In the course of this job – and years as a documentary obsessive – I have heard and seen some pretty crazy tales. Tonight’s documentary, AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY has just been added to the top three weirdest and damn, it had me totally transfixed.
The definitive look inside the mysterious case of early 2000s literary sensation JT LeRoy, it is an absolute rollercoaster from start to finish. On January 9th 2006, the New York Times sent shockwaves through the literary world when it unmasked “it boy" LeRoy, whose tough prose about a sordid childhood had captivated celebrities and literary world icons alike. He had been photographed and publically adored by everyone from Tom Waits to a gushing Winona Ryder; yet 16-year-old JT didn’t actually exist. He was the creative expression of troubled 40-something San Francisco former phone-sex operator turned housewife, Laura Albert. It has been said that LeRoy was a creature so perfect for his time that if he didn't exist, someone would have definitely made him up.
It begins with the origins of an unknown writer called Terminator, whose acclaim in underground literary circles sees him attain almost overnight cult celebrity status. Revealing himself to be Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy (JT for short), the writer went on to release a series of books chronicling his experiences as a queer, gender-fluid teenager, raised in rural West Virginia by his prostitute mother. The world devoured his work. Celebrities clambered to find out what the mysterious savant looked like to the point where he finally made an appearance - in a blonde wig, sunglasses, and black hat, hanging with everybody from Asia Argento to Courtney Love, and Bono. Overweight, reclusive Albert couldn’t manage to pass herself off as a waif-like teen, so she engaged her androgynous sister-in-law for the task and JT was a hit. Albert soon developed her own personality to tag along - a brash, British woman named “Speedie”.
So yep, things got weird. It’s almost hard to keep up with the deception as a viewer, and it’s obvious that for Albert, it was both exhilarating and bloody terrifying. How she found time to raise a child and write novels while the whole mess was going on, I don’t know. As you watch the archival footage director Jeff Feuerzeig has collected and the home-movies and recorded phone conversations Albert has saved, it’s hard to believe that so many people could have been fooled for so long. This documentary is the first time that Albert has publicly given her perspective on the whole chaotic mess, and she reveals not only the JT LeRoy story, but her own history with gender identity, mental illness, and sexual abuse. She is clearly a troubled woman and never viewed JT LeRoy’s fame as a literary hoax, but rather that the young author was just another part of her.
I agree with one commentator who said that this film is not only a chronicle of a bizarre moment in pop culture, but also a “study in the gullibility and narcissism of the celebrity class”. JT Leroy’s friends included everyone from Bono and Courtney Love to Billy Corgan, whilst filmmakers Gus Van Sant and Asia Argento’s passion when confronted by the young talent is seriously embarrassing to watch. The most cringe-inducing scene for me was the footage from an early-2000s event in New York City where Winona Ryder gushes over their friendship and Lou Reed is among those who read from the young author’s works. Phenomenal.
It was interesting to read about an upcoming film directed by Justin Kelly based on the memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy by Albert’s sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop. It stars Laura Dern as Albert and Kristen Stewart as JT/Savannah, and the story coming to the big screen was inevitable. It’s just sad to think that Albert wasn’t the first person to profit off the expose.
I’ve ranted on a bit about AUTHOR, but also want to stress how equally as great Thursday’s documentary, HOOLIGAN SPARROW is. Over the course of the film, a young filmmaker named Nanfu Wang follows activist Ye Haiyan (a.k.a the Hooligan Sparrow) and her band of colleagues to Hainan Province in southern China to protest the case of six school girls who were sexually abused by their principal. Marked as enemies of the state, the activists are under constant Chinese government surveillance and face interrogation, harassment, and imprisonment. Filmmaker Wang becomes a target too, but keeps shooting, guerrilla-style, with secret recording devices and hidden-camera glasses. In the process, she exposes a startling number of undercover security agents on the streets. Eventually, through smuggling footage back to her home in Brooklyn, NY Wang is able tell the story.
Part political thriller and part character study, the film sheds a truly unflattering light on China's secret police and within days of an announcement in the US that the film had been shortlisted for an Academy Award, government authorities visited Wang’s family in China. Terrifying, and a brilliant and vital watch.
Rialto Channel's PERSONAL PORTRAITS Season, on Wednesday and Thursdays at 8.30pm in October