A new documentary film, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, released last week from Amazon Studios and Magnolia Pictures (review possibly coming here) has drawn the ire of several authors and celebrities who figure into the LeRoy saga, and whose phone conversations with "JT," actually the SF-based writer Laura Albert, were recorded without their knowledge and used in the film. The New York Times reports that authors Mary Karr and Dennis Cooper, as well as actress and director Asia Argento, are especially incensed to find that Albert had them all on tape. Karr calls it a "betrayal," and Argento calls it "downright evil and disturbing."
Albert is well known to have parlayed her literary hoax which to this day she denies was a hoax, calling it instead a "myth," because in her logic she was simply writing as her "avatar" and JT was her literary creation into quick fame, some moderate fortune, and a ton of cultural caché in an age when literary celebrity was quickly becoming a thing of the past. Albert leveraged a relationship with Cooper, for whom it appears the JT persona was tailor-made to appeal to his tastes and his own literary oeuvre, to get an agent and ultimately to get critiques on her writing, and she would go on to impersonate JT for years in phone calls with other writers and celebrities, including Tom Waits, who declined to comment on the film.
In particular, the film features the process of Argento trying to "woo" JT into letting her have the rights to "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things," with Albert even suggesting that she had been sexually intimate with the young woman whom Albert convinced to portray JT in public, in reality the sister of her boyfriend, Savannah Knoop. Argento calls the suggestion meritless, "nasty," and “painful” and says she's "very angry" about the whole thing.
Cooper, who appears on camera in the film and plays a particularly central role in JT's story and success, calls the filmmaker's use of his recorded phone calls "very problematic," and he tells the Times via email, "[Director] Jeff Feuerzeig didn’t inform me that the recordings existed when he interviewed me, which seems very strange to me in retrospect." Indeed, it does feel sneaky, much the way Albert's entire MO in this was underhanded, cynical, and confused.
SF-based writer Stephen Beachy, a longtime friend of Cooper's who played a role in unmasking Albert via a 2005 piece in New York Magazine, refused to participate in the film at all, but because he once interviewed "JT" over the phone as part of his research, he ended up included against his will as well. Both Beachy and Argento felt that Feuerzeig was going to be too heavily weighted in the direction of letting Albert tell the story her own way.
The literary world along with celebrities like Bono, Winona Ryder, and Courtney Love all felt a bit burned by Albert's ruse, especially after it came to light that she had employed these elaborate theatrics and many lies to keep the hoax going pretending in public, herself, to be JT's British friend Speedie, and allowing Knoop to convince these celebrities, basically for publicity purposes and personal gain, that she was JT.
The film got four stars from a critic at RogerEbert.com and an 85% Fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes, but NYT critic A.O. Scott says is "less a documentary than an infomercial" for Albert's self-professed gifts, and would have been more interesting had it been a serious "study in the gullibility and narcissism of the celebrity class."
But, as Scott writes, JT was nonetheless "a complex and compelling creation: an H.I.V.-positive underage gay hustler with a history of drug addiction and sexual abuse who infused grim tales of degradation with lyricism and a kind of holy innocence." Does Albert still deserve credit for that? Some might say yes. But at the moment she still seems to be struggling to reestablish her lost literary credibility.
Next up: a fictionalization of the whole affair, starring James Franco, Helena Bonham Carter, and Kristen Stewart, announced earlier this year, based on the memoir and life rights of Knoop.