Author: The JT LeRoy Story
2016, R, 110 min. Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 16, 2016
The account of how JT LeRoy, the pen name of author Laura Albert, became a literary success and all the rage during the early Aughts is a fascinating cultural phenomenon, and aspects of it are captured in this film by documentarian Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston). The tale is more than just a study of the use of pseudonyms and the morality of passing off fictional writings as memoirs. Albert went so far as to dress up her androgynously wispy sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, in big sunglasses and a bad wig and pass her off as the male LeRoy, while she herself, speaking with a laughably bad British accent, posed as LeRoy’s assistant and constant companion Speedy. As related in “his memoirs,” LeRoy’s tale of being born to a 14-year-old truck-stop prostitute in West Virginia, his sordid upbringing, and eventual drug abuse won the author literary champions, celebrity friends, and influential supporters in the music and film industries. Italian director Asia Argento even made an eponymous film from LeRoy’s novel, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. You might think that a title like that might rouse suspicions among his fans about LeRoy’s intentions. But, no, it took unmasking by print media journalists after about half a dozen years before the charade crashed.
Feuerzeig has made a fascinating doc about a fascinating occurrence. Author implicitly stokes so many of the moral questions the incident inherently raises. Do readers have the right to feel deceived, and does the notion of authorship pertain to avatars, as Albert calls LeRoy? Feuerzeig primarily errs in allowing Albert to narrate her own story. A woman with a clearly troubled past, a fluid gender identity, and a history as a demonstrably unreliable narrator, Albert is not able to provide the viewer with the most trustworthy version of events. And now, some of the figures spoken about in the film have raised legal objections to the use of audiotapes of phone conversations Albert made without informing her correspondents that they were being recorded. Permissibility aside, Albert’s rise and downfall engenders many questions that all thoughtful makers, viewers, and readers of “factual” material need to be asking – both before and after the fact.