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With: Laura Albert, Bruce Benderson, Dennis Cooper, Panio Gianopoulos, Ira Silverberg
Written by: Jeff Feuerzeig
Directed by: Jeff Feuerzeig
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, sexual content, some drug material and violent images
Running Time: 110
Date: 09/16/2016

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (2016)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Art Is Deceitful

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Some of my colleagues are of the opinion that Jeff Feuerzeig's new documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story is biased, and that may be true, but it's still quite useful to watch and discuss. It tells the story of the author of the successful and passionately consumed novel Sarah (2000) and collection of stories The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2001). At the time, the world knew their author, JT LeRoy as a shy, reclusive, yet attractive boy that habitually wore a bad blonde wig and big sunglasses, sometimes a wide-brimmed hat or a visor. He was the son of a prostitute, had been sexually abused, was HIV-positive, and transgender. Then, it was revealed that the actual author was Laura Albert, 15 years older, and none of those things. The person portraying LeRoy in public was actually Albert's sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop.

Feuerzeig's film lets Albert do most of the talking, telling her side of the story. This only briefly takes into account the rage that some people felt, and the betrayal. Many celebrities had thrown in their lot with the hot writer, and Asia Argento even made a film based on The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and some of them were left feeling foolish. (What's more, since the film's release it has come to light that Albert recorded many of her phone conversations using a cassette-tape answering machine, and those recordings were used, apparently illegally and without permission, in this film.) The LGBT community had embraced LeRoy as an icon and were enraged to discover that it was all made up; in their view, Albert had cannily and callously used these things to help sell books.

Yet, as Albert points out, the books are real. She wrote them, and they are works of fiction. They exist, and have been published. People read them and were moved by them. If the readers were moved less by the actual prose and more by external factors — i.e. they believed that the writer was somehow more truthful because of his HIV and transgender factors — then that seems more a problem of the reader than of the author. The words are unchanged. Now, I never read them, and it remains to be seen how many people are still reading them today, or whether they are really any good, and not just the product of hype. But I can't personally attest one way or the other. (I did review Argento's film and found it full of an appealingly raw energy.)

Regardless, Author: The JT LeRoy Story shows how Albert did not intend any kind of betrayal or evil plot. She grew up overweight and not pretty, and dealt with major issues of shyness and depression. (She reveals at the end of the film that she believes she was sexually abused as well.) Writing was something she used as a tool to cope, and she found it more helpful to write through the eyes of another persona, preferably a male. The film explains the slow steps by which her stories made their way into the hands of professionals, which led to agents and publishers, etc. Then, when it came time for "JT LeRoy" to appear in the flesh, Albert simply could not do it. She was able to "play" JT for phone calls, but showing up was a different matter.

Once Knoop became JT, Albert created another persona, an English woman called "Speedie," to hang around and be JT's assistant, and also to coach Knoop. It's easy to see how this all began, somewhat innocently, and how it all got out of hand. Along the way, Albert confessed the truth to a few trusted artist friends, rock star Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, and writer David Milch, of TV's Deadwood. They are not interviewed for this film, but according to their recordings and according to Albert, they seemed to understand, and did not judge her.

Yet it's hard to dismiss the rage and betrayal, which still seem to be out there. They are real. People felt betrayed. They invested a certain amount of emotional energy into this author, and it was yanked away from them. Hell, people are still very upset about the notion that Shakespeare may have also been a front for another writer (a theory is suggested in the fiction film Anonymous), so there's definitely something to this.

It could have something to do with fame, but I tend to think it's rooted in something deeper. Albert talks about meeting celebrities, but she talks in greater detail when there's some kind of connection with a kindred spirit, someone who creates and pushes boundaries. This connection extended to anyone who felt disaffected or outcast, and then, that connection was severed. Albert was likely hurt by this, though in the film she comes across as hard, like a middle-aged punk rocker. Perhaps a little bit of effort to get past her shell might have helped.

Despite this, there are hints. Albert seems as honest and confessional. She never appears to be boasting or appears on the defensive. She simply acknowledges all the sad factors that led her through her weird journey. She does rebut the word "hoax" to describe what happened, since she actually wrote the novels and stories. But otherwise, she doesn't hide anything. The lack of other interviews and sources for this film is a bit worrying, but given that this film is focused on one point of view, we should keep in mind that the story is far from done being told.

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