I met Savannah Knoop at an art show in Los Angeles in the late 2000s. She told me how she was the person who played invented author J.T. LeRoy in public, but not the real invented author J.T. LeRoy. That was someone else. At the time it was all a little over my head. All I knew was what I had gleaned through fleeting glimpses of the story in the mainstream media, that J.T. LeRoy was, according to news outlets, a fake author, involved in (according to those same outlets) a literary “hoax.”
The new film “Author: the JT LeRoy Story” attempts to set the record straight for those of us who only glanced at the event as one more passing wave in a sea of the American tabloid spectacle. The documentary uncovers the mountain under the molehill of that coverage — the bigger, broader tale of Laura Albert, an author who built a pseudonym out of loneliness, then wrote under it, and then, because she was too ashamed of her looks to go out in public, created an avatar out of her niece Savannah Knoop to do it for her.
But, as wild as that might sound, it isn’t even the whole story. During her reign on the book circuit, Albert invented many personas in addition to “Jeremiah ‘Terminator’ LeRoy,” the completely fictional young adult who grew up with a stripper mother and began turning tricks as a teen. Albert also concocted a slew of other characters to enhance and support the original, along with public avatars to go with them. The depth of invention is only rivaled by its genesis. One of the film’s principle ironies is that Albert’s real childhood story is almost as incredible as the one she dreamed up for LeRoy.
“Author” is a documentary crossed with a confessional. The real story of how Albert became LeRoy is fascinating, and although it’s prudent to remember that this is almost solely Albert’s version of the events, there’s little here that gives cause to doubt her story. Albert seems, even after all this time has passed, still more mortified than anything. One would expect more denial and hubris from someone who had brazenly perpetrated a hoax.
“Author” takes a hopscotch approach to the timeline, jumping back and forth between early and later moments in Albert’s life, gradually revealing how LeRoy came to be. Suffice it to say that J.T. LeRoy is only one of many alter egos, avatars and inventions of a person who seems to have an incredible talent for wringing inspiration out of desperation. It’s an invigorating approach, aided by a visual flair and talent for shock value one would expect from a film co-produced by Vice Media.
“Author” is also uproariously funny. LeRoy’s reclusiveness engendered a cult of celebrity, with all the preposterous and phony behavior that goes with it. There are testimonials by people who’ve never met the author, packed readings, movie deals and even productions. It all seems right out of a Robert Altman satire. And then there is the J.T. LeRoy paraphernalia, the swag sold at her readings and appearances. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen U2’s the Edge wearing a raccoon penis as a necklace charm.
“Author” is at times so crazy, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan comes off as one of the most reasonable and sympathetic figures.
Missing, however, is an objective point of view, which would ask many questions. Did the J.T. LeRoy figure have a therapeutic benefit for Albert, or was it a convenient shield for a shy, damaged person to hide behind? Why didn’t it occur to Albert to defend herself as another artist merely working under a pseudonym?
This lack of perspective passes without too much damage because “Author” is such a personal story. The more Albert and her documentarians drag in the big scandal, the more they detract from their intimate tale of a woman rising phoenixlike from childhood trauma. Although it’s fun and funny to hear Courtney Love pause on the telephone with LeRoy to do a quick line of cocaine, the real edge-of-your-seat material is in all the duplicitous invention, and the implication that common self-loathing can wield such awe-inspiring power.
You feel as though Albert should, at this point at least, be defiant, triumphant even, about her accomplishment. But there she is on camera, years after the fact, still wounded and raw, in ways apologetic. It’s possible she’s still trying to find herself. (R) 110 min. S