Documentary Releases: Author - The JT LeRoy Story (2016) - Reviewed

The catchphrase ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ is as old as the literary form itself and gets tossed around more often than not.  Popular authors making use of pseudonyms or pen names for whichever personal or marketing reasons is also fairly common.  But in the controversial and somewhat unethical yet fascinating documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story, we bear witness to one of the few times that a popular fiction author was itself a fiction born within a fiction. 

Enter Laura Albert, a forty-year old San Franciscan woman struggling with multiple personality disorder in and out of mental wards who sneakily took the modern literary world by storm when she created the fictional author JT LeRoy, a gay child prostitute and former heroin addict afflicted with HIV, as a face to make public appearances as the author of books Albert was in fact writing herself.  After the publication of her first novel Sarah, Albert hired her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to play the character of JT LeRoy, not unlike the times Andy Warhol placed stand-ins of himself at public meetings.  In addition, Albert also dragged her partner Geoff Knoop into the mix, giving him the name Astor as part of the LeRoy entourage. 

Despite being a total fabrication, LeRoy’s books were a mainstream success and attracted the attention of many Hollywood players including Matthew Modine, Tom Waits, Asia Argento and Gus Van Sant.  The fake characters created by Albert didn’t stop there, with Albert creating not one but two more characters she herself would play such as Jeremiah/Terminator which evolved into JT LeRoy, Speedie who was LeRoy’s “agent”, and finally a Scottish female rock star named Emily Frasier.  It was only a matter of time before the woman behind the curtain was revealed to the public and Albert’s carefully constructed psychological never-never land began to unravel before her legion of fans turned on her.

A truly bizarre story of arguably one of the most infamous literary hoaxes in modern memory, filmmaker Jeff Feurerzeig’s documentary is a compelling and fascinating watch which also must be taken with a grain of salt.  Told largely by Laura Albert herself, the film does indeed commit ethical violations by including Albert’s taped telephone conversations with doctors, agents, Matthew Modine, Tom Waits and a genuinely unflattering conversation with Courtney Love who audibly snorts a line of cocaine over the phonecall.  At one point Albert, donned in her Emily Frasier Scottish rock star persona, fooled around with Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins.  You can imagine how he must have felt when he learned Emily Frasier didn’t’ actually exist.  

Asia Argento and many others were quick to attack Albert and Feuerzeig for utilizing phone conversations they were unaware of having been taped let alone included in a film that clearly takes Albert’s side of things.  I have to wonder if in the wake of the controversy whether or not lawsuits will be filed against Albert and the filmmakers.  Albert herself struck me as a deluded pathological liar eager to embellish stories to suit her own kooky narrative and that the film is so devoted to such an unreliable narrator can’t help but make me second guess everything that comes out of her mouth.

What is kind of amazing about the whole ruse is how far the hoax got and that so many big industry names, actors and artists were able to have this woman completely deceive them into thinking JT LeRoy was a real person.  One of the film’s more humiliating chapters comes from Asia Argento, which implies Argento formed a sexual relationship with LeRoy before directing a cinematic adaptation of LeRoy’s book The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.  When LeRoy’s identity was revealed, Argento didn’t make another film for ten years and has vehemently opposed Feuerzeig’s documentary for making her past with LeRoy public.

Also kind of transfixing if not a little creepy are all the moments throughout the film when Albert talks about the alternate personalities she created before demonstrating how she faked so many people by switching in and out of accents, voice patterns and facial expressions just like that.  Some might call Albert an unknown yet to be great actress, but I myself grew unnerved as she casually switched between an American accent and a Scottish accent, alternating between Laura Albert and Emily Frasier.  It’s the stuff only extraordinarily gifted or truly irrevocably insane people do and based on Albert’s penchant for extended phone conversations with psychologists using one of her many fake identities in addition to her frequent hospitalizations, I tend to think the latter applies to Albert.

The JT LeRoy story is a truly fascinating literary hoax with many divisive opinions surrounding it, though I have to admit I feel Feuerzeig invites sympathy for someone who played and hurt so many people before facing lawsuits over the use of LeRoy’s name in business contracts.  That said, Author: The JT LeRoy Story is a captivating watch that must be taken with a grain of salt considering the overt disregard for ethics and more or less letting Albert off the hook for her bizarre head game she played on the literary world.  What is absolutely true of the documentary and it’s subject is that only someone like Albert could have dreamed up a ruse this compellingly strange.


- Andrew Kotwicki