I went into last night’s Lifetime movie House of Versace with pretty low expectations. Lifetime biopics have been pretty disappointing recently. They’re not campy enough to be any fun, but they’re also not compelling enough to be legitimately interesting stories. House of Versace struck the right balance between the two extremes, and I was pleasantly surprised. It probably helped that the movie’s inspiration — the rise of Donatella Versace as designer of her brother Gianni’s label after his murder — offered the opportunity to really play with melodrama and excess, because that’s what Versace’s image is all about. Oh, and it also didn’t hurt that Gina Gershon totally carries this movie with her commanding portrayal of Donatella.
The movie opens backstage at a fashion show with “Pump Up the Jam” playing. I was immediately transported to my second grade roller rink parties. I knew we were in the nineties. Then “The Power” plays. This is just in the first two minutes. I instantly sat up in my seat and realized this could be good. This could be very good. The awesome soundtrack is just the first step in setting the right tone for this story. The next step is making the characters as convincing as possible. Once you catch a glimpse of Gina Gershon’s platinum wig and see how much Enrico Colantoni resembles Gianni, everything starts to work. I believed them as the characters, which made judging the story so much easier. This is a far cry from the bad wigs and botched accents of Liz & Dick.
For me the movie was really made by Gershon’s performance. My lasting impression of Donatella is as Maya Rudolph hilariously played her on Saturday Night Live. She’s over the top, and Gershon retains that aspect of the character to a point, but she also gives her a clear journey and arc over the course of the movie. She starts out as a warm but feisty woman who adores her family. Once Gianni is killed and she takes over the label, she becomes self-destructive and cruel. Gershon plays these different tones really well, in addition to nailing now-iconic lines like “If you’re going to put me on a leash, you better make it diamond studded or you can kiss my ass” that hooked us all from the trailer. She injects a living caricature with complexity without completely losing the fun. I found her entertaining but also sympathetic. Her character was a microcosm of what the film itself accomplishes.
The script avoids the problem that plagues so many Lifetime biopics where the story becomes one long checklist of major events separated by commercial breaks or cuts to black. This movie doesn’t try to tell the story of the Versace family from childhood to the present, including every important moment strung together awkwardly. It has a specific, overriding theme to convey and it focuses on only the moments and events that service that theme. The story the movie wants to tell is very clear: Donatella lives in her brother’s artistic shadow, craving more power, but when he dies she struggles to find her footing all on her own, and it destroys her. It’s summed up in a corny but effective motif in the dialogue. Gianni tells Donatella that she’s the moon and he’s the sun. The moon’s job is to reflect the brilliance of the sun. When Gianni dies, a mourning Donatella explains that now that the sun’s gone out, the moon can’t shine. It’s a silly, heavy-handed metaphor, but the script sticks to that character journey through the scenes it chooses to portray.
And can we talk for a second about how flawless Raquel Welch is as Donatella’s Aunt Lucia? This woman is 73 but doesn’t look to have a wrinkle on her. And she doesn’t have that stretched, plastic look that points to cosmetic surgery. Whatever she uses, I’d like a jar of it, please and thank you.
To sum it up, this movie probably won’t win any Emmys, and it wasn’t without its TV movie downfalls, like corny dialogue and iffy production value (some of those final runway looks were less than convincing). And of course it’s to be expected that Lifetime will embellish things. A rep for Versace called it “a work of fiction.” But I think overall this was a success for Lifetime. If the network can find more stories like this to tell that offer an appealing combination of emotional storytelling and flat-out fun, they’ll be headed in the right direction. It’ll also help to get more actors like Gina Gershon to star. Lindsay Lohan could learn a thing or fifty.