It’s been called by some as the literary hoax of our time. In 1997, Laura Albert, a 30-something year-old Brooklynite, published a series of semi-autobiographical stories under the name of J. T. LeRoy, a teenager who supposedly was born in rural West Virginia in the early ’80s. “LeRoy” wrote about his tragic, young life of abuse, addiction, prostitution, homelessness and more. Raw and honest, the stories touched a nerve with readers and their appeal led to Sarah, Albert/LeRoy’s book about LeRoy’s mother, being published in 2000. The book became an immediate best seller but LeRoy’s burgeoning celebrity began to pose logistical problems for Albert. Although she was adept at giving phone interviews as her literary avatar, as she put it, everyone wanted to meet the young author. That led to Albert recruiting Savannah Knoop, the sister of her partner, musician Geoffrey Knoop, to become LeRoy for the adoring public. Their five-year-long ruse is recreated in the simply named film, J. T. LEROY.
Directed by Justin Kelly (I AM MICHAEL), who also co-wrote the screenplay along with Knoop, and based on Knoop’s 2007 memoir, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, J. T. LEROY is almost too bizarre to believe. To maintain the ruse, Savannah (Kristen Stewart, BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALF-TIME WALK; CAFÉ SOCIETY; PERSONAL SHOPPER; CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA; STILL ALICE) dons a ridiculous wig and dark glasses to play LeRoy but that isn’t the half of it. Laura (Laura Dern, DOWNSIZING; STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI; THE FAULT IN OUR STARS; WILD) is with her every step of the way, pretending to be LeRoy’s British friend/advisor/spokesperson, Speedie. She, too, wears her own crazy wig and puts on a patently fake British accent, yet if anyone knows that they are frauds, they don’t say anything. Certainly, the two of them have European actress and filmmaker, Eva (Diane Kruger, IN THE FADE; FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS) fooled. She knows that LeRoy is a transgender, as is Savannah, but she somehow fails to make the connection until a newspaper reporter exposes Savannah and Laura and connects the dots for her. (The Eva character is very clearly Asia Argento, the actress, filmmaker and former partner of the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who made the film THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS. Based on Albert/LeRoy’s book of the same name, the film premiered at Cannes in 2004 to less than favourable reviews.)
But is Laura a literary fraud or did she simply perpetrate one of the greatest pieces performance art we’ve seen in a long time? Unfortunately, that question is not dealt with in the movie, leaving it for viewers to decide on their own when the closing credits roll. No one was financially hurt by Laura’s ruse. She did sign a film option contract with a production company under the LeRoy name and she was found guilty for entering into an agreement under false pretenses for which she had to pay compensation, but other than that, very few people, if anyone, who read her books felt cheated. Her stories are essentially true but she wrote them from the angle of a teenage boy rather than from her own.
As strange-but-true as the story is, Kelly’s treatment of it lacks pizzazz and fails to delve too deeply into either Laura or Savannah’s characters. Dern seems to be having a blast playing all of Laura’s avatars, including “Laura Victoria”, a freelance phone sex operator. Stewart, on the other hand, can’t seem to find her footing as either Savannah or LeRoy. For most of the film, she mopes around without giving us any insight into who Savannah really is.
One gets the feeling that J. T. LEROY could have been a more interesting film in more capable hands by addressing the big questions of identity and gender fluidity. As it is though, it’s okay but it’s not worth running out to the cinema to see. Better to wait for it to come to a streaming service near you. If you do see it, keep your eyes out for Courtney Love, who plays a Hollywood producer. Love was one of the big name stars who were pals with LeRoy back in the day.
J. T. LEROY opens in Hong Kong on September 26th.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, September 13th, 8:30 am HK time!
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