In the peculiar and enthralling high-low stakes world of literary scamming, the curious case of JT LeRoy may remain the most fascinating of all. LeRoy became a publishing sensation in the late 1990s through the publication of two books, Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. These stories of childhood trauma, sex work, drugs and poverty were supposedly inspired by LeRoy’s real life, and garnered fans as eclectic as Gus Van Sant, Winona Ryder, Marilyn Manson and Bono. The mysterious author, whose work inspired so many, remained reclusive and unseen in public for years until someone in dark glasses and a blonde wig became making appearances alongside their British caretaker. Leroy seemed like the ideal literary figurehead for a new age of celebrity, storytelling and coolness.
So of course he wasn’t real. LeRoy was merely the creation of author Laura Albert, with the public part of celebrity author played by her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop. The fresh new voice of fiction, that devastatingly honest insight into a dark and torrid world, was not what had been promised.
Much has been written on the LeRoy case since its unmasking. Knoop wrote her own biography and a celebrated documentary was released last year. But of course a story this bonkers had to get the movie treatment, and with Knoop herself claiming a co-writing credit. If you’re going to have a movie made of your life, getting Kristen Stewart to play you is a pretty good way to get things done.
Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy opens with Knoop arriving in San Francisco on the invitation of her musician brother (Jim Sturgess) who lives in the city with his girlfriend, Laura (Laura Dern). She is vibrant, highly performative and hungry for artistic recognition, although it is quickly revealed that she has much of the latter through her ‘avatar’, the literary wunderkind JT LeRoy. As the public hunger for more of the writer than his own words can provide, Savannah reluctantly becomes the body for Laura’s creative vessel, but it doesn’t take long for Savannah to start enjoying herself and the freedom this persona brings, including a burgeoning romance with a hotshot actress-director who wants to make a movie from ‘his’ work (Diane Kruger).
This is a film first and foremost about identity. Laura has lived a troubled life and finds her JT pseudonym both freeing and healing, while for Savannah it becomes a way to explore her own relationship with gender. LeRoy himself becomes an idol for his fans and the fellow artists who seek validation through his supposed genius. The JT LeRoy act can only work when both Laura and Savannah embody it - Laura as the words and Savannah as the face - but it’s clear who is really in charge and who’s getting the most from the vicarious experience. Scenes where Laura, disguised as JT’s British assistant-slash-carer Speedy, brashly takes over every conversation ‘LeRoy’ has in public drive home both the liberating and frustrating experience.
While the film is based on Knoop’s book and gives her the driving focus of the narrative, the most interesting parts of the story are all Laura’s. Like another TIFF movie about literary fraud, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, this one has a piercingly cynical view on both the publishing establishment and the frustrations of being an artist. Laura’s made it in a way most writers never will but it still kills her to relinquish the adoration to her own creation. That doesn’t stop her from soaking in the fame, something that Laura Dern has a ball with. She plays Laura Albert as someone who has absolutely no idea how to stop performing a role. She’s bubbly to the point of obnoxiousness at almost every turn, seemingly unable to turn it off except for those glimmers of truth she finds herself sliding into unexpectedly. Dern gets the biggest laughs when playing the Speedy persona, with an English accent that sounds like a female Jason Statham. It takes skill to make a pretty pathetic manipulator sympathetic on every level, but we all know that Laura Dern can do anything, especially with the right wig.
Kristen Stewart adds another string to her bow as one of the best actresses of her generation, making Savannah’s passiveness and willingness to go along with this bonkers charade seem so utterly reasonable. Watching her as Savannah as JT in the nylon blonde wig and Michael Jackson sunglasses, head always down and endearingly childish mumbles for every reply, may be the most spot on piece of casting in 2018.
This story is bonkers and the film barely scratches the surface. ‘LeRoy’ got to hang out with rockstars, write album liner notes for Marilyn Manson, see an adaptation of their work premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, write a draft of a screenplay for Gus Van Sant, and much more. Maybe no film can ever truly live up to such a story but it’s still somewhat underwhelming that Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy ends up being so conventional. There are montages a-plenty to fill in the gaps but the real meat of the scandal does not prove filling to the viewer.
It may simply be that the topic is too raw to truly go there. Take the issue of Ava, who ‘JT’, both through Laura and Savannah, forms a romantic relationship with. This is a hugely controversial issue regarding consent before one even deals with the fact that Ava is supposed to be Asia Argento. The film Argento directed, wrote and starred in based on one of Leroy’s books is currently in the press because its star, Jimmy Bennett, accused Argento of sexually assaulting him on set when he was a teenager. The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, as with much of LeRoy’s work, is about sexual assault. Obviously, this story did not break until after the film was completed but its shadow hangs wearily overhead all the same. The film decides to deal with this thorny topic with some timidity. Savannah and Ava have a sexual encounter and it is later implied that Ava knows ‘JT’ is not who ‘he’ pretends to be, but the true thorniness of this topic doesn’t get the time or attention it deserves.
Nor does the myth of JT himself. The film is more about Knoop and Albert than LeRoy, but we are still given little understanding of what makes LeRoy’s work and image so enthralling to so many. A major part of that appeal is rooted in some very problematic attitudes towards glorifying poverty and abuse for artistic merit. Albert can really write but there’s something deeply revealing about herself and the publishing industry that such stories had to be contextualized as ‘true events’. This is something the film doesn’t get into, nor does it have much to say on LeRoy in general. Perhaps that’s because doing so would complicate the characters: Their charade becomes much less fun when you think about the exploitative ideals it’s built on.
Truly, Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy should be much stranger than it is, and it could certainly stand to be more brutal towards its subjects, but it offers an entertaining primer on the JT LeRoy story for the uninitiated. The dual force of Stewart and Dern’s work provides a firm emotional centre in a rather weak storm, and while it could always have gone further, it does sidestep one major elephant in the room in a palatable manner. It probably won’t make you want to rush out and read LeRoy’s work, but that may be for the best.
Header Image Source: Courtesy of TIFF