JT LeRoy was literature’s most “unreliable narrator.” An invented writer with a lurid, invented past and a talent appreciated mostly because of that fabrication, Jeremy “Terminator” LeRoy fooled the supposedly hip New York literary scene, and movie stars, rock stars, and famous filmmakers who came into “her” orbit in the late 1990s.
Because this 19 year-old West Virginia street hustler/heroin addict/AIDS suffering Street Lit phenom was actually an obese 30something Brooklynite who wrote in that voice, who curried favor with famous writers and agents, always by phone and fax, and with their gullible help made herself famous and at least rich enough to pay for gastric bypass surgery.
“Author: The JT LeRoy Story” lets LeRoy, aka Laura Albert, and a few of those who worked with her reveal how she did it. Some of that is the truth. Her motives, her murky early history? An abused childhood, institutionalization? That’s more suspect.
Because in the present-day interviews filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig did with her, and the decades of recorded and archived phone conversations with everyone from Billy Corgan and Courtney Love to Gus Van Sant and Michael Pitt, she-speaking-as-JT spins yarns.
It’s hard not to believe that very word coming of her mouth is a lie. And once the hoax added a cute public face for LeRoy — that of her boyfriend’s pixie-ish sister, Savannah Knoop — you wonder how any of these New York/Hollywood “sophisticates” could have been so stupid. I remember the first magazine profile I read of LeRoy, and I wasn’t fooled. Even in wig and glasses, Knoop was obviously no “Southern Gothic boy girl,” especially not a heroin addicted one who wanted to be a girl.
Feuerzeig makes the fateful choice of telling the whole story through Albert’s eyes, and decked out in too-old-for-this leather and straightened hair and piercings, she conjures up a hellish life — raped at 3, fat because her molester preferred her thin, abandoned by her parents.
And the filmmaker does nothing to verify any of this. As all fiction writers are by definition, liars, he kind of was obligated to at least try.
Albert was a lifelong phone-calling role player, adapting accents (British, West Virginia, also obviously fake) to call suicide hotlines and eventually a San Francisco shrink who urged her to write as a means of coping with her anxieties. “Terminator” was born, and eventually in fringe magazines, under the guise of a short memoir essays of a 13 year-old hustler.
That got her phone numbers of her favorite writers — Bruce Benderson (“User”) and Dennis Cooper (“Try”). Next thing you know, her writing is in the hands of an agent and publishers, and Terminator has morphed into “JT LeRoy.” With “Sarah,” JT was a literary star, “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” ensured the movies would come courting, that he’d end up backstage at concerts, that he’d hear “The Bono Talk,” about not letting success keep him — her — from staying “true to yourself.”
Doing interviews only by phone, JT’s mystery and allure grew. Some were suspicious from the start. But as the movie accidentally makes obvious, JT was someone that scene and those people wanted to believe — son of a West Virginia “lot lizard,” a truck-stop hooker, on the streets, servicing Johns in his tweens, on heroin and infected with AIDS by his teens.
Want to prey on New York prejudices? Play a grotesque parody of assorted Southern stereotypes.
The tape-recorded phone calls — with director Van Sant, Smashing Pumpkin Corgan, Courtney Love and actress/director Asia Argento — never stop feeling like the violations they are. But did Feuerzeig even try to get Winona Ryder, Tom Waits or anybody (other than Cooper and Benderson and her agent) to speak to how they felt after the hoax was revealed?
Feuerzeig gets Albert to talk about the role-playing she settled into early on, passing herself off as a British punk to land her first serious boyfriend, adapting voices and guises to anybody she got on the phone.
The logistics of the visual hustle are scantily covered (despite the movie’s two-hour running time) and are absurdly elaborate. Finding an “avatar,” was easy. Did Albert drill her on the writing? That young Ms. Knoop was able to “play” LeRoy to everyone’s satisfaction reinforces the sense that there’s no gullible rube like a famous one, a New York literary one. And Albert, playing first a British friend and “manager” to JT and then, transformed again into a musician-pal, had a front row seat to the circus she created.
If Oprah could be suckered by James Frey (“A Million Little Pieces”) and if an Alabama racist can secretly write about “his” Cherokee childhood, and get away with it for decades (“The Education of Little Tree”), if failed writer Richard Patrick Russ could abandon a life, a wife and children and reinvent himself as the sailing scion of Irish gentility Patrick O’Brian (“Master and Commander”), you’d think the literary world would be on its guard.
It wasn’t, and probably still isn’t.
Albert? The avatar-creating literary lioness of modest talents was just giving that world what they wanted. Her only crime might have been that she was ahead of her time.
MPAA Rating:R for language throughout, sexual content, some drug material and violent images
Cast: Laura Albert, Winona Ryder, Billy Corgan, Bruce Benderson ,Dennis Cooper
Credits: Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. A Magnolia/Amazon Studios release.
Running time: 1:50