‘Author: The JT LeRoy Story’ Tells a Wild True Story of an Unbelievable Literary Hoax

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Before I get started in reviewing this movie, let me just say that Author: The JT LeRoy Story is a documentary best observed knowing little as possible about the true life events covered in the film. Seriously, you should just come back and read this review after seeing Jeff Feuerzeig’s amazing documentary that explains the story behind one of the oddest literary hoaxes ever perpetrated, and a bizarre tale of celebrity in the time before the advent of social media. For two hours I sat there watching this story unfold, the entire time my jaw agape. Whenever I thought this story couldn’t get crazier, it did – and then its insanity continued to spiral out of control. Author: The JT LeRoy Story is one of the year’s finest films, documentary or otherwise. Seek it out.

In case you need more convincing, here’s the review…

Clichéd statements like “truth is stranger than fiction” endure because they’re true. And Author: The JT LeRoy Story show just how bizarre reality can really be. How does an author that doesn’t actually exist become the toast of the literary world, befriend numerous celebrities, work within the world of film and television before being outed as a massive fraud? Jeff Feuerzeig’s movie goes deep into the story with amazing access to the person behind the hoax, Laura Albert, using recent interviews, recorded phone conversations, and numerous personal photographs and home video recordings to uncover the massive layers of deceit employed by Albert, and eventually her husband and her sister-in-law.

It started when Albert started making calls to a teen help hotline. Conversing with a Dr. Owens, Albert creates an alter ego of a young punk boy who lives on the streets, turning tricks at a truck stop in order to secure his next heroin fix. At first, according to Albert, the alter ego was a way for her to discuss some of the trauma she suffered herself, freeing herself from the perceived judgement of others. It’s not long before Jerimiah Terminator LeRoy was born from the mind of Albert. It’s not long before Albert starts calling other people under her new pseudonym, including author Dennis Cooper who soon becomes a sort of mentor to the fictional LeRoy. After a short story is published in a collection, LeRoy soon skyrockets onto the literary scene, but due to the fact that LeRoy was work of invention the author was purported to be a shy recluse.

The recluse bit can work for a short while, but soon interview requests and book readings demand a face to go with the name JT LeRoy. Laura Albert is able to find that in her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop, who spend six years as the embodiment of Albert’s fictional author. Of course, Savannah never appeared as LeRoy without wearing an off-kilter wig and big black sunglasses. Now there’s a physical manifestation of LeRoy, the author is now hanging around with a legions of celebrity admirers – including Bono, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Winona Ryder, Courtney Love, Billy Corgan, Asia Argento, and more. Acclaimed writer-director Gus Van Sant wants to adapt one of LeRoy’s books, but instead uses an original screenplay by LeRoy for the inspiration for Elephant, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2003. Throughout all of this, Laura Albert has crated other alter egos of her own, living as Speedie, JT’s manager, in her public interactions, and her husband takes on the title of Astor. (The couple later starts a band.)

Even though Savannah is the public face, even having somewhat romantic rendezvous with Michael Pitt and Argento, Laura Albert is still the ringleader, making and recording phone calls with various celebrities while still doing all of LeRoy’s writing. As was bound to happened, the whole web of lies was undone as dutiful reporters expose the fraud. The literary world is left in shock. Laura’s marriage soon crumbles.

Feuerzeig’s film unfolds almost entirely through the perspective of his subject through Laura Albert’s recollection of events. Utilizing a non-linear approach, Feuerzeig goes back and forth between the rise of JT LeRoy and Albert’s painful youth, which consisted of abuse, body issues, and even stints in various psychiatric facilities. Notebooks and audio recordings of phone calls fill in intimate details about how Albert talked to others as LeRoy – and these recordings exist from the character’s genesis to its demise. Feuerzeig commits so thoroughly to Albert’s perspective that the film makes no effort to diagnose any potential mental illnesses of its subject, which might be frustrating to some viewers. For me, the only aspect of this form of storytelling is that it never explains why Albert was recording so many telephone conversations for so long. However, that doesn’t really hamper the film in any way as much as it’s a detail I wish was filled in for my own curiosity.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story really has it all – it’s a deeply personal story about someone creating an avatar to form some form of therapy around painful experiences; it’s a tale of celebrity, of success and growing influence; and it’s a stranger than fiction look at how someone who never existed became the toast of the literary world. Jeff Feuerzeig crafts this story with astounding cinematic instincts, creating a film that is just as outrageous in its content and excellent in its craft as Errol Morris Tabloid. It’s still hard to comprehend all of the bizarre aspects of this story, but Jeff Feuerzeig does a hell of a job in providing every little nook and cranny of this odd tale – and Laura Albert seems to have nothing to hide in recounting the origins of JT LeRoy. I have never seen anything like Author: The JT LeRoy Story. I’m still in shock, and I’m guessing those that befriended JT LeRoy are still, too.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story
  • Overall Score
5

Summary

An unbelievable true story about a literary hoax, Author: The JT LeRoy story is an astounding piece of documentary filmmaking, telling the story of an author who never existed through the perspective of the hoax’s mastermind in one of the year’s most fascinating documentaries.

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