It’s easy to argue that celebrity has no bearing on art, but the arc of JT LeRoy says otherwise. From roughly 1999 to 2005, LeRoy’s literary output was embraced by the Hollywood elite as much as it was the publishing cognoscenti. His haunting, Southern gothic voice was lauded as revelatory, but his past as an HIV-positive underaged prostitute proved even more intriguing, as did the fact that the author, barely out of his teens, considered himself gender fluid, a concept many progressives found brave and revelatory. Once it was revealed that the books were written by LeRoy’s manager, Laura Albert, and that the corporeal LeRoy was actually Albert’s sister-in-law, critics recoiled with words like “hoax” and “deception.” And if there’s one thing that Jeff Feuerzeig’s brisk, affecting documentary on the subject does well – and it does many things well – it’s to highlight how the vitriolic blowback to the author’s true identity was more a consequence of celebrity and identity consumption than it was the work, which as a result hasn’t persevered as it should.
The first thing we see in Author, after all, is Winona Ryder. After seeing her introduce LeRoy at a live event, the film segues into a series of answering machine messages for LeRoy from the likes of Courtney Love, Gus Van Sant, and Billy Corgan (hilariously dubbing himself the “Corganator”). What follows is a nonlinear dissection that leaps between Albert’s traumatic childhood, her path to publication, and her golden years of celebrity, intercut with reflective interviews and dramatic readings from LeRoy’s fiction.
Anyone who’s seen Feuerzeig’s The Devil and Daniel Johnston will recognize the filmmaker’s style: vibrant and frenetic, with animations of Albert’s doodles unfolding alongside spinning cassette reels revealing real-life audio from early eras of the author’s life (it’s amazing and fortunate for him that his subjects are such packrats). As it did in his previous documentary, the style complements both the peripatetic mind of its subject and the whirlwind that was JT LeRoy’s professional run. As a film, it’s relentlessly entertaining while remaining comprehensive in scope, further cementing Feuerzeig as our foremost documentarian of eccentric genius.
Still, it sometimes feels as if Feuerzeig is a bit too close to his subject. While Albert’s mind and work are important, she remains an unreliable narrator in a film that doesn’t posit her as such. In some ways, it recalls Errol Morris’ 2010 documentary Tabloid, a film that also explored a controversial figure with a scandalous past. What Author lacks is the cerebral curiosity of someone like Morris, who seeks to find his own truth in the perspectives of his subjects. Author lacks that, opting instead to serve mostly as a platform for Albert’s reflections and justifications.
That approach, however, is as rich with thematic nuance as a JT LeRoy novel. Not only does it investigate what constitutes a “literary hoax,” but it also touches on the fragile nature of celebrity as it pertains to both art and identity. These themes dovetail with Albert’s own struggles with identity, serving to highlight how art can serve as a safe space for those struggling with gender, body image, or mental illness. But it’s the cohesion of the two that results in the film’s most complex ideas, with Albert’s desire to live vicariously through others eventually being undercut by her own burgeoning sense of self-confidence. That Albert’s complexity makes up for Feuerzeig’s gripping yet superficial approach is one of the benefits of having a brilliant artist at the heart of your documentary.
Author posits the JT LeRoy situation as much more than a mere curiosity, instead portraying it as an important shift in the way pop culture began to discuss identity and gender, themes that have become are all the more relevant in the social media age. Most importantly, however, it’s a valiant attempt to propel the work itself beyond the shadow of the subsequent scandal. It doesn’t matter who wrote the words, after all, so long as the words exist.