Some random thoughts on “Author: The JT LeRoy Story,” which I finally caught up with on my day off today:
1. “Author: The JT LeRoy Story” is the best film I’ve seen in 2016 … a funny, shocking, thought-provoking, ultimately, devastating experience.
2. I’m not a fan of altering folks to “trigger warnings,” but if that phrase means anything to you, there’s about 9 billion of them in this film, so the easily disturbed or traumatized should steer clear. For further context, watch the attached trailer.
3. When I first heard that “JT Leroy” was a literary hoax in the mid-2000s, I wasn’t surprised. I’m not saying I knew it was a hoax back then. But everything about LeRoy’s backstory seemed too “on the nose” to be believable. Prostitute mother: check, child/teenage prostitute: check, HIV-positive: check, Southern Gothic abusive religious grandparents: check, transgender issues: check. And the publishing world, multiple celebrities, and the public bought the LeRoy backstory hook, line, and sinker.
4. The big question … why did so many people buy the LeRoy hoax? I think it’s because in a heavily-edited / crafted celebrity culture and “reality-TV” world that’s anything but “real”, we’re forever on a quest for “authenticity.” For some reason, we seem to equate suffering with authenticity. And because we all want to root for the underdog and LeRoy’s backstory was so horrific, there are many who desperately wanted to believe it was true. Because of this belief, many overlooked the fact that LeRoy would only do interviews by phone, the fact that the voice of the actress playing LeRoy in public (Savannah Knoop) and the person doing the interviews over the phone (Laura Albert, the real writer behind JT LeRoy) had different voices. Many people will ignore cold, hard facts when they desperately want to believe something is true. You and I could point fingers, but we ALL (in either a moment of weakness or delusion) have believed something that fit some narrative that most of the people around us called “BS” on.
5. Regardless of whatever you think of Albert … the real writer behind JT LeRoy’s stories/novels … the books she wrote were labelled “Fiction” … not “Non Fiction” or “Memoir.” If the stories moved or haunted you, the work should stand on those merits, and not whether Albert invented a backstory for the person you thought was the author.
5. I have a newfound respect for “Deadwood” creator David Milch, Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan, director Gus Van Sant, and Courtney Love. All of them either knew the real story before it came out and/or were supportive of Albert after the hoax was revealed. All of them recognized the real Albert as a talented writer and more importantly, as a human being worthy of support and love.
6. The final revelation about the source of Albert’s painful past (obesity, mental illness, parental neglect/abuse, literary fraud) is like a body blow, but sadly puts her entire life (and subsequent writing and lies) into context. Yes, maybe even THAT might be false given everything we’ve witnessed, but I don’t think so. And even if it were, you don’t lead a life like Albert’s if you’re well-adjusted or had a healthy upbringing or vision of self-worth.
7. The fact that Albert is on camera painfully revealing about her life and how the LeRoy hoax came into being … and the fact that she has the audio tapes to prove it (she literally TAPED every conversation she had during that period, including many embarrassing ones with celebrities) leads to many astonishing moments.
8. The fact that this wasn’t shortlisted for the Best Documentary Oscar is total bullshit. Hopefully, the Academy will nominate it for Best Picture instead, but I’m not holding my breath.
Do yourself a favor and check it out. Director Jeff Feuerzeig has put together not only the best film I’ve seen in 2016, but possibly one of the best films I’ve ever seen. It matches Terry Zwigoff’s notorious 1995 documentary “Crumb” for its audacity, daring, and sensitivity.