeles designer. "I would hope that any film represents fairly that he was a psychopath."

At the same time, the Southern Baptists have protested Disney's "anti- family" policies, particularly with the public outing of Ellen DeGeneres in its eponymous comedy series, Ellen. The story of Versace would by necessity be laden with sleaze, violence and homosexuality, but misses a binding relationship between victim and killer, and risks coming under fire from left and right.

Mr O'Hara has produced two dozen fact-based films for television, including a mini-series about Charles Starkweather, claimed as America's first serial killer.

But he is cautious about the possibilities for a Versace movie. "Normally we would do a police pro- cedural, find the cop tracking the guy. In this case you don't have that. Versace is a very interesting man, but what are you going to do, somehow put his life story into this movie? That would be an Italian rather than an American film."