Dern Gives Duplicitous ‘J.T. LeRoy’ a Boost

The recent Salisbury Review, a quarterly conservative magazine founded by Sir Roger Scruton, began this way:

“A woman who calls herself a man can have a baby, but a man who calls himself a woman cannot…There was a time when there were men and women plus a few unfortunate people whose sexual organs were a mixture of male and female.”

The film I am reviewing, “J.T. LeRoy,” deals with this most contentious of contemporary subjects. And as a Conservative Christian I must state up front some basic philosophy before this review can begin in earnest.

Human nature is complicated, but it is a nature. This is the claim that there is an objective immaterial principle that gives shape to this thing we call humanity.

Human nature does not always function as it should in the concrete. The complementarity of the sexes is a fundamental aspect of human nature and society. Gender is a relatively recent concept and seems to be philosophically vacuous on purpose so that it can be repurposed to whatever political ends for which it is currently needed.

Civil society and a virtuous public square require patience, compromise and the assumption of good faith. In this spirit I have agreed to use the pronoun “they” when referencing an individual in this film.

If you find these statements wanting then I encourage you to head over to my blog where you can read a fuller version of these thoughts. For everyone else the review can now begin.

J.T. LeRoy Trailer #1 (2019) | Movieclips Trailers

The true story that “J.T. LeRoy” recounts is bizarre, to say the least. It begins with Laura Albert, an American novelist, who created the pseudonym J.T. LeRoy to write three novels in the late ’90s and early 00s.

But there are differences between LeRoy and traditional pseudonyms. For instance, Stephen King’s nom de plume, Richard Bachman, was developed so he wouldn’t over saturate the market with uh…himself.

Along these lines pseudonyms have usually been chosen for utilitarian reasons. Most often it seems that anonymity was the goal. Sometimes in the ancient world it was done to lend credibility to a document.

But Albert claims that LeRoy wasn’t really a pseudonym at all, but rather a pseudo personality. This bears little resemblance to Mary Ann Evans choosing to publish her writings as George Eliot. If there was any utility to the J.T. persona it was artistic. And I’m by no means an expert on Albert, but the film depicts the LeRoy pseudonym as more of a psychological phenomena that happened to her.

The only other real possibilities would be something akin to method acting or just a plain old fashioned hoax. But in the film neither of those options seems accurate.

This is where Savannah Knoop enters the story. The LeRoy books were very popular but Albert managed to keep her identity secret for quite a while. Finally she asked Knoop, who was the sibling of her live-in boyfriend, to play the J.T. character for public events, interviews, etc. The interplay between the two is what essentially drives the rest of the film as their secret gradually unravels.

Albert is brilliantly played by Laura Dern. Dern has never been much of a star, probably because of her unconventional look. But she’s a great actress who always makes the most out of any part she’s given. And with this film she gets to do some very interesting acting.

Not only does she play a character who has created another persona for someone else to portray, but when she appears publicly with LeRoy she pretends to be someone else as well: A cliche British busybody named Speedie.

Taken purely as drama this aspect is quite compelling and occasionally borders on the comedically tragic. Albert longs for the spotlight of her created persona but fears what will happen when it’s revealed to be a lie.

Dern’s portrayal of Albert is both repulsive, because she is constantly manipulative, and also empathetic. She plays Albert with real gravitas. There’s a very thin line to walk here. Somehow Albert doesn’t feel like a swindler trying to pull one over on the literary community that celebrated her work as J.T.. Yet she often seems grasping and clutching as well. And through these various sides Dern always exudes an intimate fragility.

Her performance is the highlight of the film.

Knoop is the main character here. After all they is the one who ultimately volunteered to become J.T. LeRoy. It is a mixed blessing that Kristen Stewart chose the part.

On the one hand she physically fits the character. She isn’t Savannah’s spitting image, but close enough. And Stewart has always had a kind of asexuality about her. It’s safe to assume one of the reasons Albert asked the real-life Savannah to become J.T. Leroy is that they looks like a boy, or at least in theory could look like a boy.

But part of Stewart’s asexuality is that she’s never been a very good actress. Often she’s so wooden that she doesn’t seem human, and in order to be a man or a woman one has to be human first. But in the right role, a role designed for her, Stewart can be quite moving.

Keanu Reeves has a similar quality.

Generally he’s a pretty poor actor, but in the right role (“The Matrix,” “John Wick”) movie magic can happen. My favorite role for Stewart so far was opposite Jesse Eisenberg in the wonderful “Adventureland.” Playing Savannah is much closer to that than the atrocious “Twilight” films.

Surprisingly the role of Savannah playing J.T. didn’t require very much of Stewart. Albert is the one who really makes the plot move forward. Savannah seems to be mostly caught up in the bizarre drama, at least till they decides to push back. Which feels like too little, too late. The damage is already done to everyone involved.

The final result is a decent, if strange, historical drama. As a film it works. But as a statement for gender fluidity it seems more confused than anything else. Which ironically enough is probably the point. Albert seems like a victim of her own mind. Savannah seems trapped by their [sic] lack of a personality.

It’s a psycho-tragedy caused by the cultural decadence of late twentieth century America. There are never any real stakes for either one of them.

Jeff Feuerzeig Unravels the Literary Saga of JT LeRoy: VICE Talks Film

The fall out from J.T.’s exposure is barely covered. Albert ultimately was required to pay over half a million dollars in damages for the hoax, but the film doesn’t really depict any of this.

Sometimes these sorts of stories feel like this old Mitchell and Webb sketch: the Boy with an Arse as a face. The point of that sketch is to satirize the all too common human desire to gape at “freaks.”

Our imaginations hunger for things that are not like us and entertainment media is all too ready to indulge this impulse. This film does engage in that impulse a bit, without feeling exploitative. But as is often the case the end result is sympathy. It should not convince anyone that identity is an inviolable concept that must be respected no matter what, but that doesn’t make it worthless.

AC Gleason is a conservative writer and podcaster. If you’d like to receive regular updates please subscribe here.

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