To the general public, the name JT LeRoy probably rings only the vaguest of bells, if any at all. It didn’t for this particular critic. But that innocent ignorance is all the more reason to seek out the documentary “Author: The JT LeRoy Story ,” a fascinating peek into one of the wildest literary scandals in recent years and the bizarre nature of celebrity relationships. Director Jeff Feuerzeig’s film, while undeniably one-sided, will have your mind spinning with questions about authorship, authenticity, art and fame.
You even get to hear Courtney Love pause a phone call to indulge in some nose candy. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
It’s hard to know where to start when it comes to describing what exactly JT LeRoy was, but, as far as the public was concerned at the time, he was a teenager who hailed from the truck stops of West Virginia where his mother turned tricks for money. He was gender fluid, possibly HIV positive, drug-addicted and a writer whose thinly-veiled fiction excited the likes of Dennis Cooper. He published the novel “Sarah” in 2000 and the short-story collection “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” soon after and amassed a hoard of celebrity followers like Love, Winona Ryder, Bono, Billy Corgan, Gus Van Sant and Matthew Modine.
But JT LeRoy was not real. He was a persona created by Laura Albert, who was a depressed and overweight 30-something who would often call child crisis lines as various characters. JT LeRoy was just one of them, and he stuck.
In the documentary, Albert, now fierce and trim, takes the audience from the moment of JT’s (“Jeremiah Terminator”) origin to the reputation shattering exposes in 2006, opening up and articulating as best she can the how and the why of it all.
At some point, after JT LeRoy has become notable and fetishized for his reclusiveness, Albert (who also took on the physical persona of his manager and friend “Speedie”) starts using her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop as a stand-in for JT LeRoy. Once there’s a beautiful, androgynous body attached to the tragic backstory, this odd little posse becomes unstoppable in the alternative fashion, literary and Hollywood communities. The Italian filmmaker and actress Asia Argento even made an adaptation of “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” with a Cannes Film Festival premiere and press conference. “JT LeRoy” was there.
Things get even stranger, but it’s best just to experience it. Albert has a lighthearted “who cares” way of talking about everything and makes for a fascinating, if not entirely trustworthy, narrator. The treasure is in the recorded phone messages and conversations between JT LeRoy and his celebrity admirers, hangers on and friends — a glimpse into how famous people actually talk to those they consider peers.
The rise and fall of JT LeRoy is interspersed, too, with stories from Albert’s own life before JT took over, ranging from her troubled childhood to her struggles with weight. This part is not executed particularly well. One revelation is withheld until the final moments of the film — which seems to be far too editorial a choice for this film. I won’t disclose it here, but if it is an essential component of why Albert is the way she is, it only diminishes the rest of the movie. Keeping it from the audience, too, seems like a cheap ploy to emotionally manipulate rather than explore and analyze.
It’s here where all of the access and information and big ideas fall short of greatness. In a picture that seems to be all about making your own judgments, they’ve made a pretty significant one for us, and they don’t even ask the big follow-up questions.
“Author: The JT LeRoy Story,” a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language throughout, sexual content, some drug material and violent images.” Running time: 110 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr